Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Conversation with Lisa Gold of Washington Project for the Arts

(An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the Huffington Post in February of 2012).  
We Are Science perform at the WPA SynchroSwim 2009. Photo: Max Cook

I met Lisa Gold, the Executive Director of Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), during the (e)merge Art Fair in Washington, DC last year and was instantly struck by her enthusiasm and dedication to the arts. Bright, saavy and energetic, she is an innovative arts administrator with great ideas for helping artists succeed and a knack for making things happen. Having worked at Socrates Sculpture Park, apexart, The Drawing Center and now WPA, Lisa has over twenty years of experience in arts management, development, programming, outreach and public relations. One of her first WPA projects upon arriving in 2009 was to produce an art event at the Capitol Skyline Hotel which became, under her direction, a day of performance art utilizing the pool for a synchronized swimming competition. She followed the smash success of this event by implementing new programs at WPA such as the Public Art Residency at Socrates and InfoEx (events with visiting international curators from ISCP).

Lisa somehow found time to chat with me during a recent frenzied week as WPA prepared for its upcoming annual gala/silent auction, which included installing and opening “SELECT,” an exhibition of over 140 artworks selected by distinguished DC-area curators. 

Cynthia Connolly, Ryan Holladay, Lisa Gold at the SELECT opening reception on 2/11, 2012. Photo: Vincent Gallegos.

JC:  Hi Lisa! You’ve been working in the arts for twenty years now. How did it all begin?

LG: I was always involved in the arts. My mother was a painter and I was born with a love of the visual arts. I was voted "Most Artistic" in high school, but I thought I would die starving on the street if I tried to make a living as an artist. So I went to business school and into the advertising field -- a left brain/right brain compromise that paid the bills and allowed me to be in a creative environment.
I did all sorts of art-related volunteer projects on the side and continued to take studio classes. It never occurred to me to go into arts administration!

Lisa Gold introduces Alice Denney Award recipient Molly Ruppert at the “SELECT” opening reception, 2012. Photo: Vincent Gallegos.

JC: When did you start working at arts organizations? 

LG: I am trying to remember the first thing I did. It might have been volunteering at Exit Art in 1996. I did all sorts of things -- I was pretty organized so I was really helpful with a huge show Melissa Rachleff and Brian Wallis were curating about alternative media and counterculture publications. I think it was called “Counterculture!” 

Installation view of “COUNTERCULTURE: Alternative Information from the Underground Press to the Internet,” 1996. Courtesy of Exit Art.

JC: You must have enjoyed your volunteering, as soon you were starting your first full-time job at a major arts organization.

LG: I started officially at apexart. Steven Rand took a chance on me. I will always be incredibly grateful to him. I was mostly writing grants, trying to identify individual funders. It was so hard -- my first day of work was supposed to be 9/11/01. Obviously, I didn't make it into work that day. You couldn't get below Canal Street and then just trying to raise money from individuals to support a visual arts organization when everyone was just in shock. No one was thinking about the arts.

When people say it's hard now to raise money because of the economic climate, I totally agree. But it doesn't compare to being in New York at that time.

JC: Obviously you were successful, since you followed up apexart with work at several other highly-regarded contemporary arts organizations. Do you have any special memories from some of these other jobs? 

 LG: I loved all of them! Yes, when you're working with artists, you are always surprised, amazed and challenged. 

Working at Socrates was an extraordinary experience.

JC: What was it like, working at Socrates Sculpture Park? 

LG: The office was located in the truck repair building across the street. Some days the fumes were unbearable. But it was better than when Kathleen Gilrain started in 1995 and they’d worked out of a trailer.

JC: (laughing)
LG: Yeah -- we at least had real toilets instead of having to use a port-a-potty!

JC: Well, working out of a trailer, you could pretend you're in a movie shoot…

LG: If only it was that glamorous!

JC: Glamour is in the eye of the beholder...

LG: But it was exciting. Being in a very industrial, urban area while being confronted with nature on a daily basis was incredible. The daffodils blooming or trees beginning to bear fruit are some of the small changes that you usually don't notice in an urban environment. And I was constantly aware of how much it rains in July -- especially on Wednesday nights when we did our film series. (laughing)

We worked with a lot of emerging artists so you saw a lot of people facing enormous challenges. Sometimes there were incidents that appeared at the time to be epic failures, but people always managed to pull it together.

I saw sculpture implode, dogs steal people's breakfasts, children and dogs interacting with work in ways artists had never imagined....

JC: C’mon, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Plus, artists LOVE those unexpected, unintended encounters with their art.

LG: But it’s not cool when you've been up all night working and you're starving and you can't wait to eat that bacon egg and cheese sandwich and some dog comes along and steals it!

JC: (more laughter) Hey, everyone’s gotta eat somehow! New York can be rough!

LG: Really, it was quite inspiring to see artists taking on great challenges, often times creating their first outdoor work or work on such a large scale. I think Socrates gave me a new respect for the fearlessness of artists and helped form my ideas about the need to support artists today.

JC: When did you start working at WPA? 

LG: I started in 2009. At the time, I was really excited about coming to Washington. Things were really depressing in New York. Bear Stearns had collapsed. Lehman Brothers was about to tank. The climate was terrible. 

JC: That time is still fresh in my mind. I remember people riding subway trains with these haunted looks on their faces –- they looked like they were going home after just being notified that they’d been laid off. So many New Yorkers were losing their jobs and everybody knew someone close to them who’d been laid off. 

LG: And Washington seemed so hopeful. All of these people with new ideas about changing the world were coming to Washington; it was a fresh start. I was so inspired and with WPA, it was an INCREDIBLE opportunity to run such a storied and prestigious organization. I couldn't pass it up. I was just so honored to be considered for the job. I took it on full force. I see so many opportunities here and there are so many things artists need that aren't being done. I wish I had the funds and manpower and time to do them all!

WPA founder Alice Denney and Lisa Gold at the opening of “Catalyst, 35 years of Washington Project for the Arts,” 2010 at the American University Museum. Photo: Greg Staley.

JC: How does the WPA work? 

LG: WPA is both an artist service and a presenting organization. We have members (about 800 of them) and anyone can join. We offer a lot of professional development programs and services for artists in the form of workshops, the ArtFile Online (our online registry), curator meetings and talks. I think the ArtFile Online is a great benefit for artists anywhere. So many curators and art advisors and other people access it to find artists. It's a very cost-effective marketing tool for artists!

We also are a presenting organization and we organize group exhibitions a few times a year as well as smaller artist projects in our space. We aren't a pure artist service organization like NYFA or a pure presenting organization like Art in General. We're kind of a hybrid.

“Options 2011” installation view, 2011. Curated by Stefanie Fedor, Executive Director of Arlington Arts Center. (Works by: Artemis Herber, Stewart Watson, Amy Chan.) Photo: Alexandra Silverthorne.

LG: There are so many ways to support artists -- grants, studio space, programs, exhibitions, etc. We try to do a lot of things, but I like to help artists develop the skills they need to succeed and put them in contact with people who can help, advise, etc. For instance, we have the InfoEx (Information Exchange) program with ISCP (International Study and Curatorial Program) so that international curators in residency at the ISCP in New York come down for a day of meetings with artists in DC and a lecture presentation. 

JC: I think your focus on helping artists develop the skills & contacts they need for success makes WPA even more unique as an arts organization. You provide artists with curatorial lab-like opportunities to experiment with their work and present it to the public. 

LG: The Coup d'Espace program really is a laboratory. It was conceived when we left the Corcoran to bring artists into the space and give them free reign. There are so few venues for artists to present their work, but there are even fewer for them to experiment publicly, to take risks and have the support of an organization or institution behind them. I wanted to offer artists that opportunity to try out new ideas, to give them a little nudge, to allow them to experiment and even fail. Some of the projects have been incredible. All of them, I think, were learning experiences for the artists. And they will take that experience when they go on to present a project in a larger space or refine the idea for a new audience.

Adam Good's Lab for Remixed Knowledge, 2010. Courtesy of WPA.

JC: In addition to programs that allow artists to experiment and create, you bring in terrific, smart curators who contextualize art in terms of current, timely themes of artistic inquiry, and help frame how the public “sees” and thinks about art.

LG: Yes, I am not a curator. Let me say that clearly! I have GREAT respect for professional curators. Especially here in DC as there are fewer opportunities for independent curators than in NY. I can't imagine taking the role of curator on myself when I am not trained and there are perfectly talented people here who are. And there are so many smart and talented curators in other places who are willing to work with us. 

I think it helps our artists to work with them, to give them a new perspective.
For instance, we’ve brought in curators and speakers from New York who have something to offer the artists here, such as curators Regine Basha (recently appointed as Executive Director of Artpace San Antonio) and Sara Reisman (Director of NYC Cultural Affairs Department’s Percent for Art Program). We brought down Jonathan Melber and Heather Bhandari, authors of “Art/Work” to speak about their book which is a very practical guide/tool kit for artists. 

Installation view of “Contain, Maintain, Sustain” at Artisphere. Curated by Welmoed Laanstra, Sara Reisman and Ernesto Santalla. (Foreground work by Mary Mattingly.) Courtesy of WPA/Artistiphere.

JC: What about WPA’s Public Art Residency (PAR) Program at Socrates Sculpture Park? We’ve already talked about how special that place is to you.

LG: I think it's an incredible opportunity on so many levels. Public Art has traditionally been one of those Catch-22 experiences:  you can't get a commission unless you've had experience and you can't get experience without a commission.

JC: Unless you do something DIY, non-commissioned, and risk getting arrested. 

LG: Yes, it's so complicated in DC with the many levels of government agencies controlling public property...

Yes, I started the Public Art Residency Program to give artists the opportunity to break out of that Catch-22 cycle and participate in the public art process, to learn about some of the practical aspects of making work in and for the public realm. 

Dan Steinhilber was our first artist. Working in the public realm like that had a great impact on his practice. The next show he had at g fine art, he turned the gallery into his studio. 

JC: Can you discuss Patrick McDonough’s work, the current Public Art Residency artist?

Patrick McDonough, Awning Studies: SOCRATES, 2011. Courtesy of WPA.

LG: Awning Studies: SOCRATES is the latest iteration of McDonough’s Awning Studies project which investigates the tradition of domestic architectural adornment in the Northeastern United States. By removing the overt functionality of the awning form, the artist emphasizes the secondary use value of the awning: as descriptor of free time space, branding of individual residences, and markers of the interstitial space between in interior/exterior or private/public.

JC: Will WPA have a permanent exhibition space soon? 

LG: We are working on it! And we are looking to secure new space by the end of 2012. It's an exciting time.

JC: You know, with a permanent exhibition space, you and WPA can help curators better craft their skills -- which will only help the artists even more! 

LG: Yes, and artists need a space to meet, connect, gather. And writers need more to write about. I've got the idea for an art writing symposium/workshop series in development. But it's not our primary focus now so it's on the back burner. I also wish we could offer studio space for artists and have visiting artists in residency. Wish I could do it all!

JC: You're at every art event; you're so supportive of the DC arts community. DC is very lucky to have you! 

LG: You're very sweet to say that, but I think I'm really fortunate to have been given this opportunity. I try new things all the time and people don't want to stop me. It's amazing! 

JC: Is this how SynchroSwim, your first project at WPA, happened? 

LG: When I first got here, Mera Rubell offered to let WPA use the Capitol Skyline Hotel for programming. She didn't put any conditions on it. So I figured I'd do something unexpected and make use of one of the hotels best assets -- the pool. I had the idea to organize a synchronized swimming performance art competition. It was amazing. The place was packed and we had some interesting performances. It might have been a little silly, but art doesn't always have to be so SERIOUS! (Washingtonians are very serious.) Later, one of my board members told me he thought I was crazy, but they loved the event and couldn't have been happier with the way it turned out. 

Baltimore's Fluid Movement performs Jason and the Aquanauts, WPA SynchroSwim 2010. Photos: Max Cook.

JC: What is the DC arts community like, compared to New York?

LG: The community here is very welcoming. I love it. Again, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been taken in with open arms. I love the support here and the role that WPA plays as a connector.
Artomatic at the WPArade, 2010. Photo: Max Cook.

LG: Obviously, it's smaller here than in NY and there are fewer venues and a smaller art media presence -- people really wish there was more art coverage and criticism here. We tried to start an art journalism course with GWU in 2010. It only lasted a semester. I wish it had continued. We need more people talking and writing and thinking about art here. It helps the artists and the community. You take it for granted in NY that every day there's going to be a serious piece of writing about contemporary art in The NYTimes, New York magazine, New Yorker, Art Forum, or The Observer. And an extensive section of exhibition reviews. That just doesn't happen here to the same extent and the artists and arts venues need it.

JC: I totally agree people in DC tend to be very welcoming as well as more serious.

LG: DC is such an interesting place because of the confluence of the major national museums, the international influence of the embassies, the number of think tanks and universities. There are a lot of really super smart alpha types jogging on every street corner at 7am. It's an over-achiever kind of city.

Currently on view is "SELECT" (February 15 – March 3, 2012) at 1800 L St., NW, Washington, DC. See Also:  WPA Art Auction Gala, Saturday, March 3, 2012, 6pm - midnight. See for more information.
An abbreviated version of this interview appeared on the Huffington Post in February of 2012. This post is in a series by curator Julie Chae in which she provides commentary on the process of disseminating art to the people and profiles art world professionals involved in that process. You can find more at

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