Lauri Firstenberg was born and raised in Los Angeles but like many bright, young, Southern California minds went east to make her mark. She earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, worked with curators Thelma Goldin at the Whitney and Okwui Enwezor on Documenta 11, and ran the curatorial program at the venerable Artists Space — a promising track. “I actually never imagined coming back,” she says, “until I hit 30 and just dropped everything.” When she made the move in 2003, it was for personal rather than professional reasons, but she lost no time in finding her professional footing, immersing herself in the scene in an effort to determine the sort of mark she might, after all, make on her hometown. She curated shows at LACE and REDCAT and served as the assistant director at the Mak Center for a time, all the while scrutinizing the organizational structure of these and other institutions, analyzing their role in the cultural life of the city, and talking with people throughout the arts community about what might or might not work here.
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“It took about two years to understand what had happened to the city,” she says, “how it had changed culturally, and how I as a curator who had made a decision to work outside of larger institutions could respond and participate on a small level. It took two years to get brave enough to make a move to open a space.”
That space was LAX ART and — thanks largely, no doubt, to all that research — it took hold almost instantly, offering “a renewed vision for the potential of independent art spaces” at a time when the concerned observer might have begun to wonder whether such a thing was possible. Noting the tendency of many once-radical institutions to become bogged down by museological aspirations, Firstenberg espoused a policy of adaptability: a small staff (only two full-timers, currently), a versatile gallery space and a willingness to conceive of alternative paradigms — even to the point of abandoning the space altogether should it ever seem appropriate or advantageous.
“There were never grand ambitions,” she says, “it was always about something small, flexible and hopefully responsive.”
A similar spirit of responsiveness led to a much different conclusion in Firstenberg’s approach to the Orange County Museum’s California Biennial, which she guest-curates this year. Having devoted much of her scholarly work to a critical analysis of the phenomenon of the international biennial, she had her qualms about embarking on such an enterprise regionally. Once she signed on, however, she found the project taking on a life of its own.
“When I started out, I said every artist is going to have a ton of space, and there are only going to be 10 artists,” she explains. “But through the research and the excitement of what I’ve seen, it grew into something more inclusive. It’s not what I set out to do, because I’m so critical of biennials personally. Why can’t you give more resources, you know, to fewer artists, and produce really ambitious projects? But maybe that’s the model of what we do here, so this was kind of a very different exercise.”
The total now stands at 55, spread across at least a half-dozen venues across the state, from Tijuana to San Francisco.
“In terms of the feasibility of taking on the whole state” — she laughs — “yeah, it’s idealistic, and so we’re doing what we can do within the time frame, what seems both exciting and feasible.”
Firstenberg’s California Biennial opens in October.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon