The visit with Nina Felshin was arranged by Yulia Tikhanova and, as it turns out, Elsie Kagan from tART is a former student of Nina’s from Wesleyan. Elsie will blog about the visit – that featured lively conversation, a guest visit by playwright translating Othello into vernacular German, Elsie’s thesis commode in bedroom and a great art collection throughout whole apartment.

Text by Elsie Kagan:

On November 26th, a cozy gathering took place at independent curator Nina Felshin’s UWS apartment. It was made up of tART members Elsie, Petra, Anna Lise, and damali, along with performance artist Alina Bluimis and curator Yulia Tikhonova. Also in attendance was Nina’s intimate and engaging art collection, and Nina’s two cats, one of whom boldly helped herself to the snacks on the coffee table.

We learned a great deal from hearing Nina’s varied and wise perspective on the art world and its relationship with its related institutions. I am writing up this report very very far after the fact, so the following information is comprised of snippets of information and recollections from a ranging conversation full of laughter and interesting exchanges on a chilly night.

Nina calls herself a Red Diaper baby, born in 1944 to politically radical parents. She went to Brandeis for Art History and then did graduate work at Oberlin. She got married and lived in Washington DC during an era of a lot of flux and upheaval; she was around for Watergate and its aftermath for example. She said that unlike today, regional centers like Washington had very distinct identities and cultural/political landscapes. During that time she worked for the Corcoran Museum. While there, she tried to organize a union for the museum workers and was fired. She worked with a lawyer and fought it, and was then reinstated. She also was involved with the AFLCIO and the Federal Art and Architecture program, but she didn’t like working with or within a big bureaucratic institution. She wasn’t interested in working up a professional ladder, and found that in order to function within a large system she would be forced to compromise her integrity too much.

By the early 80’s, Nina became very interested in political content and found she just couldn’t organize projects within big institutions.

So for about 15 years she worked on independent projects. Some of the most well known are No Laughing Matter and Empty Dress. She also worked with collectors to develop their collections, worked briefly with dealer Marianne Goodman, and saw many angles and aspects of the art world. She decided the commercial art world was not for her. Many of her independent exhibitions were politically oriented, working with content related to labor and union issues, institutional critique, and activism.

By the end of the 80’s, she decided she needed to get a job. She found her way to Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT), where she became the curator at the University’s Zilkha gallery. Although Wesleyan has a longstanding reputation as a politically liberal place, fostering an environment of real inquiry and creativity, in time Nina encountered resistance even there. She put on an exhibit in 2000 called Black and Blue, which examined police violence. Wesleyan’s then-president Douglas Bennett provided significant backlash to the content of the show. It happened again in 2003 with a show called Good Morning America, which was critical of US Foreign Policy, and again with Disasters of War (Goya to Golub), in 2005. In more than one instance, her position at the university was jeopardized by the reaction to the content or activities surrounding the exhibitions she launched at the gallery.

Yulia contributed the story of a recent exhibition she put on at Visceglia Art Gallery , Caldwell College, NJ, where the College President cancelled a talk by poet Amiri Baraka, deeming him too controversial.

After learning a little bit about Nina’s background and experiences, our conversation ranged toward the ways in which art and curatorial practice can touch on the political. Nina mentioned that she is opposed to didacticism. She is interested not in protest art, but in art as a means toward consciousness raising. The methods and tactics of political art have ranged so much over the years. Alina spoke about how the 70’s and 80’s used media as public art to such affect because it was new, and powerful. Now, social media has so saturated our lives, and that has transformed the way content can be communicated and the power of its effect. Everyone agreed that there still remains a great resonance in the local, whether through food or art, community gardens or gardens on the roofs of city buildings. Work that taps into this local engagement has roots in the 70’s and 80’s of course, all of us calling on Mierle Ukeles as a standout example. The process is extremely important, regardless of whether a practice involves object-making or not. What does it mean now to be an activist or a feminist art maker, and be socially engaged? We thought about Mary Kelly making projects about her son, and Anna Lise mentioned Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects.

Nina spoke movingly about how September 11th compelled her to think much more about the issues themselves, and her agenda became more activist in nature. Currently, she is no longer working at Wesleyan and finds her interests even more wide ranging. Now she finds she can be an activist without the art. She likes to be behind the scenes and is always hungry for what’s going on in the world. She loves other kinds of art: Alfredo Jarr’s work, for example, she finds very political and very poetic. The thread that connects all her endeavors is the power of its content.

Nina and I have a relationship that goes back a long way, because I attended Wesleyan and had the pleasure of taking a course on contemporary art practice with Nina. She was an incredible teacher, mentor, and friend to me during my time at Wesleyan and we have kept in touch ever since. Nina also bought one of the pieces from my undergraduate thesis exhibition in 1999(!), which was amazing to be reunited with, all these years later, in a bedroom in Nina’s apartment. Nina is an amazing resource, and I am thrilled to find her connected with tART.