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As Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions and Commissions at the SFMoMA, John Zarobell is an innovative figure in the San Francisco art scene. As Assistant Curator of Collections, Exhibitions and Commissions at the SFMoMA, John Zarobell is an innovative figure inside the San Francisco art scene. John acted as the coordinating curator of Frida Kahlo and also organized Art in the Atrium: Kerry James Marshall and New Work: Ranjani Shettar. 

We caught up with John for a chat on his methods for discovering new and exciting emerging artists, his latest upcoming projects at SFMoMa and his views on the level of influence that artist social networks and online art communities are having on the world stage. 

What are the hot trends in the contemporary art scene? 

Craft, mapping, neo-baroque, artists curating, references to high modernist art and design. 

Like the chicken and egg, what comes first; the concept for a show or the mass inspection of what’s available? 

In the US, contemporary museums do very few concept shows and concentrate on monographic exhibitions for the most part.  The concept shows that do get produced try to capture the zeitgeist but the challenge is that it takes museums years to organize exhibitions and by the time comes to put on the show, the moment may have passed.  One good concept exhibition at SFMOMA recently was The Art of Participation, curated by Rudolf Frieling, which I believe he had been planning for years but that show was based on a historical evolution of the notion of participation in art and covered a lot of historical ground.  Sandra Phillips, the head of our photography department has been organizing a powerful exhibition that will be shown at Tate London called Exposed about the camera and technologies of surveillance since 1870.  It’s old but new as well.  

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline, perhaps a show or an artist close to your heart? 

I’m working on an upcoming New Work project with the artist Anna Parkina for next spring.  She’s a young artist from Moscow who is brilliant on multiple fronts: watercolors, graphics, performance, and sculpture.  She takes the best from Russian Constructivism and reinvents it for the 21stcentury (film noir, punk, blocky Soviet architecture). 

Where and how do you look for emerging talent? 

Here at SFMOMA, we host a semi-annual exhibition of local emerging artists put on by the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA)—every two years they award prizes to a group of artists and this group works with assistant curators at the museum and is a great way for us to follow what is going on in our own backyard.  Further afield, the online resources are so huge these days, you can have access to worlds that no one can possibly traverse and I spend a lot of time with those resources.  But nothing beats getting out and pounding the pavement to see work at galleries, non-profits, and museums.  San Francisco has a huge range of emerging talent but you have to travel and look around in New York, London, Los Angeles… Biennials and fairs are like one-stop shopping but it wears you down if you go too much.  

B-Uncuts approach to artists, art and the market is based on open communication and dialogue between artists and the broader art community. How do you think we can get the more established art industry to engage with us and others in the online space?

The problem is that there are so many sources of information and everyone is just too damned busy.  Saatchi has captured the world through contests (American Idol-style), e-flux fills your inbox but they also do a publication, run a gallery, and host symposiums.  I think the key is to have both a real and an online presence so that your online presence has greater visibility and folks think of it as more than just a blog or a chat room.  Mix social networking with the online art community. 

How do you think the internet is changing the art world and the art market? 

It’s all about access.  The internet adds a lot of new voices to the dialogue because artists, dealers, and museum professionals have a lot more opportunities to discover new worlds.  I worked with an artist last year, Ranjani Shettar, who lived outside of Bangalore and I never visited her studio.  I saw work that she was showing here and met her in Pittsburgh where she was doing an installation for the Carnegie International.  We exchanged emails and she sent me pictures of her progress as jpegs.  We actually used some of these in the brochures we printed for the show and I was able to send her the texts, pdf’s etc. for her to proof. This would not have been possible 10 years ago. 

Questions from our crowd: 
Given the profusion of online galleries, where do you see the role of brick and mortar galleries in the next few years? 

(Donald Kolberg) 
There is no substitute for seeing art in the flesh.  Unless you’re talking about a video, which is made for a screen, seeing art on a screen is not the same as seeing the object.  I know that many folks buy art after seeing photos or jpegs but it is usually an artist whose works they have seen in person at some point previous.  Online galleries (and online presence for brick and mortar galleries) provide new windows and valuable marketing tools but people and art live in space and so I expect galleries will continue to require space to sell art. 

How are you dealing with being in such a visible position in the art world? How do you would react to a simple request from Joe Artist to review his portfolio? 

(Olgar Dmytrenko) 
This is not an uncommon occurrence in my world and I’ll be honest with you and say that my response is not entirely consistent.  I know that contemporary curators often maintain a sense of exclusivity and do not have time for studio visits unless they are arranged.  I try to be more open but one only has so much time.  I feel like if I have a relationship with someone, however brief, I will consider a request to visit but that has to come from some kind of conversation.  When I started getting Facebook friend invitations from artists who I had never met, I realized that I am exposed and I have to be selective about who I engage with and why. 

As an older emerging artist, I have noticed a certain amount of discrimination. There is a consensus that young emerging artists deal with contemporary issues from a fresh point of view which makes their work more viable and gives the gallery owners an advantage in promoting them even before the art is seen. I have found that some galleries only deal with young emerging artists [under thirty]. What insights do you have regarding galleries’ views on mature emerging artists [in their fifties] versus young emerging artists? 

(Jeanette Luchese) 
This is a very good question because “emerging artist” is just a label for an artist you’ve never heard of until you get your work in a group show and someone points you out in the press as a promising emerging artist.  In other words, there are emerging artists who no one in the art world has heard of and there are emerging artists who have been called out by a dealer, curator or a critic.  I think there is a lust for youth in American culture at least and it seems from my perspective that, if it was not always this way, this perception has become more or less universal now.  To make matters worse, if you’re not under 30 and no one has ever heard of you, you have to confront the obvious question of why you have not already achieved some degree of success. There are a lot of reasons that gallerists have to be biased against artists.  At the bottom, the strength of any emerging artist is the originality of her or his voice, the idea that what you have to say has never been said no matter what your age.  The more you can produce that kind of work, and convince others of its honesty, the better chance you have going from emerging artist to an emerging artist. 

-John Zarobell