Jovanna Venegas On SculptureCenter, Collaboration and Working in New York City

The institution's newest curator is excited to embark on collaborative initiatives with local colleagues and the evolving Long Island City community.

In January, Jovanna Venegas will join the esteemed team at SculptureCenter as its new curator, replacing Sohrab Mohebbi, who has been with the institution since 2018 and was named its new director last year. Venegas comes to SculptureCenter from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she was an associate curator. Observer recently had a chance to catch up with Venegas to hear about her plans for the influential Long Island City institution.

Jovanna Venegas. Photo: Marcel Pardo Ariza

You come to this job after six years in San Francisco. What would you say are the biggest differences between the art scenes in New York and San Francisco?

The scale is quite different, but I find that exciting in various ways. In the Bay Area, there is a collective atmosphere, even more so post-pandemic. It stands out for its close-knit and supportive artistic community, despite varying interests, which is multifaceted but intersects. What also appealed to me about this region is its culturally diverse legacy of queer and Black and Brown activism, the craft and funk movements, muralism and the enduring presence of experimental film and music.

Subscribe to Observer’s Arts Newsletter

While I have had some exposure to New York through my time in graduate school and working for SFMOMA, I am eager to fully reengage with the city’s vast and ever-evolving cultural sphere. I will maintain active conversations with cultural practitioners, activists, writers and other thinkers, and immerse myself in their practices, trying to understand the motivations and narratives that underpin their work. I would like to truly question my role and contribution and discern what might be useful in this dynamic environment. What sets our institution apart while ensuring it remains in meaningful dialogue with our colleagues and the broader cultural realm?

You were a curatorial advisor for the 2022 Whitney Biennial, focusing on projects around the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Who are the artists to follow working in that space today?

There are so many folks and groups to mention, though I will spotlight a few who serve as some of my sources of inspiration. This list is by no means exhaustive—many of these individuals, in addition to their artistic practices, actively support and provide spaces for other artists to showcase their work. I think this is a vital aspect of the borderlands’ artistic life.

In Ciudad Juárez, I follow the work of Alejandro ‘Luperca’ Morales, a notable presence in the Whitney Biennial, as well as Alejandra Aragón and Betty Arbol. Growing up in Tijuana, I have always witnessed an intergenerational dialogue and transmission of knowledge initiated by artists such as Marcos Ramírez ERRE, Ingrid Hernández and Monica and Melisa Arreola, who run the project space 206 Arte Contemporáneo. Important contributions also come from Andrea Carrillo Iglesias, Georgina Treviño and Andrew Roberts who with Mauricio Munoz, led Deslave. I am equally drawn to the work of Juan Villavicencio, who is currently part of AMBOS: Art Made Between Opposite Sides featured in Made in LA, Cognate Collective, and SALAA, an architectural working group that is making significant contributions to the city. Pastizal Zamudio, who is based in Mexicali, as well as spaces like Planta Libre, are good to follow in that part of the border.

Briefly, why is sculpture vital in our current era?

I think sculpture is vital in our current moment because, in the aftermath of the pandemic and our increased dissociation from reality and reliance on screens, people are seeking tangible, tactile, and physical interactions. This renewed interest in physicality and connection with objects makes it an exciting and relevant time for sculpture.

SculptureCenter has a reputation for being one of those institutions that people visit to see “the next big thing,” a daunting task for the people who have to find those next big things. How do you keep up with avant-garde art around the world?

This is the aspect I find most exciting. Part of my job that I genuinely enjoy is engaging in conversations with artists, colleagues, and comrades from around the world. Before I arrive in a new city, I start by reaching out to these friends and asking for recommendations for artists, exhibitions and dance clubs to visit. In fact, I have found that clubs or raves often host some of the most radical fashion and performances. It is a dual process involving relationship building and maintaining connections across distances, coupled with curiosity. When I land in a new city, I aim to visit as many artists and places as I can. In cases where physical travel is not feasible, virtual visits are also great. It is part of my day-to-day routine.

Sohrab Mohebbi became director of SculptureCenter after having been its curator. How would you distinguish your curatorial styles?

I admire Sohrab’s practice in many respects. One aspect that particularly stands out is his ability to foster enduring relationships with artists over time. I consider this an essential element of curatorial practice, especially one like ours, where much of our work involves commissioning and creating something new with an artist. I am looking forward to learning Sohrab’s process and also that of Kyle Dancewicz, our deputy director who has also made some great exhibitions at SculptureCenter. Exploring the ways in which we can complement each other and learn from one another is something I am excited about. Collaborative work is something I hold in high regard, and I am eager to see how we approach the program together.

SculptureCenter. © Michael Moran/OTTO

SculptureCenter is a little off the beaten path in Long Island City. Is that aspect of the institution something you think you’ll have to deal with or embrace?

New York is currently experiencing significant transformation, and I believe it is important to reorient our attention from the conventional epicenter of the city’s art scene, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of its multifaceted identity. The swift developments in the neighborhood surrounding SculptureCenter present a great opportunity to embark on collaborative initiatives with our colleagues in the area and engage with the evolving local community. This collaborative approach can help us reshape perspectives and embrace the city’s evolving character.

What’s your favorite SculptureCenter show from years past?

On a large scale, Nairy Baghramian’s exhibition in 2013 left a significant impact. On a more intimate level, I distinctly recall stumbling upon ektor garcia’s exhibition almost accidentally. My initial introduction to ektor was through my colleague Eungie Joo, but it was the experience of entering the small back gallery that stayed with me. It was a quiet, delicate, and sensual exhibition and I was very moved by it. It is worth noting that both Nairy and ektor are artists we eventually brought into SFMOMA’s collection, underscoring how inspiring SculptureCenter’s program has been.

Jovanna Venegas On SculptureCenter, Collaboration and Working in New York City