Nicole Ringel Interviews Margaret MacDonald, One of the Curators of Intersection at MICA
Intersection is the culminating project of a yearlong practicum course for MICA Curatorial Practice students. The exhibition investigates the intersection between North Avenue and Charles Street through a combination of research, documentation, and contemporary art. I sat down with Margaret MacDonald, one of the six curators, to talk about the exhibition.
NR: Let’s start with talking about your experience in the Curatorial Studies MFA program at MICA. How has your time both at MICA and in Baltimore shaped your approach to curating in the past year?
MM: We are second year students of a Curatorial Studies MFA program. What’s unique about the program is that it is an MFA, which means that we do more learning while doing. There is a theory component to it as well, but it’s two-thirds actually making exhibitions and going through the process of ‘how do you commission artwork’ and ‘how do you create something.’ It’s much more hands on and a skill-building sort of program, which is fantastic. It’s unusual; there certainly aren’t many programs like that in the US. There might be one at School for Visual Arts in New York, but otherwise all other parallel programs are abroad.
This Exhibition is the culmination of a yearlong practicum course. The idea behind it is that it’s a consensus building approach to working on a problem or a project. Our cohort is tasked with the location of the exhibition. We know it’s going to be an opening in the fall of the following year in Sheila & Richard Riggs and Leidy galleries at MICA, and that it somehow has to connect with, respond to, or be of interest to the surrounding community around MICA. Usually it’s about Station North area, so it’s about the area surrounding where we are every day. And we have to collaborate on it – so this was a team of 6 curators coming together around an idea and executing it. So there is a challenge of coming to a consensus, but it’s a really rewarding process. You can also accomplish so much more as a team than an individual could.
NR: The research that went into Intersection was integral to understanding the artwork in the show. Can you talk a little about your research process, and how that framed and informed your curatorial decisions?
MM: Sources and chapters were given to the artists. We provided them a lot of material, but they did research on their own as well and really dug into it, and responded to it. Coming out of that, what I like about contemporary art is that it doesn’t have to be anything in particular. It’s this sort of “other space” that allows you to examine and reflect I mean yes, we included a history component in the exhibition, the timeline and other reading material, and if you wanted to dig into the history – which I like – that’s a fun component to it. We really loved that these artists were coming up with a way to interpret and respond to that history.
NR: How did you go about balancing the historical information with the artists work, so that none of the work was overpowered in the process?
MM: I think it happened organically. So we were doing research at the same time our artists were doing research, and the more we talked with the artists, we figured out “ok, so you’re rooted in this.” For example, Ada Pinkston really wanted to do something about the ’68 riots and think about that moment and also think about what led up to that moment and what led up to the present day and how that all relates to the other events. That targeted our focus a little bit, and then we fed off of each other’s directions.
So, the timeline is the curatorial team’s research, but it also played into what the artists were thinking about. We were informing them and giving them reading material, but at the same time they informed us. I personally am very interested in having that kind of dialogue and allowing an exhibition organically happen with the artists. Letting that shift happen as the art shifts and what you’re thinking about shifts can be a really powerful thing to work with.
NR: The last event on the timeline spanning the development of North Ave was Freddy Grey’s death and the resulting protests. Were those events the starting point for your motivation to put Intersection together?
MM: Well it definitely influenced the development, but it wasn’t the start. The seed of it started in the fall of 2015. So well before Freddy Gray happened, but nationally there were certainly things that happened and that was definitely something effecting people in our class throughout the year. We were definitely concerned with that underneath the surface of things.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we initially sought our topic to be that, or to relate, but I think it was inevitable that we were all thinking about it. Then the moment we did our final committee meeting was the first day of the Baltimore uprising. We were already thinking that we wanted to do this focus on an intersection, but in that moment it became all the more important to us to do that topic.
We were already going to go that way anyway, but it was more important for us to think about North Avenue, and this idea of points in the city where different events have happened historically and how that relates and how you have to dig into the history a little bit to see that these types of events aren’t just coming out of the blue out of nowhere. It is not just a now, momentary event that has occurred, there really is a whole trajectory that led us up to that. It might have been a bit of a coincidence, but it was definitely on the minds of all of our artists and I think their work, even though they’re rooted in different events on that timeline, they’re all thinking about it, and that’s great. I’m glad that happened, because it was something that needed to be manifested somehow.
It was a chicken and an egg kind of scenario but right at that moment that we decided we were interested in this 100 year history, the Baltimore uprising happened, and we all had conversations asking, “What can the art community do to help strengthen and recover and keep our city in a good place after this scenario?” So that definitely was something in our minds, and on the minds of a lot of people in the arts in Baltimore. It’s a really wonderfully rich, strong community and has a lot of potential to make an impact, to be an initiator of something really good in the city.
NR: A lot of the work in the exhibition, especially “Griot’s Eye: Media arts and Advocacy,” references the significance of Griots in African culture. Could you speak a little bit about the role of griot in his or her community, and how that is manifested in Baltimore?
MM: We worked with the specific workshop that the Griot’s Eye Advocacy Group program. It’s a youth media program in Baltimore, and we liked having our exhibition set of by that tone because the students in that program spent time over that summer actually making observations at the intersection. They were learning filmmaking skills and how to do the production along with professionals, but they were also making observations and learning about the history, their history and then starting to interview people and learn what is in the present, and what is the link to the future through their eyes, because they’re really the future of our area.
We actually got additional funding for doing that workshop, because we really wanted to have that education component and we knew pretty early on that we wanted to include it in the exhibition. We liked the idea of bringing that component into the gallery space. We did know that was going to happen, it turned out to be the perfect piece.
NR: Can you talk about intersections in general, and what drew you to that theme?
Well, sometimes it can be really helpful to actually set limits for yourself in order to be creative or to try to explore something. We decided we wanted to think about a deep history of the area. That we decided, and there were threads of that we thought about through the first semester. That was a lot broader; narrowing into one place or location, and an important location in terms of how many people go through that thorough faire. Charles Street is really the center of the city, and North Avenue, while it’s not technically the center, it is still a heavily trafficked road and it had at one point been the boundary of the city but that boundary moved up north. We decided we needed to limit ourselves.
We were at one point a lot broader, and then decided to stick on one place and use that as a microcosm and as a lens to look at the history of the American city and the history of the United States in that context. It all relates, and that’s something I love. We didn’t plan it, but there is a point in the interview in the Griot’s Eye video that they say to think about intersections in other parts of the city, walk down the intersection of Penn and North, right? That’s another really important one. There are lots of them throughout the city, this is just one of them. It’s amazing how much you can get out of looking at that one place as that microcosm for everything else.
We were thinking how people move through the area, how culture changes transportation. That particular intersection is an important transport hub, even in streetcar times. A lot of the bus routes are based on the initial streetcar routes because people don’t really like to change too much when they change. There are a number of bus transfer points where people come into that point to transfer to go somewhere else, so there are a lot of people who come into the city in that location.
I find it really fun to think about the history of that area. At one time, where the Howard Street Bridge is now, there were railroad stations there – I think it was the Ma and Pa, Maryland and Pennsylvania – when railroads were independent. There was the Ma and Pa, the B & O, the Union, all sorts of them. There was another one a block south of where Charles and North Avenue are, and then there was one on Mount Royal. So there were all these train stations, all these streetcars, the first traffic light came at North and Charles. It was an area that people really entered the city and experienced it for the first time, and I think in some ways you could argue that’s still the same, with it still being this area for bus transfers, and people coming in on North Avenue.
We also connected with the Baltimore street car museum. If you walk down Maryland, around the corner to Falls Road, where it goes under the bridge, it’s right there. There is a bunch of great guys that are just hanging out there and tell you every thing about the history of streetcars in Baltimore. They went up until the 50s. At one time, Baltimore was actually number one for transportation in the country. It was hailed as a great public transportation hub. It was great! When we connected with that museum, they allowed us to use images from their collection for free, which was so generous. They also just have some great stories about the area, they’re things that they remember about the intersection and the history of the city. So there might be a few extra streetcar images in the exhibition because of them – but we loved it. They’re fun pictures.
I sat down with Bessie Nix, one of the editors of Baltimore ’68, and she is down at the University of Baltimore. She is a historian who revealed that this area was initially a planned arts and entertainment district. We like to think about it now, and we’re aware of the fact that it’s become this Station North arts and entertainment district that’s been planned since 2002, they’ve decided to designate it. But back in the 1920s it was an intentionally placed and purposefully put here. It’s funny to think about that. We don’t realize that part about the history, but when you look back that far there were all these theaters, the North Avenue Market, a sporting arena, ice skating rink, all of these restaurants.
It was a really happening entertainment area. In the fifties people started leaving and moving out to the suburbs, and there are all sorts of reasons why that is, but a lot of it was shifting demographics in Baltimore. We found a quote by Lawrence Goldbloom in ’74 talking about the shifting demographics in the area and said that initially when they moved in in ’42, the area was 95% white, and then by ’74 the customer base was 95% black. The shift has changed in that time period, and really it happened in the fifties. Businesses started moving away, it wasn’t just the riots that caused this exodus, it was actually happening before that, which is important to realize. There were other things. Baltimore ’68 has a really interesting article about how putting in highways changed the dynamics of neighborhoods and shifted where people wanted to live.
NR: Another important piece of the show is the performance aspect – could you talk a little bit about the performance pieces in the show and how they relate to the other works?
I will say – I think from the very beginning we were drawn to artists whose materials were not so permanent, or were time based. Film captures moments, videos capture moments over time, installation work is going to exist here, but it’s using materials that are more ephemeral. We really loved the idea of bringing in a sound artist because there is no tangible “thingness” to it. Performance fits right into that – that it’s something that happens. Part of that is because if you’re talking about history, or this time frame, we’re interested in all of these moments that happen and pass. We’re examining all of those moments like a core sample, but we know that moments are not a fixed thing; they change. So it appealed to us to use works that are more ephemeral. We wanted to find work that is not too permanent.
Intersections will be on exhibit in MICA’s Sheila & Richard Riggs and Leidy galleries inside the Fred Lazarus IV Center (131 W. North Ave) through September 20, 2015.
Author Nicole Ringel was raised in Frederick, Maryland and is currently pursuing a BFA in Studio Art and Art History at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. She is an artist and reader, and is especially interested in community and socially engaged art.
Photos by Nicole Ringel and Cara Ober.