The exploration of the artist’s studio as a discursive, autonomous, and above all social community space plays an important role in my curatorial practice. The traditional model of the studio, as a place dedicated to solitary experimentation and research, has given way to a fascinating subcultural variant that I call the social studio, denoting a shared forum for peer-driven art and discussion. This term describes a multifunctional physical and sometimes non-physical space that might take the form of a Skype conversation, a publication, or a series of events. The form is thus flexible and follows artists’ changing work patterns; it isn’t necessarily confined to four walls. Social studios are hybrid spaces that have emerged in response to cultural inhibition, shortfalls in artistic infrastructure, and other situations in which restricted or unstable conditions fail to sustain artists’ needs.
When pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies in literature and art history at Goldsmiths College, London—the birthplace of the YBAs (young British artists), who emerged in the late 1980s, a decade prior to my attendance—my curatorial imagination was already being informed by the prototypical social studios of emerging artists whose South and East London live/work spaces doubled as renegade showcases for fresh art and ideas. It was during these formative years that I became acquainted with the progressive Black Mountain College established in North Carolina in 1933. This became a longstanding fascination, informing an ongoing curatorial interest in socio-political discourse.
My tenure as curator of public programs at Tate Modern in London, which largely focused on international discourse, coincided with unitednationsplaza (2006), a project by artist and e-flux cofounder Anton Vidokle. This was a part-collaborative studio/school wherein discussion merged with art and school merged with exhibition space. Produced with artists including Walid Raad and Natasha Sadr Haghighian, unitednationsplaza was a response to the cancellation of the Manifesta 6 program “Notes for an Art School,” which was due to have been held in the contested territory of Nicosia, Cyprus. This project embodied the ethos of the social studio, taking place in Berlin, Mexico, and New York, and functioning on an open-door policy that attempted a decoupling from fusty institutional dialogue.
Eventually, I also decoupled from the institution, and over the past decade have been exploring studios within culturally emerging cities in post-Soviet Asia and the Gulf, where they have served as an essential supplement to a deficient contemporary art infrastructure characterized by outmoded and unresponsive institutions. I was involved in the establishment and direction of several artist’s spaces in emerging cities, including Alaan Artspace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, UAE, and YARAT Contemporary art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan. While Maraya and Alaan received some governmental sponsorship, all three spaces were founded and primarily run by artists and offered studio space and professional support to emerging practitioners in cities where contemporary art was still a new vocabulary. Yet despite the nascent status of such scenes, historical trajectories and ties to other regional centers facilitated an influx and outward flow of art and ideas, and I was able to begin an exchange between them characterized by informal pedagogical relationships with emphases both local and global.
In my current capacity as a writer and curator now living and working in New York, I first became acquainted with Mana Contemporary, an artist focused studio community in January of 2017. I was impressed by Mana’s scale and scope as an artist centric organization, which also has outposts in Miami, and the ethos of the space dedicated to building a community for artists. I met with the founding director and president of Mana, Eugene Lemay, about how his vision of transforming the former tobacco factory into a mixed use space for artists had resulted in both studio space and international artist residencies, which were co-founded by Ysabel Pinyol, and how this activity was contributing to the gentrification of Jersey City. He and I talked at length about the current political climate and supporting artists during the impending “cultural wars” and how artists needed to shift gears in order to navigate such difficult terrain. We discussed expanding the studios at Mana to create a hub for professional development, as a space for discussions, lectures and workshops designed to enhance studio practice and empowering artists. This fruitful discussion led to the formation of Mana Professional, a career development platform for Mana’s rich artist community that focused on curating, art and law, marketing and PR, social media, and financial planning and project management. The program is intentionally broad in scope and encourages independent thinking, helping to reveal some of the more opaque areas of the art world.
Sara Raza is the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator for the Global Art Initiative Middle East and North Africa where she recently organized the exhibition But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa. Raza is the longstanding West and Central Asia editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine and is currently editing a book on her research entitled Punk Orientalism.