DiverseWorks: A Conversation with Elizabeth Dunbar
Sasha Dela: DiverseWorks has always fostered the nontraditional and political in contemporary art. It’s had many chapters in its development, including interventions at the 1992 Republican National Convention where a group of DiverseWorks staff, artists, and board members posed as members of the press and placed graffiti, stickers and brochures in the Astrodome. During the nine years when Caroline Huber was director, she was married to Walter Hopps, who was at the Menil Collection, and their connection bridged both programming and ideas between those two institutions. As the new Executive Director: What is your vision for DiverseWorks, and how do you feel you can build on its outstanding history?
Elizabeth Dunbar: What attracted me to the job at DiverseWorks in the first place was the organization’s long-standing reputation as a space that encourages experimentation and risk-taking, values artists and the artistic process, and embraces a multiplicity of voices. Those values are very important to me and have been ones that I’ve tried to uphold throughout my curatorial career. In that sense, DiverseWorks and I are a perfect match! At the same time, I certainly have ideas for building on the institution’s great history and helping it to evolve as the artistic landscape in Houston and beyond continues to change. First and foremost, I see DiverseWorks as holding a very special place within the city and its art’s ecosystem; because of our smaller size and experimental approach, we can be more nimble, responsive, and capable of taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. I intend to capitalize on these strengths and, in order to make our programs more relevant within a global context, expand our reach to be more international in scope and focus more intently on the intersection of visual and performing arts. I am particularly interested in the dialogue that occurs between artistic disciplines–a topic that has particular relevance within the larger contemporary art world–and aim to make DiverseWorks a leader in helping to create and promote work that contributes to that rich, ongoing discussion.
SD: How would you describe your curatorial process?
ED: Although I still curate exhibitions, I definitely consider myself to be more of a cultural producer rather than a “curator” in the traditional sense. Collaboration is key to my process–and has taken shape in many forms over the years–and always starts in partnership with an artist or artists. I enjoy being part of the creative process. My curatorial strategy is really about encouraging artists to push themselves and take risks, doing all that I can to help artists successfully achieve their visions, and finding ways to engage communities is meaningful ways. In the most simple terms, it’s about artists, experimentation, and community.
SD: Living and working outside of the major cities/art centers of LA and New York is an ongoing discussion at Temporary Art Review. Houston is a huge metropolis, and has recently surpassed New York as the most diverse city in the United States. What does working and living off-center mean for you?
ED: I have worked in both New York [Whitney Museum of American Art] and Los Angeles [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], but was raised in Texas, and I’m happy to be here again. While I love both NYC and LA, I am excited by the opportunities that Houston offers, especially for younger, emerging artists or those making experimental work that might not yet have a market. It is relatively cheap to live and work in Houston (compared to NYC or LA), the artist community is diverse and supportive, there are world class museums and solid galleries in town, and the arts dialogue is active and sophisticated. One of the best things about living “off-center,” at least for me, has been the chance to really make a difference in the communities where I have lived. For the last decade, I have been able to work with artists and produce projects that I may not have had an opportunity to do in a place like NYC, and which have had a tremendous impact on the artists I worked with, the local artist community, the audience-at-large, the institution, and the city itself. Living off-center also, I think, fosters an entrepreneurial spirit and encourages collaborative enterprise–two characteristics that have made me a better curator…and person.