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An Interview with Tyler Blackwell

The out Blaffer Art Museum curator surveys Houston’s thriving art scene.

Tyler Blackwell (courtesy photo)

Tell me about your journey to becoming an art curator.
As a teenager and during my first few college years, I really thought I wanted to be a photographer. While I was studying photography in Chicago and trying to understand what it meant to create and sustain a creative professional practice as an artist, I had the opportunity to intern at a small alternative art space. There I learned what it meant to organize and administer exhibitions and to support artists’ ideas at a very fundamental level. This type of cultural production really appealed to me, and it quickly led me to seek out credit-based internships at a few of Chicago’s museums. I came to realize that curatorial work was an analogous, meaningful sort of creative practice—one that combined my interest in collaborating with and learning from artists with my other loves of writing, art and cultural history, interpretation, and talking about contemporary art to different audiences.    

How does your previous experience in Chicago influence your current work in Houston?
My experience working at museums like the Art Institute of Chicago provided a truly substantial education for cultural work more broadly. At such a large place, you are able to watch, learn, and collaborate with colleagues working in various departments like visitor services, registration, interpretation and school programs, collections management, conservation, design, development, marketing, and more. This background has been useful to help inform how I approach and prioritize projects at a much smaller but equally hardworking museum like the Blaffer. 

Describe the footprint that Blaffer Art Museum has in Houston.
I believe the Blaffer has a unique place in this city’s really dynamic contemporary-art community. We present large and small exhibitions by historically significant and emerging contemporary artists from Houston and around the world, as well as UH’s art majors and graduate students. Our primary audience is the UH student and faculty community, and over the last three years, the museum has really redoubled its efforts to expand and rethink its program of exhibitions, performances, and other public programs. The Blaffer is meant to be an experimental space for sharing contemporary art and exchanging diverse ideas, and we deeply want the museum to feel like a place that is both welcoming for all and socially relevant, responsive, and meaningful to students and visitors of all ages from across the city. 

How do you compare our Houston art scene to those in other cities?
Houston is very unique! There is an active, creative scene at all levels, with many opportunities for local artists to have studio space, make exhibitions, show in galleries and nonprofit spaces, and be in conversation with scholars, teachers, patrons, gallerists, community organizers, curators, and other artists. Special, longstanding programs like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Core Residency at the Glassell School have also regularly brought in dozens of innovative artists and writers from around the world to take part in the dialogue. All of these elements make for a thriving community. 

What do you like to do for fun?
Well, as you can probably tell, I really enjoy going to places where you can look at art—even in my spare time. I also like to travel to new places, read biographies and melodramatic thriller/mystery novels, and watch a lot of TV and movies. I also enjoy a good gin martini, and I recently got into amateur floral arranging after watching HBO’s new-ish Full Bloom series! 

Fill us in on some of your favorite local spots to take in art.
There are so many great places in Houston that offer different experiences for viewers. I really enjoy visiting exhibitions and programs at Lawndale Art Center, Project Row Houses, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, DiverseWorks, the Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park, Art League Houston, the Moody Center at Rice University, the Cy Twombly galleries at The Menil, CAMH, and the Houston Center for Photography—to name a few.

Finally, is there anything exciting happening at Blaffer Art Museum that our readers should know about?
Right now, we have three great exhibitions of artists Jamal Cyrus (a Houston-based artist and professor), Jagdeep Raina, and Martine Gutierrez. This fall, on Halloween, we will open a major exhibition of the queer American artist, writer, and former Riot Grrrl Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. The show will survey Molly’s punk-influenced career, and will feature over 100 paintings, drawings, writings, photographs, and sculptures. Please join us! 

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This article appears in the September 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
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