Jarrett Gregory and Mark Beasley
Jarrett Gregory and Mark Beasley Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On September 17, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is hosting a one-night-only concert to celebrate the work of Yoko Ono, the subject of the museum’s ongoing summer show, Yoko Ono: Four Works for Washington and the World. It’s a hell of a lineup: Lizzi Bougatsos (Gang Gang Dance), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), and Moor Mother will each play selections from Ono’s vast music and performance catalog.

The program is the work of Mark Beasley, a former curator for Documenta and Creative Time who—as the Hirshhorn’s new curator of media and performance—adds a new dimension to the National Mall. His appointment last December was followed by another bright new hire, Jarrett Gregory, a curator who worked most recently for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will focus on expanding the Hirshhorn’s international footprint. Washington City Paper sat down with Beasley and Gregory to talk about expanding horizons in contemporary art, Dischord Records, and the limits of the Smithsonian Institution’s audience (or lack thereof).

Washington City Paper: I saw the Pierre Huyghe show you curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jarrett, and I’m curious about how you structure a show like that. How do you consider the public? His work is difficult to wrap your head around—one piece, “Human,” comprises a live Ibizan hound with one leg painted pink. Another one features a live swarm of bees. For the audience who doesn’t know much more about art or LACMA than the lights out front (Chris Burden’s Urban Light)—do you give them handholds? Or is it only for the people who get it?

Jarrett Gregory: No, it’s not only for the people who get it. Definitely not. What we did in that case was a brochure. I wanted to have as much information as people wanted, and also, if they didn’t want any, to not push anything on them. The idea with that show was that you could go in and experience it and spend as long as you wanted. It was constantly changing and evolving around you. It was pretty much a living entity. You could go in like that—or you had a floor plan and a checklist if you wanted to do it that way, and a brochure text as well.

I think it’s an unusual show. I don’t think people are prepared for—it’s not a common museum experience. Many people do feel really confused by it when they walk in, whether they know art or don’t. And the opposite is true, too: Some people who don’t necessarily have a background in art history get it immediately or love it immediately. I think it’s about breaking down the expectation that there’s something to get.

WCP: Museum exhibitions move with a periodic, steady calendar. They’re seasonal. I’m sure there’s a workflow calendar somewhere here. Does performance need to follow that? Does it go by that same calendar of seasonal shows, or does it work independently?

Mark Beasley: It can be both. When I think about photography in the ’90s, when I was there in London, there was The Photographers’ Gallery, and that’s where you saw photographs. Five years after that opened, photographs were integrated alongside paintings and sculpture, and I feel like that’s the kind of movement for performance. It’s got a long history. It’s been 100 years since Futurism. A lot of these kind of movements and -isms happened by someone saying, “There’s this thing, it’s called performance, it’s very promiscuous, we can grab everything—we can grab dance, literature, music, and put it all together.”

It feels like now that conversation is coming home to the museum. It’s been happening out there for a long time. It feels like the museum has become a site to carry those ideas and think through the shape and form of [performance] as it moves. To answer your question, I think performance can be integrally related within a show. It’s something that can operate as a nomadic entity. If you look at this space here, there’s the plaza, the garden. There’s every kind of space within this building that artists and bodies and sound and music can pass through. I like it because it’s fluid and takes on many forms.

WCP: How many international shows are you seeing in a year?

JG: This year? There’s so many. I’m going to the Venice Biennale. We’re going to Documenta and [Skulptur Projekte Münster] together. So at least those three.

WCP: I want to ask you both this question. Beyond the Venice Biennale, Documenta, the art fairs, the Whitney Biennial—where do you go to look for new work?

MB: Artists. Artists are my first resource. Speaking to other artists. One of the great things about moving to D.C. is that D.C. was in my head when I was 13, 14, 15. The music that was coming out of here changed my thinking around music, around DIY, around post-punk. Since being here, my two greatest pleasures have been meeting the two greatest Ians of D.C., Ian MacKaye and Ian Svenonius. Meeting with them and having that conversation and having them tell me what they’re listening to and getting excited about is phenomenal to me.

Somewhere else: Peter Nesbett of [the Washington Project for the Arts], who I’ve known a long time through [The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage]. As I’m thinking about it, it’s very social. People are sources, fonts. It’s both spaces and people.

JG:I guess I’d say something similar. For my research, in terms of travel, I usually go knowing at least one artist that I’m working with, and from there I ask for other artist recommendations, curators, things like that, and branch out to try to meet people through that network. The amazing thing about the art world is that that’s a global network, and it’s pretty open and welcoming. The most exciting works I’ve seen have been within that context, not things that have already been presented at other institutions, but going into a person’s studio based on a recommendation from a recommendation from a recommendation.

WCP: Who’s your favorite Dischord artist?MB: I have to say Fugazi.

WCP: Do you have one?

JG:I’m learning a little bit, thanks to him. Baby steps. Ask me in a year.

MB: [To Jarrett]: Say Minor Threat.

It’s fascinating—my big interest is music, and part of traveling is the joy of getting to go places like Bergen in Norway, where black metal comes from. You realize, of course, this is why this music is here. And here [in D.C.] it’s a bunch of kids whose parents are federal workers, they’re smart, and they’re looking at New York and saying, “I don’t want to do that—I want to look like me and stay here and make this incredible music.” I like it. It’s great.

WCP: In many museums, you have your prints and drawings curator, a paintings curator, maybe a 20th century curator, maybe a photography curator. You don’t fit those roles. How do you conceive of the boundaries of what your job is?

JG: It seems to me that it starts with ideas. There are definitely people who have expertise in certain areas and are called upon to follow those. For example, Evelyn [Hankins] and Stéphane [Aquin] are very invested in the practice of painting. Part of my strength is international. That’s something we’ve talked a lot about, opening up the different perspectives you can experience when you come to the museum. Bringing in different international voices. Then again, it really starts with ideas. I think the Hirshhorn is really exceptional because we’re not so limited, and we’ve been encouraged to propose according to whatever those ideas are.

MB: I’m not an art historian, so my take is somewhat different. I think art historians bring the information that they’ve gathered of the world and apply that to a work of art. As someone who came out of practice, I’m always asking art to speak to me. I want it to tell me things. Largely I’m led by what I see in new art, in what artists are looking at, and that leads me and my thinking.

WCP: It seems like there’s a fair bit of overlap between what you are both doing and what Stéphane, the chief curator, is doing. Is that fair to say?

JG: In a positive way, yeah. For example, just in our dynamic, I’ve learned a lot from Mark already. I did a lot of things with film at LACMA, so that’s a nice conversation that we can have together. In the future, I think that we’ll be hopefully proposing shows together. Overlap can be good.

WCP: How do you grade the Hirshhorn’s history in showing international art?

JG: As in grade it? Oh, that’s terrible, I wouldn’t give it a grade. I think museums in general have struggled with this. The canon has always American and European, for the most part. What I love about the Hirshhorn is that it’s part of the Smithsonian [Institution]. So my colleagues are in the National Museum of African Art, we have lunch and talk about what’s going on right now in Nigeria or Ghana or Kenya. I can cross-check my notes with theirs. That’s incredible. The larger body of the Smithsonian is super resourceful and very inclusive.

WCP: What are you working on next?

MB: We have projects coming up with Theaster Gates, continuing the Processions series. There’s the Yoko Ono show culminating in the concert in the fall. There’s a video show, from the collection and new acquisitions, and it’s five different video installations. They all involve music, but they’re all parasitic in the sense that they take on different forms. So one’s a video lecture, one takes the form of a pop video, another one takes a look at the opera and explodes that. It’s recent acquisitions by Camille Henrot, Joanna Malinowska and C.T. Jasper, Hito Steyerl, and then work by Arthur Jafa and France Stark.

WCP: Yoko Ono has enjoyed such a career resurgence—not just in museums wanting to acquire and promote her work but in popular appreciation for her music, her writing, her performances and ephemera. Can you name another artist who you believe deserves rediscovery?

JG: For me, a really seminal artist is Maria Nordman. She’s somebody I’ve been thinking about a lot. She understands this dynamic between our inner worlds, the outside world, and our relationships with one another.

MB: I’ve got one. An artist from New York, who sadly recently passed on, named Robert Ashley, who’s the father, somewhat, of American opera. His key work was from the ’80s, called Perfect Lives. He was 80 when he passed, but he worked with everyone: John Cage, Meredith Monk. There wasn’t anyone he didn’t work with. He got a certain kind of play among an avant-garde scene, but he answered those old Europeans and came up with something that was very American, very vernacular, and led actually to the modern pop video to a certain extent. Robert’s somebody who could really benefit from being presented on a larger scale.

WCP: Have you had time to dig into the Hirshhorn’s collection? What are some surprises? Anything you’ve been delighted to find?

JG: We have amazing work by Steve McQueen, called Bear, that was a treasure to find. We’ve got some great little videos by Jimmie Durham of him stoning things with rocks. We’ve got a great David Hammonds. Senga Nengudi, acquired last year—wonderful sculpture.

MB: Joanna Malinowska and C.T. Jasper was an immediate discovery. To get them into the first show feels good.

WCP: Is there work that’s too hard for a general Smithsonian audience?

MB: No.

JG: No.

WCP: What was your first jobs? What’s the career track that brings you to your positions at the Hirshhorn?

MB: It was in London. I did my undergrad in fine art. I did my master’s in curating at the Royal College. My first job post that was at the ICA London, assisting a guy called Matthew Hicks, who’s now director of White Columns in New York. We did a number of shows about artist-run spaces in the ’90s, chiefly a space called City Racing. I started as an artist. I still see that as my kind of in to art, and I still make music. That’s really my kind of root into being a curator.

I then worked for the British Council. Maybe the shows I did for them connect more to what I’m doing now. They were film and video shows of British artists, people like Mark Leckey, Carey Young, Wolfgang Tillmans, Oliver Payne, Nick Relph—their first kind of show-and-tell really. The first show started in the State [Russian] Museum in St. Petersburg. It was in Catherine the Great’s marble ballroom. It’s gone downhill ever since [laughs]. Until now. We’re on the upswing.

It was a film and video show, post–[Young British Artists], post–static camera action performance. It was people who really connected with pop video, documentary, short-film, TV, a mixed bunch of forms. I worked with them for two years. Then I worked with Kingsley University, I had a fellowship there, where I really started to think through performance. My background was music. I played in bands as a kid. I play guitar but was also a vocalist. I have some history in relation to the Pentecostal church. My parents were obsessed with radio, so every room had a radio playing. I started to do a lot of research on vocal performance, specifically musicians I knew as a kid.

Then I got an email out of the blue from Anne Pasternak, who was then director of Creative Time, inviting me there to help think through their public art program. Largely in relation to performance and reinvigorating the program that they’d had there for a while. I was with them for three years. I did one project titled “Hey Hey Glossolalia,” which has stuck with me forever. It was a series of programs that looked at exhibiting the voice and what that meant. It was a series of artists that used vocal performance.

Then I was approached by Rosalee Goldberg of Performa, inviting me to be part of that. She said, ‘Who’s your favorite artist?’ I said, ‘Mike Kelley.’ She said, ‘Great, we’re talking to Mike, you two should get together.’ Six years later, I was still working for Performa. With Mike specifically we did a project at Judson Church. I worked with Javier Tellez. I worked with a lot of female vocalist pioneers: Meredith Monk, Joan la Barbera, Maja Ratjke.

Wrapping it up, my next email was from Melissa [Chiu]. We started to talk about what performance could look like here at the museum.

JG: My first job was at the Whitney Museum [of American Art]. I had gotten out of undergrad [at Vasser College] and applied for a summer internship. I worked with Chrissie Iles on the Robert Smithson show. A job opened up for the 2006 Whitney Biennial, working again with Chrissie and Philippe Vergne, who was at the Walker [Art Center] at the time, they were co-curators. So I got that job and then I stayed on for about three years. After working with Chrissie, I worked with Donna De Salvo, the chief curator, and the main project we did besides a collection show was Lawrence Weiner’s retrospective.

I left right after that opened. I went to the New Museum, and then I was there for about four years, doing a lot of crazy things with [Massimilano Gioni]. It was fun—it was a very different pace, different style. So I learned a lot between the two places. From there, I went to [Los Angeles Count Museum of Art] to work with Michael Govan, who had been a teacher of mine in college. It had been something we had been talking about for a while, me coming out to L.A. As soon as he took the job at LACMA, we started talking about it. After about four years at the New Museum, it seemed like a good time. I’d sort of plateaued in terms of what I was learning there, and I wanted to try something different. So I moved to L.A. I was at LACMA for five-and-a-half years, and now I’m here.