What’s Next, with new SPACES director Tizziana Baldenebro
In the first installment of Amanda D. King’s new blog series, “What’s Next”, King speaks with Tizziana Baldenebro, newly appointed director of SPACES gallery in Cleveland. In the conversation, Baldenebro shares her perspectives in the wake of recent and continuous uprisings against systemic oppression in the art world, the importance of technology in a pandemic, and her intentions for SPACES as she assumes her new role.
Amanda D. King: Welcome to Cleveland. Are you excited to be here?
Tizziana Baldenebro: I’m thrilled, overjoyed and filled with emotions about exploring a new city, getting to meet new people and understanding new challenges.
King: There’s been a ton of recent news articles about your resignation from MOCAD and your new post as director of SPACES, but I also think it’s important for the Cleveland arts community to know you on an individual level. Aside from knowing you as writer, critic and curator, I wanted to give you the opportunity to tell the Cleveland arts community who you are more intimately?
Baldenebro: I am originally from Southern California, my mother is an immigrant from Colombia. My father is a Mexican American citizen and I have extended family from Puerto Rico, so I grew up in a very pan-cultural environment. I have a great deal of love for my Latin roots. I moved to Chicago to attend college. It’s taken a lot of individual self-discovery to find my groove, but I have since learned how much I love arts and culture and how much I love cultural practices like helping artists explore their work. These things are all super important to me. I am very excited to continue my work within the art world and to manage an organization like SPACES that is the emerging heart of a city’s artistic pulse.
Other than that, I am an extrovert; I like to meet and greet new people, which has made the pandemic difficult. Having to stay inside has not been easy for me.
King: Being an extrovert is a great asset in the art world, navigating through it can be difficult, especially at 32 years old. We see that many people who have been in the same positions for decades are feeling pressure from younger cultural leaders to change or face getting uprooted from their positions. What’s it like for you navigating life and the art world at this age?
Baldenebro: It’s funny because 32 felt so mature and old in art school when I was completing my masters and working with very young, emerging artists, but working in the art world I recognize that isn’t the reality. I think despite its reputation of being at the cutting edge of culture, the art world has a tremendous problem in terms of recognizing things that aren’t established and responding to things it isn’t comfortable talking about, like issues of race and gender. These things aren’t being grappled with in productive and intentional ways in the art world. I’ve been thinking a lot about how culture is veering to online presence and experience. The first things we saw museums doing during the start of the pandemic was taking pictures of their galleries and putting them online, and it’s like these are two novel experiences. We want to see art in person for a reason, but maybe there is a different medium that makes more sense for a technological, visual experience. I am thinking more about how the arts can navigate these fields intentionally and meaningfully. I think it’s important to bring these technocultural languages and discourses into the art world and think more strategically about how these media are implemented within institutions.
King: Can we talk more about how you define technocultural languages and discourses. Breaking it down from scholarship to quotidian communication?
Baldenebro: It’s the ease and comfort with which we communicate and express ourselves online. I am thinking a lot about TikTok because I am absolutely fascinated by the videos that incorporate political statements and dance. I am interested in the way they become performance art in behavior, gesture, and mannerism. I am thinking a lot about the ways these modes of communication are constantly evolving, growing and becoming available to people who don’t have standardized resources to create. In this way it is very pluralistic. How we embrace, think critically, and introduce this type of expression into the art world is a very interesting question and challenge that I hope to explore.
King: Staying on the subject of the millennial experience in the art world, when I speak with young leaders in arts and culture, we often connect around our relationships with art forming at an early age and how this formation still shapes our interests, politics and viewpoints. Tell me about your journey with art, and how it continues to shape you?
Baldenebro: I am named after Titian, an old master, and my father is a florist. I grew up creating floral arrangements with him, and he always had an artistic spirit in how he made arrangements. He loved taking us to museums and cultural events and was very encouraging of cultural engagement. My mother is Colombian, so there was always a lot of music and cultural vibrancy in my lived experience. Becoming a curator or artworker was not something that seemed very obvious during my childhood. I am the first person in my family to go to college, so it took me some time to find my own interests. Anthropology appealed to me because I was interested in cultural studies and understanding how we structure society. As I progressed in my studies, curatorial work became clear to me, especially being in Chicago, where we have important cultural institutions like the Art Institute, and the Museum of Contemporary Art but also this amazing culture of house galleries, where people convert their backyards, garages and spare bedrooms into galleries. I was really interested in the frameworks of artist communities and ended up doing my Masters in Interior Architecture because I was interested in curating, but in a less linear way. We often leave curatorial work to be a kind of tastemaker language, but I was more interested in how these spaces get organized. I was thinking a lot about the politics of how a visitor engages with space. My intention in marrying architecture and curatorial vision is thinking about how these spaces get organized and what kind of statement that organization produces. The other thing architecture trains you to do is project-manage, and balance the nuance of budgeting, building, and organizing. What I want to do as director of SPACES is to encompass everything I have ever done and bring it all together.
King: There is a breakdown within cultural institutions dealing with oppressive power structures. It’s wide open right now. As someone who has worked within cultural institutions and is now the director of SPACES, what are your views on the function of art and the institution in the wake of recent and continuous uprisings against systemic oppression in the art world?
Baldenebro: It feels like things have come to a head in a way that they were never able to before. It feels like there is nothing left to lose. We have the amazing opportunity to re-envision what our society looks like, and we are ready to fight for it. We are ready to demand that BIPOC are visible and meaningfully engaged at the institutional level. It’s incredibly exciting and also hard, challenging, and scary, but that’s what is literally at the root of progress — fear and the determination to overcome that fear. As I was doing the MOCAD Resistance work, I realized that there is a lot of love in these movements for the institutions themselves. There is a very clear understanding that we need these spaces, but these spaces also need us. I am in awe of the free labor that activists and organizers within and around the institutions are giving to museums and cultural spaces.
Organizations like Art + Museum Transparency, Death To Museums, Akron Art Museum Accountability and the events at MoCa Cleveland are telling us exactly what the road map is and what success looks like. It’s an incredible amount of work that has to be recognized. People pay consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars to do exactly what these organizers are doing. It really is a labor of love for art and for our future. I am excited to be a part of that labor, to see what that future looks like, and be there for the cultural producers of tomorrow.
King: I am familiar with MOCAD Resistance and remember you describing the conditions within the museum as a “dangerous culture of racism, verbal abuse, and exploitative labor practices.” Tell us about your experience organizing around inequities within MOCAD and why it is important for culture makers, art workers, curators, and community members to collectively hold art institutions accountable?
Baldenebro: Two of my colleagues, Maceo Keeling and Jova Lynne, who are both black curators, resigned at the beginning of the pandemic because of poor leadership. I also decided to resign at that point but knew that there were three exhibitions that I was working on and that I wanted to see through to the end. On opening day, I had already drafted my letter of resignation and asked Maceo, Jova, and my supervisor to co-sign it with me. I wanted affirmation that the statement was correct and to collect support for the five changes that I wanted to see at MOCAD outlined in the letter. We knew enough MOCAD employees who experienced tribulations within the museum to demand collective action and so we started calling, texting and messaging them to sign on. Shortly thereafter we had signatures from 70 employees, almost the entirety of former MOCAD Staff. There was another outcry from artists in our community who had negative experiences with the museum and felt passionately that the space needed to change, so now we have a letter with over 400 signatures of artists from the Detroit community. The museum fired the executive director and the five demands are being considered as something the museum needs to implement to have an equitable arts environment. It is incredibly empowering. I experienced a lot of fear because of my resignation and I didn’t know about SPACES yet. I didn’t know if my work with MOCAD Resistance would help me or hurt me. But the response from SPACES was very supportive and positive.
If I had just written my own letter, it could easily have been dismissed as one or a few disgruntled employees upset because of the pandemic. It was important to document the history of MOCAD’s problem of unanswered complaints. It was also important for artists and artworkers who because of whatever privileges they [were] afforded protection from the same retaliatory behaviors to recognize our truth and believe our stories. This corroborating and recognizing that we aren’t operating in these lone individual bubbles and really need to be working together and expressing solidarity with each other’s beliefs, truths, and realities is necessary.
King: Why take the risk when there was so much uncertainty around the outcome?
Baldenebro: I knew what my colleagues had faced and what some of my colleagues were facing. There was an intense period of injustices that kept piling on during the pandemic. I was walking with Detroit Will Breathe, the Black Lives Matter organizing chapter in Detroit, and seeing how movements push people to the edge of courage, to a place where uncertainty doesn’t matter because the only thing we have to lose is a terrible form of leadership. It seemed inevitable that I had to resign. I also have to shout out Andrea Montiel de Shuman who resigned from the Detroit Institute of Arts. She wrote an amazing open letter in Medium that provided an example of putting your truth out in the universe.
King: Let’s talk about art. Tell me about your exhibition ARTWORK and how it relates both to the pandemic, the economy and fractures within the arts ecosystem?
Baldenebro: Jova had the idea for some time, and she and I drafted the concept and curatorial statement together after some great discussions. It stemmed from recognizing the resourcefulness, talent, and self-reliance of Detroit’s arts community. The community rejects the external marketing of what art is and creates an art market based on bartering, trade, exchange, and mutual self-care as opposed to just dollars and cents. The show is two-fold in thinking about both the art market and the notion of self-reliance within the Detroit arts community based on its legacy of resourcefulness and modeling community interdependence. You see this process in the work of celebrated Detroit artists like Tyree Guyton and Olayami Dabls.
King: Do you make art as well?
Baldenebro: I know how to watercolor, but my creativity is in organizing and planning. I take great pleasure in making things just right.
King: What are your perceptions and general impressions of Cleveland’s arts ecosystem?
Baldenebro: Cleveland feels like a place in between Chicago and Detroit with a lot of similarities to Pittsburgh. I am eager to learn more about its creativity and energy.
King: What are your plans for SPACES? I am not looking for specifics, but your intentions?
Baldenebro: A lot of my work in Cleveland has to be about listening. I have to learn what the artistic communities and their efforts are like before I jump in. To recognize the environment that I am entering, be respectful and mindful of it while constructing ideas for what SPACES can do to be a leading voice within the Cleveland arts community. I am excited to soak it all up.
King: There is a lot to soak up here. Cleveland is a spirit-filled community. No matter what condition people are in there is an immense pride for their city, but there are immense challenges more than most comparable mid-size cities. This is also a city with strong racial and economic divide. How will you negotiate reflecting and shaping our communities under these divisive and disparate conditions?
Baldenebro: Going back to the concept of listening, it is important to make space for people who haven’t always felt welcomed. Thinking about my upbringing, I never really thought of curatorial work as something for me. I’m thinking about how to make space within programming, residencies, engagements, and connect regional arts organizations to answer systemic problems with systemic solutions. I am also thinking about youth. With MOCAD Resistance, our Teen Council was very involved and vocal. There is so much power in youth voice and the intentional way in which youth are carving spaces for themselves. There is also power in inviting under-recognized communities to have a seat at the table.
King: What’s next?
Baldenebro: Apartment hunting, moving to Cleveland, saying goodbye to this chapter in my life and hello to the next one.