Jordan Amirkhani teaches curating with UTC’s versatile Apothecary space
"Curate” is one of those overused words that people love to hate. The Guardian called it “an absurdity,” when things like salads and Twitter feeds are curated.
“The way the term has become so closely associated with marketing and corporate values is indeed a bit depressing,” said Jordan Amirkhani, a professor of art history at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, via email. “I remember walking into a J. Crew once and seeing a sign in front of $400 trousers that read: ‘The Curator Pant.’”
However, it’s a word with real meaning in the realm of art, where it represents a skill that can be overlooked and undervalued.
“I always try to think of ‘curate’ in terms of its original Latin etymology: to care or protect—and to remind myself that curating objects or a space is a form of care and perhaps a civic responsibility,” said Amirkhani. “At the end of the day, all ‘curating’ is (or needs to be) is a way of making art known, public and present in the community.”
For the previous semester, Amirkhani has taught a class on curatorial practices that required students to prepare new exhibitions at Apothecary Gallery, located at 744 McCallie Ave., on a weekly basis, at the peak of its activity.
“I stepped into Apothecary this fall as a new hire to UTC’s Art Department and merely took over what my fellow colleagues had worked to create and develop for years,” said Amirkhani, who considers herself to be a “temporary caretaker” for the space. “In the beginning, Apothecary was an experimental space for UTC Art students and faculty to try things out and has over the course of the past few years evolved into a proper undergraduate class.”
Amirkhani, who earned her Ph.D. in the History of Art at the University of Kent in England, has curatorial experience at the Royal Academy of Art in London and served as a curatorial fellow for the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where she worked on retrospective exhibitions spotlighting the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray and Wassily Kandinsky. An activist and art critic, Amirkhani writes for the international art journal Daily Serving.
Apothecary has earned attention as one of the most exciting modern art spaces in Chattanooga in recent memory, with diverse offerings from local and visiting artists that are sometimes immersive, unconventional and able to provoke multiple senses.
Exhibitions have included Chris Pickering’s otherworldly walk-in cardboard igloo, music show poster art from the legendary Globe Poster company, Mark Reamy’s transportive 2D-becomes-3D slideshow environment and the riotous “Glitter Vomit” from Taylor Vance and Corinne Atamaniuk.
“Gallery spaces should be sites of risk and encourage those visiting the gallery to think,” said Amirkhani. “But I believe it is also important to be aware of the ways in which galleries, museums, universities, etc. are also places where radical and subversive ideas go to die.
“All one can do is find a realistic relation to this conundrum and continue to work hard to create meaningful work, and I think Apothecary has been a space where that kind of work can be productively explored.”
Art curation offers multiple challenges, often unseen to gallery visitors, and the process can be as involved and complicated as creating the art itself.
“The space between a failure and a success is often pretty miniscule,” said Amirkhani. “Putting up a successful show is an intensely collaborative process that demands a range of skills and technical knowledge, but I think the most important aspect of curating a show is the ability to react to a variety of challenges that you are never going to be prepared for.”
She continued, “There’s no formula, but there is a sense that the exhibition has to respond to the idiosyncrasies of the work. At the end of the day, Apothecary is just a small white room with a concrete floor, which means there are an infinite number of curatorial possibilities to achieve and that every artist or group that Apothecary has hosted finds a new way to make the space their own.”
With an understanding of the artist’s work, a thoughtful curator can design the space to facilitate reflection and contemplation that a piece of art may require.
“There is a certain kind of authoritarianism in the contemporary gallery space today that points to our culture’s need to be constantly entertained and stimulated,” said Amirkhani.
“When I see people walking around with an audioguide strapped to their ear instead of looking at works of art, I think about what can be done to encourage people to slow down and actually look at something.”