#40: Cecily Cullen
If curation is an art, Cecily Cullen wields it with a broad brush; as creative director at Metropolitan State University of Denver's Center for Visual Art, she continually creates sophisticated exhibitions that take a global and multicultural look at art or offer comprehensive overviews of mediums and techniques. In the center's Emerging Artist Gallery, she turns the curatorial reins over to students, bringing the institution's goals full-circle. What motivates Cullen's international scope and innate eye for making inspiring visual connections? Keep reading for answers, via her 100CC questionnaire.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Cecily Cullen: For collaboration to be successful and worthwhile, it takes a special alchemy between partners. The right combination of personalities, understanding and energy are just as vital as talent and vision. I relish working with people who are interested in building a shared vision.
One particular inspiration I would love to collaborate with is the avant-garde dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who incorporated chance and risk into his creative process. Over the years, he partnered with many visual artists to whom he relinquished absolute control of costumes and sets to the extent that they became integral to the direction of the work. I have no idea what Cunningham was like as a person, but I am attracted to the notion of playing with the balance of control, and negotiating the thin line between holding it close and letting go.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
I have been enamored with Wangechi Mutu's collage and mixed media work for years and am thrilled to be working with her this year. I recently spoke with Wangechi about the meaning behind some video works of hers that will be included in our upcoming Spatial Stories exhibition in February. She has a strong activist voice in these particular works representing women who are acting against violence in their lives. These works are less fantasy mash ups than the collage work she is known for, but powerful and poetic singular actions.
I am interested in artists and others who are utilizing various platforms to affect a change in thinking. Swoon, Ai Wei Wei, Pope Francis, even the Food Babe -- she is a bit unconventional, but seriously taking on food giants like Monsanto and Starbucks and pushing them, first to be transparent about what toxic ingredients are in their products and secondly to use safer, real food ingredients.
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
I think most trends are birthed for a reason, or morph into something positive even if they didn't start that way. The model of canvases and cocktails where everyone copies the same stylized painting of trees on a hill is pretty shallow. It does little to generate creativity or a meaningful interaction with ideas and art. However, there is a wave of ingenuity where a few have taken the prototype and ramped up the art making, urging participants to challenge themselves and make original pieces. That aspect of the trend is positive. Eventually, maybe folks will get brave and stop parroting the purple swirly cloud painting.
What's your day job?
As creative director at the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art, my job is to present opportunities for MSU Denver to interact with the larger Denver community via contemporary art. To that end I research and organize exhibitions, develop programming, and mentor students in the process of curating, designing collateral and running an art center.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
I would set out to incorporate art and design into the everyday. I would commission artists to create interventions throughout the city to surprise and instill wonder in those who encounter the work. Denver could benefit from tapping the minds of all the creative people here to improve the design of residential neighborhoods and business districts. Lack of intentional design aesthetic is always a missed opportunity and usually the result of misaligned priorities or a lack of appreciation. Spending some serious time traveling abroad, studying artists and communities that weave art and design into the fabric of the city would definitely be a part of the plan.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
There are many powerful initiatives happening now, like those of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, a small-but-mighty force that does so much to promote the arts to the business community, and SCFD ,of course. But these efforts need to multiply, especially as the city swells in population. There are certainly things Denver and Colorado could do in an immediate sense to support artists, in the form of tax breaks, housing, grants and financial aid to make higher education less of a hardship, etc. But I think there is a fundamental issue in the U.S. that in general we do not value art and design.
We need to initiate a change of culture, starting with education. Colorado ranks at the low end of education spending in this country, and that has a negative impact on everyone in the state. When budgets are tight, and art is cut or seriously limited in schools, it sends a message that the city, state or school districts view art as a luxury and non-essential, rather than a vitally important form of communication and a means to nurture a population of people who can think critically and develop innovative solutions. We should be teaching by example and instilling the value of creativity in our youth. (Anne and Peter Thulson do this brilliantly with their summer camp, School of the Poetic City.)
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I have an inability to pick a single favorite anything, particularly an artist or creative when there are so many brilliant people here that I love and admire.
Being a part of MSU Denver's art department, I interact on regular basis with many creatives. Tomiko Jones and Kelly Monico are two artists with whom I have worked closely this past year. Both are art faculty, influential artists and have contributed significantly to the programming at the Center for Visual Art. Tomiko's ethereal photographs suggest a mysterious narrative of an undetermined time and place. One could get lost in those images.
At the very top of my list are my husband Gabe Cullen and our two daughters. The three of them are creative powerhouses -- always making music, art and laughter, and inspiring me to stretch my own creative thinking and making.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
The CVA will be living up to the "global perspectives" aspect of our mission in 2015. We are putting together three international exhibitions, starting with Spatial Stories: Topographies of Change in Africa, followed by A New Fine Line: Ink Painting From China and finishing the year with political satire from nineteenth-century England. We will also continue supporting local and emerging artists with programming in the Emerging Artist Gallery, a space run primarily by MSU Denver students who develop exhibitions in conjunction with those in our main gallery.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in 2015?
Jennifer Pettus has some provocative textile work hanging in the CVA's Emerging Artist Gallery currently. The work is both opulent and grotesque, appealing and repealing. It draws the viewer in for a voyeuristic peek and larger-than-life intimacy, then delivers a bit of humor, easing the tension a bit. Jennifer has just joined Ice Cube gallery, which will give her more exposure in the near future, and I think it will push her to keep working at the height of her creativity, insight and skill. She is on to something, and I anticipate her work will continue to progress in an exciting direction.
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Next up at MSU Denver's Center for Visual Art is Spatial Stories: Topographies of Change in Africa, featuring contemporary African photography and photo-based work and coincides with Denver's Month of Photography 2015. Spatial Stories opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, February 6, and runs through April 4, along with a student exhibit, Truth &.... Learn more about CVA online.
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