The Art Biz ep. 136: Putting Artists First in Curatorial Projects with Melissa Messina

There's no fancy introduction for this episode because I want to take you straight to the informative conversation I had with Melissa Messina.

View of a rolling wood sculpture installation on the floor inside a white gallery space
Installation view of Maya Lin: A Study of Water at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Echard Wheeler.

I asked Melissa to give us a peek under the hood of her daily life as an independent curator, and she didn't hold back.

In our conversation, Melissa shares how she became a curator after starting out as an artist. We discussed the institutions she works with as well as the various projects, how she finds them, and the rhythm of how they start and then are fully realized. 

She also reveals where we might find other independent curators and the mistakes she sees artists making when they approach her.

Another thing I wanted to make sure we hit on was the studio visit tradition: at what point do they occur and what happens during them.

[ Recommended read from Hyperallergic: For Women Artists, Studio Visits Can Be Risky Business ]

Listen closely to Melissa's advice about the value of your network. This can't be overemphasized.

Speaking of our networks, special thanks to Sara Lee Hughes for introducing me to Melissa and her work.

Listen

📄 This Week's Assignment

Research my guest Melissa Messina and start following her on social media.

Then start researching independent curators in your area and start following them. Consider inviting them into your studio for a low-stress visit—and don’t forget to offer them a drink.

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Highlights

  • “I think that curator gene has always been in me.” (1:55)
  • Melissa’s work as an independent curator. (5:32)
  • How does a curator find their artists? (9:00)
  • The importance of your network. (14:37)
  • Insights from the details of one of Melissa’s standard projects. (18:46)
  • Scheduling projects and finding funding with fellowships. (23:55)
  • Curating an artist's estate is the joy of Melissa’s life. (26:53)
  • What piques Melissa’s interest in the artists she encounters? (32:01)
  • The cities, websites, publications, and galleries where Melissa looks for artists. (35:00)
  • Working with galleries as an independent curator. (38:04)
  • The role that studio visits play in a curator-artist relationship. (40:54)
  • What curators are looking for from a studio visit. (48:51)
  • Correcting the mistakes that too many artists make. (50:54)
Wide view of colorful painting installed on white walls in gallery with wood floors | on Art Biz Success
Installation view of Mildred Thompson: Radiation Explorations and Magnetic Fields, Galerie Lelong, New York, 2018. Image courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and the Mildred Thompson Estate.

Mentioned

Melissa Messina Quotes

“I’m constantly making calculations to see where an exhibition or project might percolate out of my experiences and relationships.” 

“Your network is everything.” 

“There are some really good artists with bad attitudes, and I would much rather give the opportunity to someone who is a joy to work with.” 

“I think artists would do better to let go of their expectations in a studio visit.” 

“Without the artist and their work, there wouldn’t be anything for us to do.”

Related Episodes

Art center curator Collin Parson on how he works with artists.

Art gallery director Jeremy Tessmer talks about what he looks for in artists.

Maria Brito is a link between artists, galleries and collectors.

About My Guest

White woman with shoulder length dark hair wearing a red tank top standing against a white background | on Art Biz SuccessMelissa Messina is a nationally recognized arts professional who has developed thought-provoking exhibitions, dynamic site-responsive projects and engaging educational public programming both independently and in leadership positions at museums and non-profit arts organizations. For 20 years, her work with regional, national, and international artists has been presented in the U.S. in Atlanta, Kansas City, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Bermuda, France, and Hong Kong. She has lectured extensively and published widely, and her research has been funded by Creative Time and The Andy Warhol Foundation, as well as by fellowships at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Library, Atlanta, GA, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR.

In addition to serving select public and private clients, she is the curator of the Mildred Thompson Estate. She has also recently served as guest curator at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, and was the co-curator of the 2018 and 2020 Bermuda Biennials. In 2017, she co-created Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, an intergenerational exhibition highlighting 21 Black female abstract practitioners that traveled from Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City to The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Follow her on Instagram @melissa_messina

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3 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 136: Putting Artists First in Curatorial Projects with Melissa Messina”

  1. Wow. This was such a terrific episode. I truly appreciated how articulate Melissa was in talking about her role, the role of curators in general, as well as studio visits, how she finds artists and working with galleries., Clear, understandable and with great warmth, knowledge and empathy! Alyson you find the best people to interview! Particularly valued the discusssion re expectations around studio visits, where Melissa finds artists, the sources she references. And seeking art that causes her to stop and get goosebumps, puzzle it out, look more deeply etc. I think so much of good art is ineffable…there’s this coming together of pieces that make up so much more of a whole, a new living vibrant thing! Thank you (once again) for such a good listen!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Christine: As always, thanks for listening. I couldn’t find such great guests without people like you!

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