Curator’s Statement

Seeing Red


If I was at MICA, I would spend a lot of time at Red Emma’s. A worker-owned cooperative, founded in 2003 in the wake of the closing of Baltimore’s volunteer-run anarchist bookshop Black Planet, Red Emma’s is a bookstore, coffee roaster, vegetarian restaurant, and community event space. What better way to ventilate the hothouse intensity of art school? The solitude of the studio, the pressure of crits and charettes, art school is a complex concatenation of inspirations and distractions. Keeping focused, being clear about the work, and simultaneously receptive to all that is there to inform it—art, politics, media, history in its most encompassing terms, yourself—is overwhelming. Especially if the art school is as well calibrated to the task of creating an environment of exchange across its degree programs as the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Located just across the street from the graduate school, Red Emma’s offers handy escape and connection to the world outside the studio. You can get a cup of coffee, browse books, and even participate in democracy. A recent gathering hosted Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, whose brutal murder two years ago was means for a frank conversation about the death this April of Freddie Gray, also at the hands of Baltimore police, about the riots and protest that ensued across the city, across the country, against systemic violence and racism towards blacks in America.

I’ve punctuated every one of my recent trips to Baltimore with a visit to Red Emma’s. There was the field trip with colleagues from Philadelphia to see the installation of works by Palestinian artist Tysir Batniji that curator Liz Park organized at Lease Agreement, the gallery in a home operated by artists Adam Farcus and Allison Yasukawa with their cat Talk Radio. There was the afternoon at the American Visionary Art Museum—where I learned about the fine Baltimore tradition of painted window screens and experienced revelatory works by the Rev. Howard Finster, among many others—followed by a dash through The Walters Art Gallery to see the gold masked marten fur in Veronese’s portrait a Countess and the museum’s marvelous Chamber of Wonders. Then there was the day of stealth studio visits at MICA. As part of the selection process for this annual exhibition, which can be done purely online, I invited artists to open their studios to a visit from me on a day when no one was around. It was remarkable, the hum: even in silence, the school was animate with creative energy. [Plush] shark sculptures swimming overhead the multidisciplinary Mount Royal School of Art’s kitchenette lounge triggered my own appetite for yet another Classic Bánh Mì sandwich at Red Emma’s. Then it was back to the train station with a quick stop at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the newly reopened façade is made all the more grand by the fact that entrance is free.

Are artists supposed to change the world? Yes. Art that matters absolutely changes the way we see and imagine the world in which we live. This change can be spiritual, political, aesthetic. Great art, of course, is operative on every front, in ways that shift and evolve over years of contemplation and interpretation. For the student, however, it’s useful to bear these words in mind:

“Radical” sums this up for us quite nicely; it’s a word derived from the Latin word for “root”, and to be “radical” is to go to the root of the problem, to not be afraid to attack root causes rather than be distracted by the symptoms on the surface.

As relevant to Red Emma’s “experiment in self organized education,” these words from their website read as ready-made for the project of being an artist.


With thanks to the participating artists for their work, for the words I abstracted from their statements, and for their answers to the question that illuminate this publication—Designed by Hieu Tran as his contribution to the exhibition