Survival In New York: An Interview With Lauren Cornell

by Paddy Johnson on November 4, 2010 · 6 comments Interview

Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome and Adjunct Curator at The New Museum

The fifth interview in a series of posts examining what it means to survive in New York. I spoke with Executive Director of Rhizome and Adjunct Curator at The New Museum Lauren Cornell over the telephone recently on this subject. Her show Free, is currently on view at The New Museum. Other interviews in this series include those with artist Marcin Ramocki, curator and Prospect Non-Profit Director Dan Cameron Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of Triple Candie, a non-profit gallery located in Harlem, and artist William Powhida. A full piece reflecting on these interviews is available in this month's issue of Map Magazine.

Paddy Johnson: I think you have a unique perspective since you are the only native New Yorker I have interviewed.  What does survival mean to you?

Lauren Cornell: What I've always wanted to do was produce ideas. I’ve wanted to write and curate ever since when I was in high school. I actually used to idolize the Director of the Whitney, an unusual childhood idol but it comes out of growing up in Manhattan. During my 20’s it was a hard process of realizing that the career path that I’d chosen really made it hard to survive in New York. And I think for a while, I didn’t really care. It was hand to mouth, but the work was so exciting”¦ I think I started to get frustrated around the time I took the job at Rhizome when I was 27. I was really tired and had a crisis of the arts”¦ I was tired of cobbling together an existence to make ends meet. It also coincided with cynicism about the arts, and I applied to law school. I thought I was going to change paths, do the same thing – push out progressive ideas – in a career that would pay me better. At the same time, I was applying for the Rhizome job. While I was studying for law school I was obsessively reading about art and going to see art and so I realized that was where my real passion was and that I had to figure it out. I was offered [a job at] Rhizome shortly after that. I consider myself lucky.

PJ: At that time, had you been accepted into law school?

LC: Yes. I knew my real passion was in art but I think I just got frustrated and burnt out.

PJ: Do you think initial enthusiasm, passion and willingness to do things hands to mouth is essential?

LC: I think that's a really good point. I don't know if it's essential. My impulse to get in the art was not about making money; it was about the community, the ideas, and the new kinds of art forms. I think that that kind of spirit fosters a lot of really healthy experimentation. I think it's important to be motivated by that and not by money because its unrealistic. I do think that, at a certain point, [you need] to think about the economics of it and how people get paid.

PJ: Right.

LC: I think that the recession has created a lot of conversation around this, because it burst the bubble for a lot of artists where they were making money starting out in their career, and there was speculation about whether or not that was good for the development of the artist. I think, though, that it also threw the art world into light; there have been these initiatives which want to shed light on how artists are paid and create some kind of practice for them, and I think there is this issue where artists need to get paid for their work. Artists are asked to do things for free. It’s a typically American problem when artists are asked to create for free.

PJ: Do you think that is heightened in New York? The idea that people will do things for free and that’s okay?

LC: I think it is definitely heightened in New York. New York is so capitalistic – and the market is pervasive in everything – so it’s harder. I don’t always advise artists to come to New York when they’re starting out, because I think it can be hard to be surrounded by such a heated system. People perceive it as such a great opportunity to be shown and make a name in New York, yet often, artists are offered less support to come here, and the cost of living is so much higher that it puts pressure on everybody. Artists, particularly, need to make money. Whereas, I lived in Belfast for a while, and those artists are less stressed for money, they get more government support and it costs less to live there.

PJ: Do you think that makes a difference in the art scene, how healthy it is?

LC: I think it makes a difference but it’s hard for me to judge qualitatively, I think a lot of really amazing artists are figuring out how to make it in New York. I think community is really important to art in strengthening and inspiring confidence in artists, and there’s a really amazing community here.

PJ: It seems like what you deal with is individual, but there is also an aspect of what you do to make sure that Rhizome survives and is doing well.

LC: My reality is constantly thinking about survival because I think about my own survival and salary in New York, just living. I am always feeling my survival in living and keeping Rhizome alive, that’s the nature of non-profits. It’s a constant grind and New York is very competitive because there are so many great organizations. I am not complaining, it’s just the reality of the situation; you don’t take survival for granted.

PJ: Are most of your friends inside the art world or outside? Is there free time that doesn’t involve art in some way?

LC: A lot of my friends are not in the art world, they are in other fields and I think that’s a really great part of living in New York, that you do have access to so many kinds of people, and it’s a perk of being a director; you have to be engaging with those people because you are not just promoting art to the art world, I am promoting Rhizome to the New York start up community and the technology world. And then I have all my high school friends here who have gone to do different things in New York- I am definitely hanging out with a broad cross of people. And many of them look at me cross-eyed when they don’t understand how I make ends meet in the arts.

PJ: There are people that I’ve talked to that don't do anything else other than their job and they don't have friends outside of the field and that’s how they set up their life. One woman I talked to said that all of her friends were art friends.

LC: I think that art is a hard thing to do. It takes a lot of risks to be an artist and so it's nice to be surrounded by other people who are making art. But I also think that the art world can be insular and it can be important to be outside of it, too.


Stephan November 5, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Thanks. It’s nice to hear from an artist who is grounded. Perhaps it is her own mixture of friends in and out of the art world.

Sean November 5, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Paddy, I’d love to have someone interview YOU as a part of this series as well.

Wulftreu November 6, 2010 at 2:50 am


Caio Fern November 6, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Lauren Cornell is so right to think this way … very well balanced .
Thank you Paddy , this series of interviews is really good.

sally November 6, 2010 at 4:31 pm

loving this series.

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