The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Education

October 14, 2013

For Carnegie International curator Tina Kukielski, art provokes questions

In the opulent, cool light of the Carnegie Museum's Hall of Statues, someone who could almost be mistaken for a high school senior is directing staffers to hang large arresting-looking canvases on each wall -- just so.

"No, make the center line 61 inches," says Tina Kukielski -- who is actually 34 and a veteran of the New York art scene -- to the blue latex-gloved art handlers who swiftly, deftly move Nicole Eisenman's "Brooklyn Biergarten II" to the correct height.

Just so.

She's diminutive of stature and youthful in appearance, but Ms. Kukielski is fully in command of her job as one of the three curators of the Carnegie International 2013, Pittsburgh's globally renowned art show that opened last weekend.

Since being hired nearly three years ago, Ms. Kukielski and her fellow International curators, Dan Byers and Daniel Baumann, traveled all over the world, from Beirut to Bogota, Sao Paolo to Istanbul, to seek out artists for the show.

She does everything a curator is supposed to do -- which these days is everything. It's not enough to know art history, or spot a promising unknown, or rattle off the provenance of a work. A good curator must possess the ability to stay out late, get up early, shrug off jet lag, cultivate collectors, massage egos, nurture artists, raise money, draft budgets, work with fellow staffers, please the boss and, of course, get the artworks safely delivered and appropriately installed in the right spaces.

Ms. Kukielski started attracting notice while working at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York as an assistant curator.

"I guess I was sort of established as someone who was working with artists who were emerging, not brand names but those on the cusp of entering the larger discourse," like painter Sara Vanderbeek and photographer Taryn Simon, whose work is in this year's International.

She also found herself drawn to photography and video, a special interest of the museum's director, Lynn Zelevansky, who hired her in January 2011.

Ms. Kukielski hit the road almost immediately, visiting Beirut just before the start of the Arab Spring, where, despite the fear of violence, the artists persevered. Then there was the Biennial in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, a place whose rulers are committed to supporting education and the arts.

After wandering through a maze-like space in Sharjah, she came upon Rokni Haerizadeh, whose work "Fictionville" used footage from the 2009 Iranian student protests as a commentary on how popular unrest manifests itself in different cultures -- "beautifully illustrated parables about human nature," she said. Mr. Haerizadeh was selected as one of the 35 artists in the International.

Ms. Kukielski was raised in Massachusetts, and her parents were newspaper people: Her father, Phil Kukielski, was a features editor at the Providence Journal before retiring last year, and her mother, Elisa, worked in the newspaper's advertising department before becoming a teacher.

While "my father taught me how to write," she says, she preferred to use her hands for another purpose -- to throw pots, which was meditative and relaxing -- although in the next breath, she says she wasn't really cut out to be a professional artist, at least the kind who masters anatomy and draftsmanship.

"I took drawing classes, but I was never particularly adept," Ms. Kukielski said.

At Boston University, she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in art history -- her thesis was on the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who entered the New York art scene "when it was just a boy's club and really established herself as a contemporary artist. She represented so many things to me as a young woman."

Once Ms. Kukielski started working at museums around Boston, she realized it was possible to actually make a living with an art history degree, but also that she would be better off going to New York, the global crossroads of the art world, to do it.

She did -- just weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Living in Brooklyn, she watched the Twin Towers collapse across the river.

A job fell through -- there were worries that the art world would collapse, too -- but she soon rebounded and eventually made her way to the Whitney in 2002, where she rose to the level of senior curatorial assistant, carefully building networks and maintaining a constant dialogue with young artists.

In a sometimes cutthroat culture, she learned to hold her own. "I was very good at imitation," she said.

Huh?

"One of the first things I learned to imitate from the people around me was expressing my opinion. In the art world, at the Whitney, you had to have principles and an opinion. Not everything you see is going to match your taste, but you need to respond and stand up for yourself."

Now that she's more established, though, "my challenge is to stay like a student, vulnerable to things I don't know or understand at the outset, and hang on to the idea that there are no stupid questions."

For Ms. Kukielski, the first sign of a good work of art is "if it provokes questions in me," she said, although she acknowledged that there is much about the art world that baffles her.

"Even though I'm a professional, and I understand the history of art and what makes a certain work of art more interesting than another, when you see a number value placed on a picture on a gallery wall, or see what's going on in the primary market, it's dumbfounding."

It's not that the prices collectors pay for a Rothko, a Warhol or a Van Gogh are too high, "they just exist in a realm that is beyond my comprehension."

In early 2011, she and her partner, Josh Weinstein, moved from Brooklyn to Lawrenceville. Two and a half years in, she finds Pittsburgh's collegial, collaborative atmosphere to be a refreshing departure from hyper-competitive New York.

Plus, the Carnegie International, unlike many other "biennale" shows, in Venice or Sao Paolo, "is rooted in the museum, its identity, idiosyncrasy and its beauty. Brazil's show, for example, was an empty container, a beautiful vessel completely transformed. Here you have an artists' installation in a room overlooking the dinosaurs."

To her, the Carnegie is an institution that is deeply mysterious and idiosyncratic, with its vast collections of artifacts -- from Lord Nelson's watch to "Dippy" the Diplodocus skeleton; its library, its music hall and its art, and at this International, "we're using that cacophony, the moments of messiness and confusion to awaken people to their surroundings."

This Brooklyn transplant will be staying put in Pittsburgh after the International as one of the curators of the Hillman Photography Initiative, a new project that investigates the future of photography in the visual age.

What's the favorite part of a job that's made of so many parts?

"I'm happiest when I'm just walking through a museum," she says simply, "when I'm in the room with the art, alive and present in front of me. That's a privilege."

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