A Conversation with José Ruiz

The new director of MICA’s M.F.A. in Curatorial Practice discusses his goals for the program and the role curators can play in society.

Curator, creative laborer and Director of the M.F.A. in Curatorial Practice program, José Ruiz takes a multidisciplinary approach to his work. As a co-founder of Present Company, a curatorial collective and gallery in Brooklyn, Ruiz has a long history with D.I.Y. art spaces and nonprofit art organizations.

With local communities in mind, Ruiz teaches leadership, independence and sustainability as the guiding principles of a curator and emphasizes the curator’s role in creating access and exposing new audiences to contemporary art. Speaking to Commotion, Ruiz talks more about his practice and the role of a curator.

Recently, there has been some discussion about what curators do and their influence. What do you think the role of a curator should be?

José RuizI don’t think there is one set role that curators should have. So much has changed in recent years in terms of culture, media, technology and the arts that curators need to be engaged and well-versed in a broad range of disciplines in order to address or expose the underpinnings of what’s at stake through exhibitions. Curators frame or re-frame diverse contexts, and I think that a curator’s influence is relative. More often than not, their influence is transparent and lives inside each of the artists’ trajectories that they have supported, which is just as valid.

Do you think there is a particular set of skills or education that suits curators?

José RuizThe first driver is usually something in your DNA that gives you a deep desire to organize — people, ideas or things. We see this play out in how we create systems, patterns and constellations in our everyday lives.

Education is a big word, and people learn in vastly different ways. Some people learn through research, some by seeing and some by doing. Art history, theory and knowledge of contemporary art are key assets for a curator, but life experience and a conviction towards social or civic impact can rival our assumptions of what a curator should know.

You’ve curated exhibitions at museums, biennials and art fairs, and have mounted shows in abandoned warehouses, street corners and commercial spaces. As a curator, how do you approach putting together shows in such varied spaces and for different audiences?

It usually starts with a prompt that someone gives me. Every two weeks or so, I get an email from someone about collaborating on a new project or initiative. I consider everything regardless of scope, budget or where it will fit into my CV because I love entertaining the idea of what could be, even if it ultimately does not materialize.

If a project presents a challenge of some sort, I usually accept it because I know I will learn from it. All opportunities come from these types of moments. I tend to think that curatorial projects have a kinetic value that often can’t be measured before or while you are doing it.

You were born in Peru, and have lived or worked in BrasÍlia, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., What attracted you to Baltimore?

José RuizAround 2014, when I first started teaching at MICA, I decided to leave behind New York City as my primary residence, and found that Baltimore was the only nearby place that rivaled a sense of urgency for contemporary art and ideas. Now, given the political and social state of the country, I feel that Baltimore provides me the freedom to critique and push back against the rising walls in our society.

What do you want to accomplish as chair of Curatorial Practice?

José RuizMy goal is to continue the work of George Ciscle, the program’s founder, and push the department, along with our students and alumni, further ahead on the national and international map. I’m confident we can achieve that without losing sight of the mission and values of our program and those we seek to serve. I say “we” because it will have to be a team effort — myself, faculty and students — and a collective reimagining of what curating can be.

What has been your experience at MICA so far?

José RuizAs a whole, MICA has been incredibly supportive, welcoming and inspiring. People work hard here and they work fast. It’s a nimble institution with really big ideas, and I respect that in recent years it’s taken on the challenge to confront and work through some of the pivotal issues that are affecting this city and country.