The first time I met Sarah Bancroft, I thought she was a volunteer working at Orange County Museum of Art, so I approached her and asked for directions to the bathroom. She told me where to go–nicely–and it wasn't until much much later that I found out that she was one of the museum's curators.
The second time I met her was two weeks ago at
OCMA's lunch announcement of the artists invited to participate in the
California Biennial this year. The first thing she said to me was,
“You're the guy that spent five or six hours here last year looking at
all of the video in The Moving Image exhibit.” When I told her
that was indeed me and that it was probably closer to seven hours, she
added, approvingly, “It's very unusual for a critic to do that. It
really stood out.”
Flattered that anyone had noticed how obsessively
completist I can be, I was relieved she didn't mention the bathroom
incident as her first memory of me. Smart, assertive, opinionated and
very funny, Sarah agreed to take time out of her hectic schedule and
answer a few questions via email.
Barton/OC Weekly: Before coming to OC in 2008, you worked in New
the prestigious Guggenheim. What inspired that move?
Bancroft: I had left the Guggenheim and moved to Spain for a
spell before considering a move west. I'm Western by birth, and always
move back. For me, it was a natural transition: personally, I wanted to
on the West coast, where I could indulge in outdoorsy pursuits I grew up
(hiking, biking, camping). And I surf! Professionally, I wanted to work
smaller, more nimble institution where I could engage with very
art and artists and espouse new challenges.
New York is an incredible place, perfect in which to forge my
early-on. But it's difficult to be an outdoorsy person there. Professionally, I'd always intended to move
to a smaller institution than the Guggenheim, someplace a little more
responsive, and have fresh experiences. My move to OCMA was a perfect
You studied in London
and received your MA in Art History
there. How is the British attitude towards art different than America's?
it the same?
Certainly, there may be a greater awareness for the arts in
London and in Europe at large, and rarely am I asked what a curator does
on the other side of the ocean. This may
relate to the long relationship between art and culture in Europe
(patrons–whether they be emperors, kings, queens, popes, or
had a long hand in establishing and commissioning work by artists, and
museums and private collections in Europe reflect this). Of
course, there are amazing museums every
where, this is the same here and abroad.
Art has the ability to transcend cultures, geographic borders,
You specialize in American Art from
the 1950s to the
present. Can you name five artists whose work you admire and why?
Wow, this is like
choosing five favorite flavors, when each
day you can have three new meals with different textures, flavors,
( “variety is the spice of life” as they say). Young
and emerging? Older and established?
Dead or alive? I'm always looking,
engaging with new work, etc., so my answer would be different each day.
You recently announced the 40+ artists that have received
invitations to participate in the 2010 California Biennial exhibition,
making about 150
studio visits in the process. Can you talk a bit about the steps you
through to find them?
Forty-five artists are to be included in the
exhibition. It's a nice, juicy group of artists with diverse works and
practices. Firstly, I came up with a list of hundreds of
artists under consideration, from my own interests and by asking
curatorial colleagues from other museums and independent art spaces, as
well as artists whom I respect and many from previous biennials to
suggest names. And I visited a lot of group shows and MFA shows.
(Artists are a GREAT resource in recommending other artists; they know
and see work outside of the normal spaces, suggest people without
representation in galleries, people just out of grad school, people
otherwise overlooked, etc.) I pared the list down to those
with whom I would do studio visits, and during the studio visits even
more artists came up (if you're in a space, and there's interesting work
going on next door, or in the same exhibition, why not take a look!).
Some visits were very studied, others were very serendipitous.
Though you focused on new, up-and-comers, there's an
extraordinary variety of artists in the Biennial. Sculptors, painters,
performance artists, video artists, photographers, artists that work in
media or create installations…Do you have a favorite medium and can
a little bit about why it's your favorite?
I don't have any
allegiances this way! If I were to, it
would close down my access to some great work.
How come there aren't any Orange County
artists in the
2010 California Biennial?
There are! Two members of the collaborative
School live here (James Rojsirivat lives in Buena Park, and Ed Giardina
in Huntington Beach).
info wasn't in the press materials! I'm happy you snuck a few in. Mea
curator of the biennial,
my mission is to canvas the whole state. In a California biennial, the
expansive, creating a forum for artists living across the state who
work regionally, nationally and internationally. I
traveled far and wide to ensure the
biennial had a healthy representation of many regions (not just greater
Angeles), regions with vibrant artist communities like the bay area and
Diego and its environs. Of course, many
California artists who have studied or lived in Orange County, San Diego
San Francisco have moved to Los Angeles, and this is may be indicative
gravity of LA in terms of number of galleries who can represent their
the number of art schools and universities in LA in which artists teach,
A Google search pops up with Sarah
designer. Fill us in on this…it sounds suspiciously theatrical.
While living in New York and working at the Guggenheim, I
once designed costumes for a friend's dance company: Miguel Gutierrez
Powerful People. This was for a series of performances, and was totally
voluntary on my part! (As my mother made
many of our clothes growing up, I learned to sew early on and this
project… was a natural creative outlet for me.) I think Miguel saw an
one-shoulder shirt I'd crafted out of men's white tanks (wife-beaters),
asked me to do something. I
used found materials and reworked them into costumes for a couple of his
If an artist wanted to get you over to
their studio or
submit something to you…what steps would they take?
accept[s] artist submissions of images, which
the curatorial department periodically reviews.
For the biennial (as with many exhibitions), we contacted the
under consideration directly, and I think some were surprised, as our
for a studio visit seemingly came out of the blue. For
contemporary exhibitions, a curator often
receives recommendations from curators, colleagues and artists. It's a bit like being a director and having
everyone hand you a screenplay to read. Eventually, you have to focus on
interests you and visitors to the museum.
Give us a breakdown on a day in the life
of an OCMA
day, week and month is different!
take years to organize and, depending on how far out the opening is, I
will be focusing on different
things. I've already concluded the studio visits for the biennial and
the artists, so right now I am focusing on the artworks to be featured
show and where these will be located in the museum. Which means
today–and for the next few weeks–I'm reviewing images and
ideas with the artists on the phone, in studios, at the museum. Today
walking through the space with a couple of the artists who are doing
visits, and meeting with a possible catalogue designer, and I'll be
my catalogue essay between now and August.
I'm writing a series of thank you notes today, calling potential
lenders for the biennial and other exhibitions, preparing two grant and
presentations. I'm also working on two
other upcoming exhibitions (Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park
Series and Two Schools of Cool). So, for the Diebenkorn exhibition, I'm
coordinating with our venues and updating my catalogue essay with recent
research. (As you know, Dennis Hopper
passed away over the weekend, so I am sadly dealing with the loss of
compelling artist who was going to create collaborative work for Two
I often think of my job as juggling while
running a marathon, which is
excellent for someone who likes balancing acts and long-distance races!
Art has a tendency to be a bit of a
boy's club. Is being
a woman an asset, a hindrance or a non-issue? Do you feel any
represent work by women artists?
This is an
interesting question, as most art museums are
filled with professional women (although the public face is often a
who is male). Certainly, at the Guggenheim, the majority of the curators
women while I was there, and in many other museum departments this was
true. Being a woman is who I am, it just
is! Thankfully, my interest in art work
is vast, and if you look at my biennial, you will see art by women and
many different origins, personalities and orientations. Ultimately, I'm
interested in the art
work–and very diverse types of work–and women make as much great work
do, so it is very easy and natural to include artists who are women in