Levine takes risks, leaves legacy


Former UAB ArtLab curator Brett Levine talks to handful of salt about his new role as curator of San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design. I know I certain enjoyed many of the exhibitions he brought to Birmingham, and I know many of those shows would never have come to Alabama without him.

One of the things we’ve been finding about the craft of curation at least in the design meets craft space is that it’s pretty entrepreneurial. It’s not about telling old stories in new ways: it’s about finding or creating the new stories, the new ideas, and working the material–the ideas and objects–in new ways.But new always means risks, discomfort, stretching.While they’re plenty entrepreneurial, many curators are also artists who need to stretch themselves to keep things vital, or to bring new ideas to life.  Now we’re sure that there are curators out there who find comfort in exploring the same ideas over and over again. Brett Levine–the newly appointed curator of San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design–is not one of those people.

He’s entrepreneurial. He’s creative. He likes to take a few risks–or at least the less conventional route.  Just look at his life.

Born in Tuscaloosa and raised in Birmingham. Armed with a degree in philosophy, hightailed it to Australia for graduate degrees (one in Law, one in Arts Administration). Went to New Zealand. Worked at the Dowse Art Museum (the premier institution for craft and design in New Zealand). Taught design history and theory in the Design Studies Program at UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland.

Came back to the US, and home…to the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where he was the head curator of its visual arts gallery.

Fast forward 10 plus years. San Francisco calls: the Museum of Craft and Design needs a new curator. Let’s see, go west, to a museum that’s between homes (but staging some very au courant, hyper-local pop ups)? Carve out a place for that undefined intersection of design and craft? Of course he jumped at it.

Why? It was great being in Birmingham, I got to explore many ideas. I brought Karim Rashid to the gallery, and I explored 50′s and 70′s art craft and design. I tried to be broad, and to curate projects I was fascinated by. But I think ultimately I wanted to explore the ideas in a different, larger context. San Francisco has so much going on.

When I was in NZ, I had a chance to engage with multiple media, including graphic and industrial design. It’s exciting to bring as broad a perspective as I could bring to San Francisco, which has got a great dynamic and such an amazing diversity of creative communities. That’s the great thing about the pop ups we’ve done: we’ve tried to put ourselves at the heart of these communities.

So talk about community. Are art and craft and design institutions important in a place that has so much creativity going on already? The arts are so integral to our communities because they get people to think more broadly, whether or not they think they’re creative. When people are engaged in the arts (making it or engaging with it) they’re using a part of the brain we might not otherwise. They’re developing dexterity that they wouldn’t otherwise. One of the biggest fears I have as a curator is that people will think that art is just for decoration-it’s much more than that.

You know, when you work in the arts it’s really a privilege…you’re working with other people to bring something that’s so necessary for the community.

I think your experiences in Australia and New Zealand are really intriguing and incredibly pertinent to what the Museum of Craft and Design is about. There’s a braveness to their sense of design that comes from both their relative geographic isolation, their relationship with nature, and their cultural diversity. Absolutely. New Zealand and Australia are interesting in the way they position themselves in the Pacific Rim. They look broadly, and explore and try to contextualize creativity in international contexts.

What is it that drew you to craft? I found myself in NZ, where the crafts were leading the dialog that I wanted to be a part of.

And craft is so relevant to people’s lives. Craft allows us to reflect on aspects of our shared history that we wouldn’t have thought of originally.  We buy a slip cast cup in a store…the only reason that happened is that people once created a coil formed cup. We’ve lost that sense of connectedness, and we’d like to bring that back.

So as an incoming curator, what are you most interested in? What’s going to drive your work? The great thing–but also the challenge–is the many communities that are part of craft and design. It’s important for traditional practitioners to feel comfortable, while giving contemporary or non-traditional practitioners a means of engagement. We want a broad range of people to find a sense of belonging, but at the same time we want to be on the leading edge of thinking in complex ways about both craft and design.

What gets you excited as a curator? I look for practitioners who find themselves respected by peers, but less well known in wider community…those hidden gems. They engage a community.

But I also like to find projects that highlight a particular issue or concern. Example? Previously, I’ve done things like exhibits like Smoke and Mirrors, Deception in Contemporary Art. The notion of the unreal was evident in the work by young practitioners, so that key idea was interesting.

But either way I want to work with an artist or pursue an idea where we push ourselves as far as we can, and realize an exhibition that’s extraordinary.

But what’s extraordinary to you? I remember teaching a class and talking about the Lockheed Lounge by Marc Newson. He’d stood the expectations of what an object is on its head. Great craft and design is the moment in time is when it pushes something beyond our expectations are.

I like to think about moments when there are shifts in perspective, in practice. That’s exciting. I like to nurture those revelatory and aha moments…and thinking about the implications of that moment.

What’s the most fun thing about being a curator? Oh, definitely meeting practitioners. Here are people who devote their lives to the making…and they trust me to make an exhibit about their work. That’s great.

Also, it’s great to see an audience engage with what I do positively. We think about curatorship as a scholarly profession. But if we don’t make the exhibits fun or have some levity, we’re not pushing the exhibition as far as we can.  If you can inform, educate and entertain­–if you can do those three things–it will be fun.

You’re coming into the cradle of tech. What’s the role of technology in your craft of curation? People want to be able to engage with the content–and that includes exhibits–in multiple ways…a good website, QR codes, anything that helps people delve deeper on their own time, at their own pace.

Is it necessarily easier? It’s certainly a different experience. We should never forget the different ways people want to receive that experience. But you also have to remember that not everyone has access…we have to be aware of the diversity of audiences.

It’s all about balance. The mere existence of the technology creates an opportunity to engage but we need to know how to use it.

You’ll be hitting the ground running. What’s on the agenda? I’m doing a great deal of listening and looking and connecting with the community. We hope to continue the pop-ups while–and after–we find our new home.  I’m just looking forward to nurturing and engaging San Francisco’s creative spirit. There’s so much here.

via The Craft of Curation: Brett Levine | handful of salt.

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