Simon Wu, who graduate in 2017 with an an A.B. in art history, talks about his career so far in creative fields and how he balances the need to work for income with finding opportunities that feed his artistic passions.
What is your current role?
I’m an independent curator and writer, so I do a lot of different things — some for income, some for institutional knowledge and connections, and others for creative passions and projects.
For income, I work full time as an assistant to Michelle Kuo, Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and as the program coordinator for Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII), a collective of poets, writers and artists who produce spaces for the nuanced discussion of race and identity.
More independently, I write monthly art criticism for the Brooklyn Rail, organize exhibitions and screenings in smaller art spaces and do occasional freelance graphic design work.
What are your job responsibilities?
At MoMA, I work on all aspects of exhibition production and collections acquisitions, mostly in the realm of modern and contemporary art. I conduct research, coordinate with artists, conservation and art handlers, and assist with catalog and essay production, as well as handle Michelle Kuo's schedule and travel.
For the Racial Imaginary Institute, I organize the curatorial team and help produce exhibitions, publications, and programming around the city. I set up meetings, liaise between artists and occasionally write grants and handle volunteers.
In general, I distribute my time into a network of activities that contribute to a greater conversation on the role of art and culture in social change. I focus mostly on questions of race, identity, and institutional critique — either through exhibitions, writings, or public programs. A full-time job affords me the flexibility that not everything I do has to be for income, but it also sucks up a lot of my time that I might otherwise spend working on independent or personal projects. This is a balance I calibrate everyday.
How did you find your position?
I found the MoMA job because Michelle was my mentor through a fellowship that I was granted through the Asian American Arts Alliance for young curators.
For TRII, I cold-emailed a Princeton professor who is a TRII member asking if they needed help. I volunteered for them for 5 months right after I graduated until they were able to put me on part time.
What skills do you use in your work?
Spatial and visual arrangement: Marshaling your knowledge of an artist’s work, your understanding of their project, art history, and also your own creativity and fun to shepherd a vision into life. Sometimes this is just whether to move a painting left or right a few inches, other times, it has grander implications for the narratives you choose to tell, or the histories you choose to remember.
Writing: This refers not only to the stuff of everyday email communication, which takes grace and tact to liaise between various institutions and individual interests and commitments, but also longer form, academic writing for reviews and catalogs and shorter writing for wall texts and exhibition blurbs.
Collaboration: This is a better word than “networking” to refer to the myriad social exchanges that make up the official and unofficial work of curatorial and creative projects. Exhibition openings, talks, coffee dates, studio visits, hangouts and late night talk sessions in various sanctioned and unsanctioned times are an integral aspect of working with artists, where personal connections frequently morph into collaborations and resources. As a curator you work in a marketplace of ideas, and it behooves you creatively (and economically) to put yourself in the path of as many as possible.
What from your Princeton experience (i.e. classes, co-curriculars, leadership, etc.) do you find yourself drawing on most in your career?
I learned a lot about how to sell myself at Princeton. Campus is flush with resources to fund and support your projects, so long as you are able to locate and convince them of your worth. I was active in Undergraduate Student Government as Social Chair, and that led me to interact frequently with campus administration to fund new endeavors.
For example, I started a luncheon series called the Art and Archaeology Fellows, where we had biweekly lunches with different professors in the department to hear them talk about their life paths. The Department of Art & Archaeology funded the whole thing with nice lunches. Princeton rewards an entrepreneurial spirit, and I learned how to navigate grant applications and hone a vision to back it with resources. This is useful in the arts where it feels like you’re almost always begging for money.
Otherwise, serving as the leader in various different organizations (Social Committee, Student Design Agency, Residential College Adviser, Breakout) taught me how to delegate tasks but also how to incentivize people towards accomplishing a goal, an understanding of what good (and equitable) group dynamics do and do not feel like, and templates for how to avoid holding meetings that could have been emails.
What advice do you have for students interested in careers in the arts?
What you do for income may not necessarily be where all of your passion lies; it might be something that you are good at and can be compensated well in, that allows you the time and headspace to pursue your own projects. Try to conceive of your life outside of school as a life in which your job is just one aspect. You are not your job, and there are many more interesting things that will happen to you outside of the hours of 9-5. Finding balance between these will be the work of adulthood.
Don’t wait to have the job to do the work of that job. Meaning: you don’t have to have the job title of “curator” to curate. This was some of the best advice I received when I was in internships. Obviously locating the resources, space, and time will be difficult, and it's not always possible, but that’s where the hustle is.
Fancy fellowships, job titles, and awards should be a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Shortly after moving to New York, in the absence of exhibition space but surplus of artist friends, we hosted a gallery show in our Brooklyn apartment and made it as legit as possible: we designed a catalog, took installation shots, wrote essays, etc. Fake it till you make it.
Locate an internal motivation that is greater than yourself and hold it close. For me, this was two things: to make art and culture accessible to people like my immigrant parents, who might not otherwise ever think that they would belong in these places; and to only work with culture in a way that furthered its capacity to act as a laboratory for producing social relations dangerous to and alternative from otherwise oppressive systems. Often this will be hard to discern, and you can never be sure if you’re doing more good than harm, but I think it’s easy to become distracted in the arts by its shiny spaces, so it's important to remember why (and for whom) you’re there in the first place.