MaDora Frey, Stargaze, 2020, curated by Cynthia Farnell, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.

Cynthia Farnell 

with Shannon Morris

Cynthia Farnell

My professional relationship with Cynthia Farnell spans ten years when I selected four works from her series Presence: Conway for an exhibition. Our shared Alabama roots extend our connection even further through our mutual ties to people and places. I much admire her artwork, but I also rely upon her professional opinion as a curator and gallery director.

Shannon Morris: This is something fundamental that you and I have never discussed, but how were you introduced to curatorial work?

Cynthia Farnell: I discovered I enjoyed the process of organizing exhibitions as an undergraduate art student at Auburn University. I was active in the art club and with a group of artists who presented exhibitions in off-campus venues. The exhibits were a way to raise the visibility of our work within the broader community. I remember the thrill of one of our first shows at an art gallery and cafe in downtown Auburn. That collective experience was validating, empowering, and made me want more. Later, living in New York and as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I realized that making exhibitions was a viable career path that could integrate with my studio practice.

Frank Poor, Mapping Memory, installation views, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, 2011.

CF: An exhibition of sculptures and works on paper by Frank Poor which were created in response to the landscapes of Georgia and Alabama. This evocative series was made during Poor’s residency at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia.

Frank Poor, Mapping Memory, installation views, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, 2011.

SM: My next question is somewhat presumptive, but I feel that our relationship allows for it. How do your curatorial and artistic practices intertwine?

 

CF: They are connected thematically and practically. The topics of my work often appear in my curatorial projects. For example, my interest in human relationships with nature began in my studio and flowed into my latest project, MaDora Frey: Stargaze. Sometimes it shifts the other way. Nuts and bolts issues like shipping, contracts, and insurance help me with the business end of my studio practice.

SM: Most gallery-goers, especially readers of a publication such as The Art Section, expect that the works presented within academic gallery spaces such as the Ernest G. Welch Gallery feature a robust conceptual underpinning. As a curator, how do you make these decisions?

 

CF: Yes, at GSU, there is the expectation that exhibitions will have a scholarly focus and support the School of Art & Design curriculum. We have a process to review proposals internally from faculty and externally from artists and curators. Speaking to the wider Atlanta community through exhibitions is also essential. I'm always thinking about how to make our programming accessible to a broad audience.

João Enxuto and Erica Love, Waiting for the Internet, Atlanta Fulton Public Library, Prospects for a Labor of Love, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, Georgia State University, 2016.

CF: I proposed and facilitated the semester- long residency of New York-based artists João Enxuto and Erica Love. Their residency consisted of a graduate seminar and a research project concerning the failures of modernism and solutions to persistent inequalities in education, art institutions, and public spaces. The project culminated in an exhibition and scholarly lecture, Prospects for a Labor of Love. With my direction, the gallery team designed and built a room within one of our spaces that functioned as the theoretical Institute of Southern Contemporary Art. Read more about the project here: http://theoriginalcopy.net/prospects

SM: You and I are native Southerners, so I will engage the vernacular to address this next issue. The act of exhibition-making requires a fair amount of doing or work. How do you manage? Tell me your secret for balancing the tasks involved in art-making and curation with the academic expectations.

 

CF: Finding a balance between studio and gallery work is challenging. At GSU, I manage a team of student gallery assistants and volunteers to whom I delegate various administrative and installation tasks. That leaves me some room to focus on future programming, marketing, and funding. Sometimes my studio projects overlap with gallery exhibitions, which can be physically and emotionally exhausting. I deal with it by being as organized as possible and taking time for self-care.

João Enxuto and Erica Love, ISCA (Institute for Southern Contemporary Art) , Prospects for a Labor of Love, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, Georgia State University, 2016.

SM: I think you have a particular aptitude for organizing and sorting through the miscellaneous stuff that enters the creative space. This skill allows you to either circumvent or easily handle issues that may occur when executing a successful exhibition. Your position also provides you with the opportunity to mentor students who are beginning to engage in this process as either emerging artists or arts professionals. What do you enjoy most about engaging with them, and what advice or opportunities do you offer them?

 

CF: Mentoring students is one of the most satisfying aspects of my gallery work. I try not to micromanage their activities. They need a place to make mistakes. That's when the learning happens. I do give them a lot of responsibilities, which I believe builds their confidence and autonomy. The reality is that many artists need to have a "day job" that pays the bills. I try to send my students out into the world with a toolbox of marketable skills transferable to multiple industries. My advice to them is to avoid taking out student loans; do not work for free; ask for what you want; create your opportunities; and build your circle of professional contacts.

João Enxuto and Erica Love, ISCA (Institute for Southern Contemporary Art), Prospects for a Labor of Love, Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery, Georgia State University, 2016.

SM: Curators are no different from other professionals in that we are consistently engaged in expanding our professional networks. But, there is often a minimal separation between our personal and our professional lives. I want to know your thoughts about the importance of maintaining relationships with artists, curators, and other arts professionals.

 

CF: I think, for me, it's about quality-over-quantity. I'm not as much of a "scenester" as I used to be. I try to surround myself with a small group of friends and professional contacts genuinely invested in what I do. That being said, it's important to continue expanding networks to reach outside Atlanta for artists and opportunities for collaboration. This is one of my strategies to keep things from getting stale and avoid conflicts of interest. I try to go to New York once a year to take in the art and see how it is displayed. I visit the biennials. At Prospect New Orleans one year, I met Sonya Clark and The Propeller Group, whose work I later exhibited in the Welch School Gallery.

SM: Let's wrap up by touching upon professional advocacy within the current ethos.

 

CF: The dependence on uncompensated labor within the art world perpetuates inequalities and contributes to a lack of diversity in the visual arts. In my position, I address this issue by paying artists fees using the Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) model and discourage participation in art auctions where the artist receives no sales commission. The expectation of free and low-wage labor extends to curators as well and it can prohibit broader participation. We need more, not fewer voices.

Gallery director and visual artist Cynthia Farnell has curated and designed programming for numerous exhibitions of art within university, public, and commercial contexts. The central themes of her recent curatorial projects and studio work are driven by human relationships with nature and how these interactions impact the environment, individuals, and communities.

Shannon Morris is a visual arts curator and cultural writer specializing in globally relevant topics. She engages audiences in academic, public, and corporate settings within the United States and Europe and holds M.A. in Art History from the Savannah College of Art and Design.