César García-Alvarez is a Mexican-born, Los Angeles based curator, writer, and occasional academic. He is the co-founder and current Executive & Artistic Director of The Mistake Room (TMR) in Los Angeles. Prior to founding TMR he was Associate Director and Senior Curator at LAXART. He was one of the curators of Made in L.A. 2012, the U.S. Commissioner for the 13th International Cairo Biennial (2013), and most recently the co-curator of Desert X 2021.
Over a decade ago I witnessed a performance by artist Glenn Kaino and magician Derek DelGaudio that encouraged us to think about mistakes as portals into new worlds. What I found most compelling about The Mistake Room was that it didn’t revel in the motivational rhetoric we often use when we talk about mistakes—how we learn from them and improve. Instead, it acknowledged the unpleasantness we feel when we make them. You see, mistakes, at their core, are ruptures of the status quo; brief moments when we exist outside the certitudes that structure what we know and how we live. That’s why the experience of making them disorients us and triggers an impulse to course correct and return to the way things are accepted to be. The Mistake Room provoked us to reflect on the potential of embracing the discomfort of going against the grain because that’s when making anew really becomes possible.
The ethos of that performance inspired me to establish an organization named after it. In late 2012 a group of courageous supporters and I set out to fulfill the dream of radically transforming what a nonprofit art space could be. From that inspiration, The Mistake Room was born. We aspired to change how art and other forms of creative expression are made; to broaden who gets to make and experience them; and to re-imagine where and how we encounter them. We were driven by the urgency to make space in the arts for those who struggle to find one. For months we stubbornly experimented with initiatives that countered existing models. We staged anonymous roving pop-up shows that brought art to new audiences, published independent artist books that expanded the canon, and even launched a short-lived company that brought artists together with designers to create products whose sale would support our efforts—we made a line of killer shoes that sold at Barneys.
It’d be dishonest to say our early work was welcomed enthusiastically. On the contrary, we faced intense scrutiny for wanting to reinvent the wheel and securing support became more challenging along the way. In 2014 we decided to adopt a model most would find familiar even though we’d try to remain faithful, as best as we could, to our goals of bold reinvention. We secured a physical space and began presenting exhibitions, artist projects, and programs.
As we approach the ten-year anniversary of The Mistake Room, I’ve been reflecting a lot on whether the decision to take a familiar path was the right one. On whether or not we’ve betrayed our founding vision. In some ways, I think we have, but I also now know that some ideas must wait for their time to arrive. Throughout the last decade we’ve made every attempt to do things differently. In 2015 we developed a training program for emerging curators, which has launched the careers of Hanna Girma, Jamie Shi, and Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia. We have been steadfast in our approach to pushing the envelope, setting up satellite spaces in other countries, and hosting other organizations and galleries in our space for temporary residencies. I am deeply proud of the artists we’ve uplifted, the audiences we’ve assembled, and the fearlessness that fuels all we do. But working within conventional organizational models has limits. So where do we go next?
In March of 2020 when the global pandemic abruptly shifted our world order, arts organizations found themselves in uncertain terrain. After the shock passed a promising moment emerged. I found myself having some of the most candid and hopeful conversations with colleagues about the future of our field. Before 2020, these kinds of conversations seemed to just be wishful thinking. We talked about organizational mergers, institutional co-ops, radical resource sharing, and creating revenue sources that freed us from fundraising approaches that deplete our time, autonomy, and take us away from our core work. We made plans to do things better and proclaimed we wouldn’t go back to doing things we knew weren’t working to advance our missions. But as time passed, the urgency to return to “normalcy” intensified and the comfort of the things we knew overwhelmed the uncertain promise of things that could be. Some commendable new approaches to our collective work did emerge from these conversations but I couldn’t help wondering whether we were actually going far enough. Perhaps giving up on something bigger—on the chance to truly remake our organizations for the changed world we now inhabited. It felt like déjà vu. This time though, the decisions I’d make would be different.
In a 2016 article by David La Piana titled “When Organizational Change Fails” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Piana argues that most organizations misunderstand the nature of their challenges. They apply technical solutions to problems that actually require cultural change—a re-thinking not just of what they do and how they do it but of the assumptions, values, beliefs, and behaviors that govern who they are. In an industry like ours, where consistency often defines success, questioning the nature of our existence is a difficult task but perhaps the most important one we have today. Our DEI initiatives, more inclusive collections, and revamped community engagement programs will achieve little if they continue to be executed from within structures that are historically antithetical to their purpose.
I am very aware that change in museums happens slowly, but perhaps smaller arts organizations are where we begin to re-shape our field. That change will require radical candor, vulnerability, and a commitment to the discomfort inherent in making anew. It will begin with unlearning—something artists and culture makers can guide us through.
When we work with artists our organizations ask that they adapt their visions and needs to fit within the boundaries of what we do. We produce exhibitions, commission and stage public programs, and publish books amongst other things. But what if artists needed more than that to advance their practices? Studio space. Professional development. Community for feedback and critique. Access to mental health resources. What would happen if we stopped asking them to be of service to our work and instead, we adapted our organizations to be of service to them? Perhaps we’d begin to truly fulfill our missions.
That work is going to look strange at first. It will demand that we change how we operate and how we’re funded. It may lead to the loss of support from those who’d rather have us do more of the same. But over time, I know it will be worth it because it will unmake us and help us build the organizations we truly aspire to be. In recent months we’ve hosted cycle classes amidst our exhibitions at TMR and dance workshops organized by Queerchata—a dance organization that centers trans and queer Latinx people. We’ve turned our space into a community acupuncture clinic. Soon we’ll host Sunday BBQ’s and resource fairs for trans folks; we’ll welcome local undergraduate and graduate art programs to present their final exhibitions in our galleries; we’ll provide space for independent artist fairs; we’ll even start producing music showcases. Slowly, we’ve had to shape-shift to be able to realize these projects and I will admit that hasn’t been easy. But it's also been liberating because it's felt like we’ve found ourselves again. We’ve learned that not every idea needs to be an exhibition and that we can operate to cultivate and support expansive types of practices. We’ve been allowed to meet people who seldom step into an art space and who share their feedback about what they’d like spaces like ours to do for them. Advancing this work is the beginning. Eventually it may demand that our organization become a different one. My hope is that by listening to artists and adapting to fulfill their needs, we’ll become the type of organization that will thrive in a future we’ve yet to know.