I Surf! Ten Questions w/ OCMA Curator Sarah Bancroft

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Hovin Wang
OCMA curator Sarah Bancroft
The first time I met Sarah Bancroft, I thought she was a volunteer working at Orange County Museum of Art, so I approached her and asked for directions to the bathroom. She told me where to go--nicely--and it wasn't until much much later that I found out that she was one of the museum's curators.

The second time I met her was two weeks ago at OCMA's lunch announcement of the artists invited to participate in the California Biennial this year. The first thing she said to me was, "You're the guy that spent five or six hours here last year looking at all of the video in The Moving Image exhibit." When I told her that was indeed me and that it was probably closer to seven hours, she added, approvingly, "It's very unusual for a critic to do that. It really stood out."

Flattered that anyone had noticed how obsessively completist I can be, I was relieved she didn't mention the bathroom incident as her first memory of me. Smart, assertive, opinionated and very funny, Sarah agreed to take time out of her hectic schedule and answer a few questions via email.

Dave Barton/OC Weekly: Before coming to OC in 2008, you worked in New York at the prestigious Guggenheim. What inspired that move?
Sarah Bancroft: I had left the Guggenheim and moved to Spain for a spell before considering a move west. I'm Western by birth, and always knew I'd move back. For me, it was a natural transition: personally, I wanted to be back on the West coast, where I could indulge in outdoorsy pursuits I grew up with (hiking, biking, camping). And I surf! Professionally, I wanted to work at a smaller, more nimble institution where I could engage with very contemporary art and artists and espouse new challenges.  New York is an incredible place, perfect in which to forge my career early-on. But it's difficult to be an outdoorsy person there.  Professionally, I'd always intended to move to a smaller institution than the Guggenheim, someplace a little more responsive, and have fresh experiences. My move to OCMA was a perfect fit this way.


You studied in London and received your MA in Art History there. How is the British attitude towards art different than America's? How is it the same?
Certainly, there may be a greater awareness for the arts in London and in Europe at large, and rarely am I asked what a curator does when on the other side of the ocean.  This may relate to the long relationship between art and culture in Europe (patrons--whether they be emperors, kings, queens, popes, or governments--have had a long hand in establishing and commissioning work by artists, and the museums and private collections in Europe reflect this). Of course, there are amazing museums every where, this is the same here and abroad.  Art has the ability to transcend cultures, geographic borders, time.   


You specialize in American Art from the 1950s to the present. Can you name five artists whose work you admire and why?
Wow, this is like choosing five favorite flavors, when each day you can have three new meals with different textures, flavors, temperatures ( "variety is the spice of life" as they say).  Young and emerging? Older and established? Dead or alive?  I'm always looking, engaging with new work, etc., so my answer would be different each day. 


You recently announced the 40+ artists that have received invitations to participate in the 2010 California Biennial exhibition, making about 150 studio visits in the process. Can you talk a bit about the steps you went through to find them?
Forty-five artists are to be included in the exhibition. It's a nice, juicy group of artists with diverse works and practices.  Firstly, I came up with a list of hundreds of artists under consideration, from my own interests and by asking curatorial colleagues from other museums and independent art spaces, as well as artists whom I respect and many from previous biennials to suggest names. And I visited a lot of group shows and MFA shows. (Artists are a GREAT resource in recommending other artists; they know and see work outside of the normal spaces, suggest people without representation in galleries, people just out of grad school, people otherwise overlooked, etc.)  I pared the list down to those with whom I would do studio visits, and during the studio visits even more artists came up (if you're in a space, and there's interesting work going on next door, or in the same exhibition, why not take a look!). Some visits were very studied, others were very serendipitous.


Though you focused on new, up-and-comers, there's an extraordinary variety of artists in the Biennial. Sculptors, painters, performance artists, video artists, photographers, artists that work in digital media or create installations...Do you have a favorite medium and can you talk a little bit about why it's your favorite
?
I don't have any allegiances this way! If I were to, it would close down my access to some great work.


How come there aren't any Orange County artists in the 2010 California Biennial?
There are! Two members of the collaborative group Finishing School live here (James Rojsirivat lives in Buena Park, and Ed Giardina lives in Huntington Beach).


This info wasn't in the press materials! I'm happy you snuck a few in. Mea culpa! 
As curator of the biennial, my mission is to canvas the whole state. In a California biennial, the focus is expansive, creating a forum for artists living across the state who present work regionally, nationally and internationally.  I traveled far and wide to ensure the biennial had a healthy representation of many regions (not just greater Los Angeles), regions with vibrant artist communities like the bay area and San Diego and its environs.  Of course, many California artists who have studied or lived in Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco have moved to Los Angeles, and this is may be indicative of the gravity of LA in terms of number of galleries who can represent their work and the number of art schools and universities in LA in which artists teach, etc. 


A Google search pops up with Sarah Bancroft, costume designer. Fill us in on this...it sounds suspiciously theatrical
.
While living in New York and working at the Guggenheim, I once designed costumes for a friend's dance company: Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People. This was for a series of performances, and was totally voluntary on my part!  (As my mother made many of our clothes growing up, I learned to sew early on and this project... was a natural creative outlet for me.) I think Miguel saw an elegant one-shoulder shirt I'd crafted out of men's white tanks (wife-beaters), and asked me to do something. I used found materials and reworked them into costumes for a couple of his dances.  


If an artist wanted to get you over to their studio or submit something to you...what steps would they take?
The museum accept[s] artist submissions of images, which the curatorial department periodically reviews.  For the biennial (as with many exhibitions), we contacted the artists under consideration directly, and I think some were surprised, as our request for a studio visit seemingly came out of the blue.  For contemporary exhibitions, a curator often receives recommendations from curators, colleagues and artists.  It's a bit like being a director and having everyone hand you a screenplay to read. Eventually, you have to focus on what interests you and visitors to the museum.


Give us a breakdown on a day in the life of an OCMA curator.
Every day, week and month is different!  
Most exhibitions take years to organize and, depending on how far out the opening is, I will be focusing on different things. I've already concluded the studio visits for the biennial and selected the artists, so right now I am focusing on the artworks to be featured in the show and where these will be located in the museum. Which means today--and for the next few weeks--I'm reviewing images and ideas with the artists on the phone, in studios, at the museum. Today I'm walking through the space with a couple of the artists who are doing site visits, and meeting with a possible catalogue designer, and I'll be working on my catalogue essay between now and August.  I'm writing a series of thank you notes today, calling potential lenders for the biennial and other exhibitions, preparing two grant and donor presentations.  I'm also working on two other upcoming exhibitions (Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series and Two Schools of Cool). So, for the Diebenkorn exhibition, I'm coordinating with our venues and updating my catalogue essay with recent research. (As you know, Dennis Hopper passed away over the weekend, so I am sadly dealing with the loss of this compelling artist who was going to create collaborative work for Two Schools of Cool.)
I often think of my job as juggling while running a marathon, which is excellent for someone who likes balancing acts and long-distance races!


Art has a tendency to be a bit of a boy's club. Is being a woman an asset, a hindrance or a non-issue? Do you feel any responsibility to represent work by women artists?
This is an interesting question, as most art museums are filled with professional women (although the public face is often a director who is male). Certainly, at the Guggenheim, the majority of the curators were women while I was there, and in many other museum departments this was also true.  Being a woman is who I am, it just is!  Thankfully, my interest in art work is vast, and if you look at my biennial, you will see art by women and men of many different origins, personalities and orientations.  Ultimately, I'm interested in the art work--and very diverse types of work--and women make as much great work as men do, so it is very easy and natural to include artists who are women in my exhibitions.



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