Interview from the FRONT: Jens Hoffman

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The following brief interview with Jens Hofmann was conducted via email at his request. Hoffman is probably the best known of the two art world luminaries (famed Chicago artist Michelle Grabner is the other) recruited by FRONT Executive Director Fred Bidwell and his team as co-artistic directors for the experimental, conceptually-driven event. Their job is to recruit artists, but also to conceive and map the many valences of this first edition of the Cleveland triennial, which is titled An American City.

It might actually be impossible to find a more experienced or highly regarded figure to shepherd the launch. Our city and its region are hardly blank slates, and plans have been known to change in the face of intractable realities. All the same, Hoffmann should be the man for the job. He’s become widely admired over the past two decades for his innovative choices and auteur-like interpretation of what it means to be a “curator” (a word he doesn’t normally use, as he explains below), especially on the international stage of high-profile exhibitions. Hoffman has dozens of such exhibitions under his belt, including much-heralded events in Kassel (Germany), Shanghai, Istanbul, San Juan, Prague—and so on. The author of innumerable museum catalogue essays and magazine articles, he’s currently senior curator-at-large at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, director of exhibitions and public projects for the Jewish Museum in New York, and a curator and senior advisor at the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco and Paris. His central presence at this triennial is big art world news, signaling international significance to museums, galleries, collectors, and the global art press. —DMU

I haven’t been able to find any comment about the upcoming triennial’s title. I’m curious as to whose idea FRONT—as a word and as a concept—was, and what particular range of associations you intend.

FRONT is not the title of this first edition of the triennial. It is the name of the entity that is organizing the exhibition and its programs. Think of it [as] similar to [such] names as Manifesta, Prospect or Documenta, not that we are necessarily comparing [this] to those very ambitious exhibitions but maybe it helps to explain it. So there will be FRONT 2 in 2021 and FRONT 3 in 2023 and so on. The name FRONT was something that already existed when Michelle Grabner and I started to work on the triennial. This is not to say that we did not think about it but it was more after the fact. For us it represents a number of things that perhaps also influenced our idea of the triennial. On the one hand, the perhaps rather obvious idea of being on the front of contemporary artistic and curatorial production, the term avant-garde comes to mind. It also refers to the historical position of Cleveland as the furthest western frontline of the Connecticut Western Reserve. There is also the thought of Cleveland being on the lakefront of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes region as a bi-national Canadian-American region that includes eight U.S. states as well one Canadian province, which has been a key region for commerce and trade.

The event’s subtitle An American City suggests that this international show will forefront Cleveland, and publicity for the event indicates a concern with local history and art as well as interactions with a number of local arts institutions. Performances, installations, publications are planned.

Could you tell me something about your strategies for engaging with the city’s political history, or any of its current challenges?

Whatever exhibitions I organize and curate, the starting points are always the history of a place and the current realties of it. That goes for biennials or triennials just as much as for my museum exhibitions. It is impossible for me to develop an idea for an exhibition and not take those factors into consideration and simply parachute a number of artists and artworks into a place with no or maybe only very loose connections. Beyond that, I understand my work not necessarily as curating but as exhibition-making, and I see what I do also very related to being first and foremost an educator, a historian and even an anthropologist. The idea of An American City was something Michelle and I discussed right away. We thought about how many former Rust Belt cities are struggling to overcome the economic difficulties triggered by the enormous deindustrialization over many decades and how they are in the process to build new identities. With all its specificities, Cleveland also shares elements with many other American cities. In that way, Cleveland is also a particular example and case study of a place that sits outside the common power centers of culture, politics and finance, mostly found on the coasts. One major element will be an artist-in-residency program. Six international and six U.S.-based artists will come to Cleveland starting this September, which is when we also start with our public programs that will heavily involve the local art scene as well as imbed the visiting artists within the context of Cleveland to develop their projects for FRONT.

Have you collaborated with Michelle Grabner on any other projects? Are there particular aspects of her art or curatorial practice (at the Poor Farm for instance) that you would like to see come into play at Cleveland? Do you and Grabner see your roles at FRONT as primarily cooperative, or are you staking out your own territories?

We work absolutely collaboratively. We make all decisions together and developed the entire project as a team. There are obviously certain areas she has more experience in and other areas I have more experience in. I always enjoy co-curating exhibitions with artists and this is by far not the first time I am doing this. I think very creatively about exhibition making, something that resonates well with artists, they tell me about their work as artists and I speak about my ideas and thoughts for exhibition. There is no hierarchy at all. I have admired Michelle’s work for many years and first met her in Chicago over a decade ago when she was still running the Suburban there. She is an artist, who not only thinks about her work but very much also about how it enters the world and how that of others is connected and forms a larger context. Our dialogs and exchanges, beyond the triennial, are also very important to me. She is an extremely thoughtful and critical thinker and that makes working with her so attractive for me.

You were quoted in the New York Times as saying that you see something different and exciting about the 2018 Cleveland event, as compared to other biennial and triennial shows. Could you expand on that? What does Cleveland have that Kassel doesn’t?

What attracted me to FRONT was that we were able to convince all the local institutions to participate and not only those in Cleveland like the CMA or MOCA but also the Akron Museum of Art and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which are both top-tier institutions. So beyond working with Michelle as co-artistic director we have what we call our “curatorial co-conspirators,” the curators in each museum that help and work with us on the realization of all the projects. The conversations with them about the specifics of their individual institutions have been incredibly helpful. We cannot compare ourselves to Documenta, not yet at least. It is an exhibition with a history that goes back to the immediate postwar era. Everyone who has been to Kassel knows that it is a smaller, non-cosmopolitan and not very diverse place. In Kassel one would be hard-pressed to relate an exhibition to the city; the exhibitions there relate much more to a larger global context and welcome audience from all around the world.

Could you speak briefly about some of the specific core ideas, whether philosophical or programmatic, that will inform the overall organization and shape of FRONT?

We divided the entire project into what we call “Eleven Cultural Exercises.” The exhibition is one of the exercises, the residency program is another exercise, the public programs are another exercise, and the publications program is another. We were interested in putting all parts of what a traditional biennial or triennial consists of and making them equally important in how they articulate the curatorial vision. In this way, it is anti-hierarchic when it comes to all its different parts. The form itself is a reaction to the ubiquity of biennials and triennials and working on something that we feel is more appropriate for a triennial that starts its long run in 2017.