José Carlos Diaz, Chief Curator at The Andy Warhol Museum, is set to chair The Armory Show’s third annual Curatorial Leadership Summit this March. Ahead of his much-anticipated exhibition opening later this month, Diaz speaks about the evolving role of the curator and the importance of institutional transparency. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith
"In our fast-paced world the role of curator has had to become more nimble and responsive."
You had a somewhat unorthodox arrival to becoming a curator, in that you first studied international business in Miami. How have you come to understand the role of a curator? How does your understanding of that role change from project to project?
I studied business at the University of Miami and sadly failed my freshman year. It was time to change directions. I had always been creative but was not certain how one could make a living that way. I was artistic but never thought of myself as pursuing the visual arts. I eventually chose Art History and studied in San Francisco. I later found out about the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and their intensive curatorial internship. It no longer exists in the same format, but each intern was responsible for conceptualizing a project using the collection.
I chose Jenny Holzer as my focus and installed her sculptures, Inflammatory Essays, and Truisms throughout the museum. I even proposed a public project to Miami Beach but the city officials declined it. As curator I developed a list of works, wrote a press release and labels, organized a talk, a dinner, picked her up from the airport, did every task you can think of¬ even cleaning the restrooms! My take on curating is beyond being someone who simply cares for a collection and plans exhibition displays. From my time at the Rubell’s I learned to embrace ideas which led on to my nomadic project Worm-Hole Laboratory. To this day my role as a curator keeps changing as it depends on the audience, community, colleagues, and the artist, even a deceased one, like Andy Warhol. In our fast-paced world the role of curator has had to become more nimble and responsive.
As the Chair of the third annual Curatorial Leadership Summit, you’ll have the opportunity to speak candidly with curators from around the world about the greatest challenges and opportunities the field faces. What topics do you feel are most urgent to discuss today, and how will the closed-door setting influence that dialogue?
"Curators today need to understand their institutions better, especially in terms of administration and finance."
Art fairs and biennials are wonderful ways to connect with our peers in the field, yet often we have limited time to sit and chat intimately with one another. The Summit is a rare opportunity to do so. This year topics might revolve around issues and affairs related to art institutions and activism, race, representation, compensation, and dirty money.
These closed-door opportunities, like the Summit, will allow curators to share and speak frankly among our peers, many sharing from their own experiences.
Can you talk a little about your time at the Center for Curatorial Leadership – how that experience and mentorship influenced your approach and understanding of the role of a curator today? Will your experience with the CCL be influential in how you approach this year’s Curatorial Leadership Summit at The Armory Show?
"These closed-door opportunities, like the [Curatorial Leadership] Summit, will allow curators to share and speak frankly among our peers, many sharing from their own experiences."
In 2018 the CCL program granted me the opportunity to be among an amazing cohort of curators from across the country. Many who have done the CCL program have moved on to lead art institutions and I feel the CCL program provides a toolbox for helping young curators prepare for present day challenges in the field. Curators today need to understand their institutions better, especially in terms of administration and finance. As curators we must be willing to evolve and address the needs of our audience and colleagues. I will approach the next Summit in a way that will openly discuss challenges from many perspectives, and how they are directly affecting the arts and our curatorial practice.
This October, your much-anticipated Andy Warhol: Revelation opens at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, exploring the influence of religion on Warhol’s oeuvre. Warhol’s upbringing in a devout Byzantine Catholic family, and his ties to the Catholic Church throughout his lifetime seem at odds with his more popularly known image. How has his private life proven relevant to his work? And more broadly, are these inseparable things when considering an artist’s work?
Andy Warhol is a complex individual. His life was very public-facing, but he had a private side which he compartmentalized. Gretchen Berg famously said in an interview with Warhol: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface; of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.” I tend to agree.
"[Warhol] understood the collective consciousness, the power of imagery, as well as how to disseminate information to the masses."
I feel that his private side, or lesser-known side, is relevant to his work and success because he had a strong work ethic, which he learned at home from his immigrant parents. In terms of his religious background he understood the collective consciousness, the power of imagery, as well as how to disseminate information to the masses. He made secular subjects, like Marilyn Monroe, into something sacred.
As a curator for an institution with such a singular and defining mission, how do you broaden the context around which Warhol’s work is seen and discussed? Your debut solo exhibition of Farhad Moshiri comes to mind as an example of how Pop could be understood in an entirely non-Western way.
Fortunately, Warhol never restricted himself to any one discipline, so there is still plenty to explore or reevaluate within his artistic production. Pop art, but particularly popular culture, is encountered internationally and Warhol is just one of the earlier contributors to it. Part of our mission is to carry on his legacy, and we can do this by working with contemporary artists. We celebrate artists, most often visual and performance, and can offer them a platform to exhibit and create new work. Like Farhad Moshiri, Pittsburgh-based painter Devan Shimoyama and sound musician Kim Gordon also had their first museum solos at The Warhol. Next year I have an exciting group show in the works featuring Chloe Wise, Nona Faustine, and Kambui Olujimi, among others.