It took a detour to Oklahoma to convince New York native Lauren Ross that Richmond and its thriving art scene would be more her speed.
Ross, the inaugural curator for the new Institute for Contemporary Art, has spent the last two decades working her way up the art world ladder.
“I knew I wanted to study art history before I even went to college,” she says. “By the time I finished college, I wanted to be a museum curator.”
Ross grew up 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, which provided childhood field trips to such places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After college — and a brief stint at a commercial gallery — she began to curate alternative art spaces. For seven years, she cut her teeth at White Columns in New York. “That time really fueled my career-long interest in working with emerging artists,” she says.
Ross became the inaugural curator at Friends of the High Line, the popular elevated linear park in Manhattan, a part of her résumé which grabs people’s attention. But early in her career, Ross says she realized the truth in something a friend had shared years earlier: “To get ahead, I knew that at some point I had to move out of New York.”
Ross says she took a “big leap” to become the first full-time modern and contemporary art curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
She doesn’t mince words on her time there. “To be frank, Tulsa wasn’t a great place for me long-term,” she says. “I had a chance to create a program that never existed and open a satellite space, which was great. I also met incredible people and made close friends that I miss terribly. But in terms of culture, to go from New York City to Tulsa, I felt like I was giving up a lot. I wasn’t feeling stimulated and missed being part of a thriving, active community.”
She doesn’t have the same concerns with Richmond.
“For me, Richmond seems like a great fit — a happy medium filled with an incredibly creative community,” she says. “The VCU School of the Arts impresses me so much. And the larger community support for the ICA is both sincere and enthusiastic.”
Ross hopes to draw in that larger community with her first exhibition, “Nir Evron: Projected Claims,” which opens Nov. 6 at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Depot Gallery. Evron also will be a resident this fall in VCU’s photography and film department, teaching students and giving public lectures. “Projected Claims” is a traveling show, debuting in Tulsa, but VCU’s larger Depot Gallery allows a few more works.
A mixture of photographs and films, Evron’s work records sites of conflict, mostly found in Israel and the West Bank. The artist purposely avoids political overtones, battle scenes or violence. Instead, he highlights the unexpected casualties of displacement and changing geopolitical borders. The impact to people is implied rather than explicitly shown, with work often devoid of figures.
The 2009 film “Oriental Arch” focuses on the luxurious Seven Arches Hotel, built by the Jordanian royal family in Jerusalem during the 1960s, when Jordan owned the land. After the Six-Day War in 1967, borderlines shifted. The hotel now is in Israel, where it languishes in obscurity, hardly ever used, while the hotel staff continues to maintain its opulence. “It’s like a Samuel Beckett play, incredibly absurd,” Ross says.
Ultimately she hopes Evron’s photographs and films will be a “springboard for dialogue,” she says. “Because the work is neither pro- nor anti-Israel, it allows an open space.”
Local gallerist Page Bond, who was host of a luncheon for Ross when she arrived, was impressed by her experience teaching, curating and writing. “She is dynamic. She has this strength to talk about art,” Bond says. “She’s just very smart. Having that kind of talent is going to pay off for the ICA.”
In addition to curating, Ross sees herself as an ambassador for the city. She’s been invited to plan an exhibit of Richmond-based artists for the New York gallery Mixed Greens. Playfully titled “New Dominion,” the show opens June 11 and features eight local artists, both emerging and established.
Rising artist and local professor Sonya Clark, whose work is featured in the “New Dominion” exhibition, says that whenever she wants to impress people about the ICA, she mentions Ross. “Almost everyone in the art world knows the High Line,” Clark says, “and so they’re really impressed we have a curator who worked on that project.”
The artist says it was a pleasure to work with Ross on the New York show.
“When she came to my studio, she picked a piece for the show and then was also encouraging of me to try a new project,” she says. “As an artist, it’s always nice when you’re working with a curator who really gives the artist a chance to take on something new and give them that encouragement.”
Ross says that she wanted to show Richmond off, adding: “The challenge wasn’t finding artists but narrowing the focus.” S