Preserving the Artist’s Voice: Looking Back on Five Years of CALL / VoCA Talks

<p><small>Shervone Neckles-Ortiz and Lauren Shadford</small></p>

Last week, we announced the 2019 line-up of CALL/VoCA Talks, a series of free, public artist talks exploring topics relating to artistic legacy and the long-term preservation of creative work. This year marks the fifth year of this series, an outgrowth of the Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) initiative, presented in partnership with VoCA (Voices in Contemporary Art). Shervone Neckles-Ortiz, the Foundation’s Artist Programs Manager for Professional Development, sat down with Lauren Shadford, Executive Director of VoCA, to reflect on the origins of the CALL/VoCA Talks and insights gained over the years. Following is an edited transcription of their conversation.

Shervone Neckles-Ortiz: Looking back on the Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) initiative, when we were working directly with the CALL artists [between 2010 and 2016] to assist with organizing their studios, it was such a rich experience, and we were benefactors of that rich exchange. But that was a missed opportunity for others—those outside the Foundation—­to get to hear what the process is like, to go through and organize one’s life’s work. There was something there that we felt needed to be shared, and we as an organization wanted to not just be the holder or the keepers of this history, but to make sure others could experience it with us. And through that shared knowledge and history, have a better understanding of what we really mean when we say we are artist-centered, that we really are looking at understanding what it means to be an artist pursuing a lifetime of creative practice.

It was actually a Legacy Specialist, David Bratton, who introduced the idea of adding an oral history component to CALL. He wanted to have a conversation with his CALL Artist, John Koos, as a way to bring their partnership to a close through a conversation. We decided to use this conversation as our trial for future recordings with CALL Artists.

John Koos in his studio, 2015

So we did it, and it was really an intense process because of all the details involved. As you know—it’s not just about crafting great questions, setting the tone, the environment, or getting the right videographer. We realized that there was a lot to learn. The Foundation’s Archivist, Laura Morris, suggested that I attend the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop. At the time, she was also doing a series of oral history conversations around Joan Mitchell and thought the workshop would provide a supportive framework for conducting CALL Artist recordings. So I took her suggestion, and attended the workshop.

It was a great opportunity to be out of my daily routine, connecting with folks who I would not normally engage with, because my work is artist-service based and everyone else attending the workshop was working behind the scenes in museums and private collections. The dialogue and exchange I experienced with this expanded community of art professionals would become core to how we structured future conversations with our CALL artists.

Lauren Shadford: I remember when you attended the workshop, you shared what the CALL program was with the whole group and the room went silent. As you said, there were these institution-based colleagues who are not doing this type of work but understood the deep need for it. The general feeling in the room was, “Oh my goodness, this is amazing…”

Shervone: This exists!

Lauren: Right! And I think because you were coming from a different angle in the art world—from an artist-endowed foundation—there just seemed to be this deep fascination about what you were doing from everyone in the room.

After the workshop, I think you were probably my first email. Because of what VoCA was thinking of in terms of artist legacies and conservation and preservation, and how beautifully that dove-tailed with what you were doing, albeit from a very different angle, from a different perspective, but with the same sentiment connecting it. I knew there was something for us to talk about there, but I wasn’t sure what that would be.

Through a series of long lunches, we were brainstorming, and we came up with the idea of giving these artists, who you’ve spent so much time with through the CALL program, a platform to put their own voice into their archive. Through the CALL program, you’ve archived their work, you’ve connected them with Legacy Specialists, so now how do you layer their own voice into this archive? So it’s not just about the work but it’s about their voice and experience. We could see that there was an opportunity for VoCA to partner with JMF to bring that to fruition.

It ties so beautifully in with VoCA’s work and thinking about the interdisciplinary connections. We were also thinking about the larger circle of people around a work of art. How do conservators, curators, educators, studio assistants, and collectors engage? And that’s what you were thinking too, that this became an opportunity for all of us to be in that dialogue.

Shervone: Absolutely. While I’m thinking about the artist’s well-being, I also want to be in conversation with the folks who will be taking care of the work once it leaves the studio. And there’s room for us to all be in conversation together and see the value of that. Because artists care about where the work goes, and who is seeing it and engaging with it.

Lauren: The idea for the program was inspired by the depth of relationships that JMF has with the CALL artists, with you choosing which CALL artists would be focused on each season, and then VoCA coming in with a year-long program connected with each artist. One of our board or committee members was chosen to connect with each artist, spending 6-8 months getting to know that person, doing studio visits—sometimes reciprocal studio visits (for example with Jonathan Allen [VoCA Program Committee member], he’s an artist as well)—and then crafting the public conversation. We used that relationship-building time to figure out what the artist wanted to focus on, what they wanted to discuss and have videotaped and archived in the end. And then we do all the post-production work, which includes the video editing and transcribing.

We think of this not just as a talk, but a year-long process with each artist. We built that element into the program because of the depth of relationships you, Shervone, had with each of these artists and how long it takes to build that trust. Conversations are so much deeper and more valuable when you have that trust, so we wanted to give it that lead-time, to build the relationships between the CALL artists and the VoCA interviewers. In some cases, we’ve built life-long relationships between the artists and their interviewers. And as you’ve said, that’s the beauty of this partnership. Both of our organizations will be forever tied because of how connected our people are now.

With every partnership, the first year is a trial run. And that first year [in 2015] felt so successful. It was Jaime Davidovich, Arlan Huang, Mimi Smith, and Juan Sánchez.

Jaime Davidovich, Arlan Huang, Mimi Smith, and Juan Sánchez during their 2015-2016 CALL/VoCA Talks

Shervone: It was a jam-packed year!

Sometimes folks would ask, is there going to be a segment of the conversation that directly addresses the career documentation work done in the CALL Program? And sometimes it does, but mostly the conversations are about the artist chronicling their own creative process and journey.

Lauren: Sometimes the conversation touches on archiving and conservation, but not always. But stewardship is always a focus, and that comes out in different ways. And the CALL program, in and of itself, has as an element of stewardship. That’s where the relationship with the artist and the interviewer comes in, and helps shape the nature of the talk.

Shervone: I like that you called it stewardship, and I agree. For instance, I’m thinking of Tara Sabharwal’s talk [in 2017]. It was important for her to share about her personal history, who her influences and mentors were, to say their names, to remember the countries and the spaces where she had lived and made work. So it’s a stewardship not just of the work itself, but of all that encompasses the artist’s life when they are existing and making work.

Lauren: That’s true, Tara’s talk was really about her biography and artwork. As a counterpoint to that, I remember Jaime Davidovich’s talk in 2016, where he really wanted to focus on his video work, his digital work, which had not been discussed before. And he said a few things in that talk that he had never said in public before about how he thought those pieces should be maintained in the long-term, what should happen to them. Steven O’Banion, who is a conservator, was his interviewer, and they clearly had fun in this space of thinking about stewardship and conservation of the video-based work. And then Jaime passed away six-months later. It was heartbreaking to all of us, and we are so lucky we had the opportunity to get to know him, interview him in that first year, and get him on record. That’s the beauty of this partnership and this program: documenting these voices and making sure that the artist’s own personal sentiment is layered into their archives, so that future generations of researchers and conservators—whether in five years or a hundred years—can go back and listen to what he said, what he was thinking at the end of his life about his own work.

Jaime Davidovich speaking at his 2016 CALL/VoCA Talk

Shervone: Jaime talked so much about taking risks throughout his career. He was committed to trying new things, things that had not been done before, and asking, why not? It’s such a good example of why his work is so important to our present time and will continue to be relevant in the future.

Artists have unique perspectives on the world, and their archives gives us insight into the breadth of their brilliance. They themselves sometimes forget about the forward-thinking work they were doing. It’s because they are always thinking about what’s next, what’s new, what’s now. So the CALL program, and the experience of inventorying their studio with young, fresh eyes on the work, offered them a chance to revisit and appreciate the innovation of their artistic output. For the Legacy Specialists and apprentices who worked alongside the CALL Artists during that phase of the program, they got to witness and learn firsthand from a generation of creatives who were the vanguards of the collectives, movements, practices, and organizations that are only now receiving recognition for their invaluable contributions to the field and to our greater society. There’s simply not enough scholarship introducing these pioneering artists to the next generations.

We at the Joan Mitchell Foundation are fortunate to have access to an amazing community of artists, who are all doing deeply meaningful work right in their own communities. We saw the potential of connecting our CALL artist community with VoCA’s network of multi-sector art professionals as a great opportunity to support a platform of advocacy around the importance of preserving the artist’s voice. We’ve seen what happens when artists have the space to build and foster real relationships with art professionals. The evidence is in the 16 dynamic conversations we’ve recorded over the last four years.

Picking the right time to feature each artist is such an important part of the process. Sometimes the decision aligns with the timing around an upcoming survey exhibition or project. And in other instances it’s about catching the artist at a moment when they are ready to reflect back on their work. The act of archiving, inventorying artwork, and the process of looking back creates the space and builds a need to share. I recall Jaime Davidovich being ready. So was Mimi Smith, and same for Juan Sanchez. In the case of Juan Sanchez, he happened to also have a show up at BRIC at the same time as his Talk. He was able to do a walkthrough of the show with his interviewer, conservator Jennifer Hickey, and offer insight into the layers of artistic ideas and intellectual concepts embedded in his work.

Lauren: Even just seeing Juan with his work, standing in front of it, as opposed to seeing slides—seeing the physicality and the scale, it’s different from seeing images on a screen. It was pretty incredible.

Shervone: And then you have an artist like Henrietta Mantooth, who’s fueled by the energy of her Legacy Specialists and apprentices in her studio and forms collaborations with them on projects and public engagements. These collaborations have expanded the nature of her studio practice to now include a deeper examination into US-based exclusionary and mass incarceration policies. There’s an interesting pattern of regeneration—of finding, reclaiming, centering, and forward movement—that tends to happen during the career documentation and inventorying process.

Lauren: Thinking about the artists we’ve interviewed, how we choose them, and how we pair up a board or program committee member with them: When we think about VoCA’s mission, about “voices in contemporary art,” we are thinking about which artist’s voices are heard. Many of our volunteer interviewers are at large institutions and dealing with artists that are getting major solo shows. You know their names, you know their work. And the unique opportunity for the volunteers on our end is to be able to work with the CALL Artists, who they often do not know, who they are getting to know fresh. They are people who are so honest in their practice and have been doing it for such a long time, sometimes without major recognition, so they are just such hard workers and so deeply connected to their creativity. Our volunteers LOVE that. It’s so inspiring and it’s why they keep coming back year after year to do these year-long projects with these artists.

I think about Otto Neals and what an inspiration he is. Every day after a full day’s work, he would go to his studio, layering creativity into his life in a way that worked for him. Seeing his interviewer Jonathan Allen, who is also an artist, be so inspired by Otto was heartwarming. Otto is yet another example of someone who has creativity flowing through him. We all have a lot to learn by his example of being an artist in New York City.

Otto Neals speaking at a CALL/VoCA salon at the Gross Foundation in celebration of his work and a screening of his interview with Jonathan Allen

Shervone: Otto’s work ethic is truly an inspiration. And the spirit of giving back can be traced throughout his life and career. When you’re around an artist like Otto who’s been committed to ensuring that art remains available to all in his Brooklyn community, it gets you thinking about what’s core to your own work and practice. And what are you willing to spend a lifetime pursuing?

Lauren: As a small nonprofit with limited resources, it’s incredible to have opportunities to give new artists space and a platform in the public sphere, to be additive, to add a new name in, instead of interviewing the same big artists every time they have an exhibition. Members of our audience don’t necessarily know about these artists’ work, and they learn about them, and follow them, and continue to engage with them. We really saw even in the first year of the CALL/VoCA Talks that there were these small networks that would build up around each artist after the programs.

There’s also an element of the program that is new this year, which is an opportunity to have the Talks archived at a research institution. VoCA has a relationship with NYU—that is where our office is housed (given to us as an in-kind donation)—and we have a relationship with Fales Library, which has actually hosted several of the Talks. Fales is a library within Bobst Library at NYU, and Marvin Taylor, who is the head of Fales, became interested in the Talks after seeing Jaime Davidovich’s talk, because they have some of his papers and some of his work and ephemera in the Downtown Collection. They offered for VoCA’s entire talks series (of which CALL/VoCA Talks is one part) to be archived there. Margaret Graham, my colleague at VoCA, has been working tirelessly over the past year to compile and deliver all the videos, transcripts, images, and information to Fales. We’ll do this every five years.

What matters here is thinking about the very long term, where the Joan Mitchell Foundation has copies of the videos, we at VoCA do too, and the artists have it as part of their studio and estate, and now Fales Library has them too. Having a partner of the scope and size of NYU ensuring that all this information, those voices, and the talks will be preserved is comforting—knowing that researchers will have access to it. Videos of all previous years’ talks are also available online on the VoCA and Joan Mitchell Foundation sites, and transcripts are available by request.

It’s been a real joy working on this partnership together, Shervone. And the success of it has so much to do with the work you did in the CALL program in building these trusted relationships with the artists. The only reason these artists participate is that they trust you implicitly. We talk about that in all of our Artist Interview Workshops: you can’t do meaningful interviews without building trust between the artist and the interviewer. We are building on the groundwork that Shervone and the Foundation laid through the CALL program.

Shervone: These artists have all benefited from the contributions of one artist—Joan Mitchell—to the field. So there are layers of trust there.

I think it’s important to note that this program also brings attention to these amazing art professionals—curators, conservators—who don’t always get recognition or visibility for their work. So we get to humanize them, get them in front of an audience, celebrate them, and hear what they do. We are so grateful to the VoCA Board and Program Committee members who volunteer and devote so much time to get to know our CALL Artists and helping to preserve their voices for future generations.

Watch videos of past CALL/VoCA Talks

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