A dead hydrangea danced on the glass outside the Broad Art Museum café when I sat down to talk with the museum’s new assistant curator, Steven Bridges. The impromptu performance on a sunny Friday morning in December got Bridges talking about the challenges of putting art into a building with unorthodox spaces, angles and eddies.
Bridges, most recently a curatorial assistant at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, came to the Broad last month. When the hydrangea show was over, he talked about his own art, the joys of curating, adjusting to life in Lansing’s slow lane and staying focused on the Broad’s public mission.
LC: That’s strange and beautiful.
SB: How is it staying up there? Those people (walking up to the door) are looking at it too. It’s really fascinating. It won’t blow up and out.
It’s doing a dance on the wall.
Things look different when they come near this building.
It’s an unintentional collaboration!
What’s your impression of the challenges and possibilities of this building?
That was a huge draw for me. It’s incredibly dynamic. It totally thwarts the white cube gallery space. You can’t work against the spaces; you have to work with them. There are angled walls, deep and sharp corners that are not typical, even of a contemporary art gallery. That means working with artists who do site-specific works that specifically respond to the space, and that’s really exciting for me. And there are these interesting vantage points that are strange but very exciting.
Where do you come from and how did art come into your life?
I was born and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. My father was a physicist. He would draw out these diagrams and graphs. I had no idea what they were, of course. Me and my siblings would try to trace them and inadvertently make abstract drawings.
There’s a cliché that curators are frustrated artists.
I’ve heard it before. It’s a very personal practice for me. I have no interest in being an artist/curator. It’s important to delineate my role as curator and not blur those lines.
Do you still make art?
I’m a bit of a dinosaur. I still shoot black and white medium-format photography on film. I’ve been using a Holga — an all-plastic Russian camera, almost like a toy camera. Things are blurry, you can’t really focus. Things are very imprecise. I enjoy that very much. I’ve modified the camera to do even stranger things. When I shoot a roll of film, that entire roll of film becomes one giant negative, with no frames.
How did you find the path toward curating?
I got a B.A. in art from Reed College in Portland and took an internship at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, an old mattress factory converted into a museum. That was my first foray into being a curator and I fell in love with it.
(I curated) a show of Cuban artists. All the artists were denied access to the U.S., so we had to create this show in their absence.
We hear a lot about “star curators” these days, but I’m guessing that’s not your style.
A curator does their best work when they disappear. They recede into the background and the artist shines.
Curating contemporary art is a very social endeavor. You’re working primarily with living artists on mostly new projects. You get to meet and deal with a lot of different people. I love that. Most dear to my heart is to work with artists that are doing the most important art today and helping them facilitate their visions.
Will you be doing exhibitions of your own, collaborating with [Broad Museum Curator] Caitlín Doherty or both?
Both. At the moment, I’m assisting with shows that are already in process. I’ll be doing the MFA show this year and some smaller things. But yeah, I’ve been talking with her about some ideas I have for future exhibitions. I probably can’t talk about that right now.
Well, could you name two or three artists whose work you think is particularly exciting and might work well here?
I’m drawn to an artist like Tomás Saraceno. He often collaborates with scientists and engineers to create these really interesting projects. He has a project now in Germany where they’ve recorded a spider walking on its web and amplified it into an acoustic landscape. Bringing someone like that, and tapping into the knowledge that exists here at the university, is an exciting prospect for me.
Another artist I’ve been interested in is Cheryl Pope. She’s done a lot of work in Chicago addressing issues of gun violence. Her practice toes the line between community activism and object making, sculptural practice.
That’s another really interesting possibility for me: to bring in artists that are interested in engaging with not just the university, but other communities in the Lansing and East Lansing area, artists who bring other voices in.
That sounds like a big canvas for a curator.
The reason I went into art in general — and what I love about curating — is that I never had to sacrifice any of my interest in other disciplines. My profession was not a narrowing in on a certain field of knowledge, but it allows me to pursue all these different interests. The artists I work with — their minds are in all these different realms of knowledge. To keep up with that is exciting. Every project is new and different, and that keeps it fresh invigorating.
Are you concerned about making the Broad and contemporary art accessible to a broader public?
I want to address that more directly. You have a public institution. Is it serving the public? A museum has to be a social contract. It should be in conversation with the people it’s serving.
You have to listen, get people in the door and make them feel comfortable. That’s an issue all museums are facing, even at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It’s a mantle I feel strongly about, and hope to carry out with the work here.
Are you having any problems with culture shock, moving here from Chicago?
It’s a different pace of life but one that suits me well. I’m renting a house on the east side of Lansing. Having that space and not having terrible neighbors above or below, I love all that.
I live around the corner from the Soup Spoon Cafe, which I understand is an institution in this town. I love that place. The Jerusalem Bakery is right around the corner. I’m finding those places near where I live that you like to go to, that build a sense of home. I grew up near Syracuse, a college town, and being here reminds me quite a bit of that. It feels good. I also grew up with winter, so I’m happy. There’s been no shock.
It’s also striking to me that neighborhoods here are so mixed, with different ages, races, ethnicities. It’s not like the neighborhoods in Chicago, which can be kind of separate from each other.
I take Route 1 on the (CATA) bus to MSU and people say “thank you” to the driver. They say hello. Maybe that’s the shock. People are nice here.