Stephanie Smith Turns Curation Into Its Own Ecology

Rashid Johnson, Monument, 2018. Curated by Stephanie Smith. Courtesy of ICA.

Earlier this week, the Independent Curators International (ICI) invited curator Stephanie Smith to host an insightful conversation about the intersection of curation and ecology, at the Judd Foundation in Manhattan. 

A Chicago-based writer, curator, and arts leader whose work focuses on the intersections of art, culture, and social consciousness, Smith explored how curation itself can be used as its own kind of ecology, explaining how a curator’s relationship towards their curatorial practice can be akin to our relationship with the environment. Using her previous projects and exhibitions as examples—Rashid Johnson: Monument, Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, and Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art—Smith reminded listeners that “within biology, ecology addresses interrelationships between organisms and their environments. Might it be useful to think about curatorial practice in similar terms, in relation to the literal and metaphoric places where we dwell—institutions, cities, ideas, fields of study and action, networks of relation and collaboration?” she asked. 

Smith’s initial interest in the intersection of ecology and art was inspired by U.S. land-based artworks and environmental practices from the 1970s. The movement was started by artists who wanted to both use alternative and natural materials to use within their practice, and question the commercial art system. Building on that ethos, Smith has been curating artistic spaces for the past 25 years, particularly focused on exhibitions and projects that are centered on ecologically, and socially, engaged work. Over that period,  her perspective on the practice has evolved. 

“As a young curator, I thought in terms of curatorial projects—one-off exhibitions, publications,” she remembered. “After I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s, I was welcomed into a vibrant community of critically and environmentally-attuned artists, activists, urbanists, scholars—many of the people who have made the city a global hub for socially engaged art. Their friendship and collaboration helped me shift from ‘curatorial projects’ to ‘curatorial practice.’” 

Smith’s curatorial practice extends far beyond the walls of art institutions, and takes into account the reality of our current world. After witnessing the smoke-filled skies that haunted cities like New York and Chicago last summer, she collaborated with the Awi’ nakola Foundation, an Indigenous-led foundation dedicated to forest preservation and threatened ecosystems in British Columbia. The foundation is working toward using effective responses to the climate crisis through resistance and forest regeneration.

“Generally, curators invite artists to collaborate,” she said. “This project flips that norm. Rande Cook is the founder of Awi’nakola, and also an artist and hereditary chief of the Ma’amtagila First Nation in British Columbia. He invited me to work alongside this amazing Indigenous-led, cross-cultural group of artists, scientists, and knowledge keepers.” 

It’s this kind of experimental attitude that gives Smith’s work a deeper meaning. Curators’ roles can range drastically within the artistic community, and there is a broad scope of what goes into their practices. Smith’s work is impactful because not only does it set a tone for new-wave, diverse curatorial ideas—it expands environmental ideas being used within artistic production. 

Stephanie Smith is a curator based in Chicago.