One of the most common visions conjured up by the phrase “residency” in the art world is that of an artist working in a bucolic setting, the peace and quiet and the distance from the cares of the outside world producing a magically slower pace, allowing the artist time to really reflect on his or her work.

By Liz Georges

Of course, if you are Jean-Michel Ross, doing your curatorial residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn, you’re only halfway through your three-month residency and you’ve already started two businesses (so much for that “slower pace” thing). In fact, when Jean-Michel visits Washington, DC to participate in Washington Project for the Arts’ InfoEx program on January 5th, the thing he’s looking forward to most is the chance to take a break from the pace of his hectic residency.

“For me what was really exciting about going to Washington, was not only to have portfolio reviews and meet people in another city, but it was also about taking the time to prepare for the talk, and just step back for a second internalize everything that just happened, and to be able to talk about it,” says Jean-Michel.

What has just happened is that Jean-Michel Ross, a Montreal-based curator whose work is currently focused on issues on the intersection of democracy and the visual arts, has started a publishing project, an online magazine called Free Pass. “It’s a web magazine for which I’ll try to have one paper edition a year,” He explains. “Everyone who wants to be part of the editorial staff can ask to be part of it, and then I give to any one of those people a press pass. Since every magazine has the right to print their own press passes, they then have access to all of the museums and galleries, not just here in the United States but around the world.”

“My idea is to really have a reflection on the idea of context, which is something that’s been very important in my previous work, and my previous research. One of the first things that I was interested in was the question of the link between democracy and the idea that everybody has a voice. So if you’re giving everybody a voice, how can you make a context to actually do that?”

For a former assistant editor of ESPACE Sculpture magazine, a magazine, even an online format, has provided a context that was at once familiar and provided opportunity not only to provide access through the actual passes issued, but to explore the ways in which those issued the passes use the tool, the “voice” they are given. “Some of the people have chosen to use their press passes to get access to other artists to do interviews, and that has been interesting.” He notes.

The other business Jean-Michel has managed to start in his first 30 days in New York is a pop-up, for-profit gallery under the auspices of his ISCP residency. “The gallery? That came up the third week I was here. The whole idea for the research I was doing here was to reflect on the problems linked to democracy and the visual arts, so the magazine was one way of doing that. But then I was thinking on the other side there’s also the idea of the actual space, creating an actual context.”

For Jean-Michel, the context of the gallery has become a means to explore more themes in his chosen research field. “There’s a question of access, there’s a question of trying to raise the standard of living of the artist, for their production, their promotion,” Jean-Michel explains. “But I also find it interesting to explore a long term collaboration with different artists that can not only work together but also research and think together: what is this context, how does it actually affect the work that is being shown, what is the discourse, what are the limits? If we’re going towards a private gallery and we’re going toward profit, how does this research actually fit into that?”

“For instance, I have a number of artists who do process art, where it’s not just about the actual object, but it’s the whole ‘how they get there’ that’s important. And of course if you take those objects and you transpose them to a private gallery, it’s much more about the object. So this is a way to go towards those different ideas.“

Many of these questions are raised for him by the distinct difference between the contemporary art institutions in his native Quebec and those in the United States. “I’ve been on the board of one of the oldest non-profit galleries in Canada, Optica Gallery.” Jean Michel says. “There’s a very vibrant not-for-profit scene in Quebec, it’s quite important, much more important than the private galleries actually.” Jean-Michel goes on to describe the network of artist-run nonprofit ventures that sprang up in the 70’s and 80’s, that later became the beneficiary of government subsidies, sometimes up to 90% of their budget being supplied by the Provincial Government.

The level of focus that it takes to accomplish even one project of this depth in barely more than a month is significant. That Jean-Michel has taken on two such endeavors speaks to the level of clarity and commitment he has to his curatorial vision. But when asked what he’s gotten out of his residency at ISCP, the answer is a little surprising. “The most important thing? I would say meeting with artists is the first thing -- being in a building with 34 or 36 artists from all over the world. That’s dynamic, and those exchanges are probably the richest thing that I have gotten up to now. It’s not just thinking about the projects and everything. Those interactions have actually contributed to thinking about those projects and to making them happen.”

Jean-Michel Ross will be speaking as part of WPA’s “InfoEx” program at 6:30pm on January 5, 2012 at UBS Financial Services, 1501 K Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC. InfoEx is an informal partnership between Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn, New York. On Friday, January 6, he will hold one-on-one meetings with WPA member artist, curators, and arts writers. Individuals wishing to attend the talk should RSVP to WPA Program Director. This InfoEx program is sponsored by UBS Financial Services.

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December 29, 2011