ABOVE: Miranda Lash. Courtesy of the Speed Art Museum

SPEAKING: Miranda Lash

with Tatiana Ryckman

Miranda Lash has been the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum since its expansion in 2016. In the last three years, she facilitated the exhibition of new and innovative shows, such as Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, and Breaking the Mold, Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum.

But before her work at the Speed, Lash worked with prominent collections across the country, including The Menil Collection in Houston, and at New Orleans Museum of Art as the museum’s first curator dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art, and the founder of their modern and contemporary art department.

TR: You were very influential in your role as the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. What lured you to the Speed?

ML: In 2014 I learned about the Speed launching a new building for their contemporary collection, and my husband has worked in horse racing for many years, it’s his passion. Given the new building and a new program for contemporary art, along with the horse component, it made sense for us to explore that option. 

My first year was spent getting to know the collection while it was in storage. When we opened in March 2016, that was the first time the collection had ever been shown in a large space … it was really neat to take a first crack at crafting a narrative of the collection.

TR: The word “curation” gets thrown around a lot these days, in the way that everyone with an iPhone is a photographer, anyone who has a playlist or a specific taste in handbags is a curator. What do you think about that?

ML: Oh, I've given up.

I mean, for so many years I'd be like, that's my pet peeve! I would always go back to the Latin root of the curation is curare, which means to care for. It doesn't mean to arrange. And it really takes me back to what I first described with condition reporting. Curation in the technical sense is about the physical care of objects, which is much broader than just, arranging them on a table or a visual platform or curating a selection of cheeses.

There is this real love and care that comes along with the stewardship of an object that I feel is still influential to me. Being around people who are completely invested in the proper care and maintenance of art—that’s very fundamental to being a curator.

I get why it's attractive because, in the age of infinite information you want a guide, you want someone you can trust. And so I think the word curator has been equated with someone who's taken the time, has the education or background or whatever that means and is helping you. So I guess if it makes people more receptive to us being helpers, then that's good.

I used to push back and be like, that's not really curating. I don't do that anymore because it's so pervasive in popular culture. It's like screaming to the wind.

I think I've even used it a few times myself.

TR: Is there an exhibition you’re most proud of?

ML: I would say the most ambitious was probably Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art in 2017, which was a big collaboration we did with the Nasher Museum at Duke University. That was a critical look at how we understand the American South. It featured 60 artists and we produced a huge book about the realities and mythologies [of] the American South. And that came out of years of living in the South and hearing a lot of assumptions made, from both insiders and outsiders, about what the South is without understanding that it can be a very fluid concept that can be co-opted, for good and for bad reasons.

For example, most people assume that most of the American South live in a rural environment, which is statistically not true anymore... Most people don’t know that the South is one of the fastest-growing areas for Asian Americans and Latinx populations.

So, there’s a lot of ways that the typical Southern experience has shifted, especially recently, and we wanted to find a way to talk about that but also understand the very deep, unshakeable, legacies of slavery, of legalized segregation, of racial-based terror, you know, Ku Klux Klan and white nationalism. And by coincidence—in a way we never could have predicted—when the show was opening here at the Speed (it was first at the Nasher), the Confederate Monuments started to come down. Probably the most famous one was in New Orleans, but even here at the Speed there was a Confederate obelisk right in front of the museum, right there on the traffic island, and it went away during Thanksgiving weekend, which is amazing.

Sonya Clark performed a piece that entailed unraveling a Confederate flag and that was an incredible experience because she does it with members of the community… the Mayor participated—we had such a long line of people wanting to do that piece that we ended up staying open late. I was really touched that the guards and everyone involved were willing to stay longer to make sure that everyone who wanted to do that piece, did it.

That was one of the more memorable moments.

TR: You've mentioned that you essentially started the contemporary programs at two separate museums. What are some of the biggest challenges of doing that?

ML: One is a lack of precedent. You [get to] carve a path, and also you have to bring people along to understand the logistics involved. If you're doing the first large scale contemporary commission, either in a long time or ever at a museum, you really have to bring people along to [show them] the process. Sometimes it's more technical, like: this is why I need this projector. Just breaking people into how this works. And that's okay. It's a learning curve internally and it's a learning curve for the public.

I actually chose contemporary art because so many artists examine history and I knew I could have my cake and eat it too. I could learn about new issues and I could also look at plenty of artists who are informed by historical precedent. But when you introduce contemporary art for the first time, sometimes there is a reaction that somehow these new ideas will be antagonistic to the way it's been done. And sometimes it takes a few years for people to realize, “Oh, that's not the intent at all. That's not what's going to happen here.”

Ultimately, I feel that my job is in the service of art and artists. If I'm doing my job correctly, I am helping people hear the artist's voice. And there's a lot of affiliations and associations people have with the job. But that's the core of the job, to me. That's what the job is: serving artists, serving the purpose of the artwork, helping people understand what the artwork is trying to say, or where the artist is trying to say.  It's really that simple, you know?

TR: What is your process for selecting exhibitions?

ML: I am usually most interested in shows that have work by an artist that I've seen in several different contexts [and] I feel really excited about the work.

People ask me, “Why do you travel so much?” And that's really a huge part of my professional education. That's how I stay aware of what's being done. So, going to biennials, art fairs, exhibition openings—it's a huge part of my job. And from scoping out what's going on in the world, I try to take good notes. I'll make photo diaries on my phone and talk with [colleagues] about the work we’re interested in… and really, talking about it is a way to remember it too, and to articulate what's important to you.

Then [I ask] Who's doing the most interesting scholarship? Does it make sense for me personally to generate that scholarship? And sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is, “Oh, so-and-so's doing brilliant scholarship on exactly what interests me, so let's take the show from another institution.” Now that I've been doing this a number of years, it's less important to me that it all be self-generated. I feel like I've gotten more mature about realizing—someone else is already doing it, let's go with that.

One example where I thought I would like to take the lead on generating scholarship would be Keltie Ferris; he’s an amazing painter and hadn't had a major solo museum show in a while and [I thought], I would love to take on developing a cross-section of his painting over the last 10 years.

But Ebony G Patterson is a great example of an artist that is deeply relevant to Kentucky. She taught for nine years at the University of Kentucky and I had been following her practice for quite a while. I saw it as far back as 2013 or ‘14 in the prospect biennial in New Orleans. And so, I'd seen it in quite a number of contexts and I thought, “That's a great fit for the Speed.” There's a fantastic Kentucky connection. She's doing great innovative work. There's a clear social justice theme—which is not a requirement to me, but can add a level of enhancement to the piece or this show—and I knew that the Perez Art Museum was organizing an amazing show.

To me, [it makes more sense to] call the Perez. We got in touch with them (and asked to) become a venue, and they were happy to oblige. So… sometimes it's me. Sometimes it's scoping the field and finding a project that makes sense for us.

TR: Once you have all the materials, all the work, what is your visual and philosophical hierarchy for designing the space?

ML: I think a great exhibition design has visual anchors. Sometimes that's dictated by skill or historical importance, but basically, it’s a handful of objects that, as you're moving through the path, are the conceptual lynchpins. You want to make sure that you're visually guiding people through it.

Usually, I've found the most simple design and wall construction is the best one. The first time I laid out a show, a big show—this is hysterical cause I made it into almost a labyrinth. I was like—you're going to turn here, and then you're gonna see this, and you’ll turn around and see this. And the wall construction design was bonkers. And I realized really paring it down, that's a good thing.

TR: When you’re thinking about the scholarship you’re following, and the shows you select, how do you think of the Speed in the context of art museums across the nation and also the way the museum operates as a cultural resource in Louisville?

ML: We're the only venue that can situate art in a historical dialogue because we have—I shouldn't say the only venue, but we can do it pretty well—because we have this wonderful contemporary collection, but we have art going back to antiquity. For example, we did a show called Breaking the Mold, Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum, and that was a really great opportunity to address non-binary gender identity for the first time here at the Speed. I included artworks from antiquity in that exhibition, as well as our works in the 19th century. That's something that we can uniquely do.

Not every project needs a historical grounding. It depends. I mean, sometimes your goal is to show new work. You're like, This is what the artist is doing right now. And that's it.

At the same time—and I used to say this at NOMA—I don't believe our only job is to catch up to what's happening in New York. To me, that's not fulfilling. I want to leapfrog right over what's happening in New York. What is New York not yet doing? We should do that, because that's how you make a contemporary program relevant. It's not just carbon copying or following, but trying to look at the scholarship in the field and see, okay, this hasn't been done. That way, people will notice the show nationally, not just here.

TR: You mentioned that you travel a lot to learn about different artists and what's going on. What institutions and publications do you look to?

ML: There's a certain rotation of shows that I feel like I have to see every time they come around: the Venice Biennale every two years—gotta go, gotta see it. The Whitney Biennial every five years, Documenta every 10 years. Sculpture Project Munster. There are certain types of recurring events that are always on the calendar, as well as art fairs, like the Armory, Frieze, Art Basel Miami. I try to keep them in the rotation.

I subscribed to E-flux, and it's just a great newsletter right in your inbox. It's international, which I love… Art in America, Art Forum, Art News, Art Review, Frieze. I look at all of those.

Talking with colleagues is really important… We love telling each other what we're working on, and that is a great insight into what's coming down the pike. I would say that over the years, I've definitely leaned increasingly on networks and colleagues because we're all excited about our shows, and we all want us to know about each other, what each other’s projects are, and that's been a beautiful thing to get into. And also asking artists. I love studio visits, but I also like asking artists, “What do you like What are you into? What are you seeing?” That's just an interesting way to get to know what's going on.

TR: For a person without an Art History degree, what would you suggest for them as a shortlist of ways to engage?

ML: The first thing I would say is to slow down. You're ideally going to have a viewing experience that is the antithesis of Instagram screening. We are conditioned, more and more, to go through images as quickly as possible. Where in a museum you can have perhaps the most fulfilling experience by looking as slowly as possible. You have to find what speaks to you—I'm not saying spend a lot of time with something you don't care for—but know that, like poetry, you're not going to get it all in a quick read. There's more to it. So, the longer you're willing to spend, typically, the more the artwork will give back to you.

Sometimes people think, “I'm too dumb for this. I don't have the training.” And I often encourage them by saying, again, the art, the soul of the artwork, lives in your interaction. Whatever that is, is valid, there's no reaction that's not valid. Whatever you're feeling, even if it's hatred and disgust, that's a permissible response. The goal isn't to have the right kind of reaction in the right kind of way. It's opening yourself up to: What does this color do for me? What does this form, what is the story? And that process takes time.

Or just go with a friend! I mean, my most enjoyable travel experiences are actually when I am able to see art with a colleague. As I said at the beginning, talking about artwork makes it more alive to you. It makes you remember it better. There's something about the process of verbalizing what you're seeing … because you can sort of flush out, Why do you feel this way? What is it doing for you?

Artwork is like a communication from the soul of the artist to you. Trust me, their goal is not to make you feel dumb or trick you or put one over on you. This is literally an articulation of how they're feeling, their subconscious, where they are in life—and it's deeply meaningful to them that you are here in front of it.



Tatiana Ryckman
Contributor for Ruckus

Article last updated 4.26.21

Installation view of "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art," April 30 - October 14, 2017. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

Installation view of "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art," April 30 - October 14, 2017. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

Installation view of "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art," April 30 - October 14, 2017. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

Installation view of "Breaking the Mold: Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum," April 7 - September 9, 2018. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

Installation view of "Breaking the Mold: Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum," April 7 - September 9, 2018. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

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