Bass Museum's New Curator of Exhibitions Reflects on Miami's Artistic Boom
Jose Carlos Diaz of the Bass Museum.
Photo by Cristina Lei Rodriguez
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Jose Carlos Diaz is a pioneer. He helped transform Wynwood from a decaying warehouse district to a booming hothouse for creativity. Born in Miami, he's one smart guy. In 2003 he turned his own apartment into the "Worm-Hole Laboratory." It became a rehearsal space and home for cutting-edge art. Then he left town for five years, earning a master's degree from the University of Liverpool and serving as a project coordinator during the 2010 Liverpool Biennial.
In October of last year, he was named the Bass Museum of Art's curator of exhibitions, just in time for the museum's 50th anniversary. New Times recently caught up with the dark and handsome 36-year-old to ask about his new job and his views on how much the local art scene has changed.
New Times: Where did you grow up?
Jose Carlos Diaz: I was actually born in Miami and grew up in Northern California in Stockton.
When did you become interested in art?
My mother is an artist, so I have always been interested in art, but I also attended after-school art classes as a teenager. Visiting my local museum in Stockton ignited my interest in art and museums in general.
You launched Worm-Hole Laboratory in 2003 in your tiny Edgewater apartment building [the Carolyn]. Can you tell us what inspired your mission and a little about the project?
I had just finished my curatorial internship at the Rubell Family Collection. There I had learned so much about curating but did not have enough professional experience to become a museum curator or the funds to open my own gallery. The idea was to use my apartment as a rehearsal space. Miami is very entrepreneurial, so I just ran with it. Essentially, it became nomadic because I did not know how long it would last in the apartment or if other opportunities would emerge.
One of the things I remember is that after you opened, you ran up a raft of shows in very rapid succession. How has Miami's scene changed since then?
Today it seems like there are so many galleries in Wynwood and the Design District, but it's interesting to see how others have moved beyond these boundaries and are launching in downtown, west of Wynwood, and more northbound. It's also amazing to see so many institutions celebrating anniversaries: the Bass, ArtCenter, Locust Projects, PAMM... Time flies, and it is great to see our roots grow deeper.
Your apartment was so tiny. How did you manage to shoehorn group exhibits and other events into the space while continuing your daily affairs?
I had an empty apartment, various part-time jobs, and lots of ideas! Miami has often had allure for young artists, so inviting someone to exhibit work in Miami never seemed to be a problem. I am not so sure I could do it now.
Many of the artists you first exhibited at your space went on to become established Miami names. How did you find these artists? Who were some of the artists who caught your eye early on?
I meet most artists through studio visits. I'm a natural people person, so if I connect with the art and the artist, often interesting ideas blossom. Diego Singh, Pepe Mar, and Cristina Lei Rodriguez were some core inspirations. Pepe and I both studied in San Francisco and we moved the same year. I met so many people from 2003 onward. Many artists I met back then are still making interesting work.
I always admired the House and the artists involved. Actually, Martin Oppel and Daniel Arsham from the House launched Placemaker later. A decade later I have Martin in one of my shows, so that's pretty cool.
Carlos Betancourt's Amulet for Light in "Gold" at the Bass Museum of Art.
Some of your nomadic shows helped cement Wynwood's nascent scene. How has the area changed since those times, and do you think it still has a future as an incubator for serious curatorial projects, or has that time come and gone?
It's really amazing to leave a transforming neighborhood and return five years later to see it as a true destination filled with galleries, restaurants, and people walking through the streets. Miami is always in motion, and spaces like GucciVuitton are creating a lineup of shows that I would never conceive. I like that! They're really thinking outside the box!
Back in the early days of Art Basel Miami Beach, you curated a Christmas tree for the Frisbee art fair. Can you tell us about your artsy tree-trimming project?
Not many people remember that! Jen Denike and Anat Ebgi, who were active in Miami, invited me to do a project. With little funds and the holidays approaching, I thought ornaments could be interesting since they are so sculptural. I bought a plastic light-up Christmas tree and asked artists to mail me their ornaments. I still use it as my Christmas tree.
How has Basel changed since then, and what unifying or long-term impact has it had on Miami's art scene?
Art Basel Miami Beach continues to bring the international art world to Miami Beach. Satellite fairs, fringe projects, and exhibitions orbit that particular week, but I think since the earlier years, Miami is good at being active at showing great exhibits year-round. Lots of wonderful programming takes place too.
In 2005 you co-curated "Hanging by a Thread" at the Moore Space, then run by Silvia Karman Cubiñá, who is now your boss at the Bass. What is it like working for her?
I have always admired and looked up to Silvia as a mentor, so to work with her is really a dream come true. She has an impeccable eye for great art and curating excellent shows. I'm inspired!
Before joining the Bass as the museum's curator of exhibitions, you worked at the Tate Liverpool. Can you tell us about your experiences at that institution and some of the projects you were involved with there?
I was quite lucky to move to a city that was once home to Henry Tate. Although Tate Liverpool is smaller than Tate Modern and Tate Britain, it presents world-class exhibitions, both modern and contemporary, and rotates works from the Tate permanent collection. I was able to work with the collection and also assisted on Charline von Heyl's solo show and a special project called The Source, which was a large outdoor pavilion by Doug Aitken filled with his video conversations he recorded with leading figures in the creative sector, like Tilda Swinton and Jack White. It was a huge AV challenge installing the work, but very rewarding! From that I curated a show tracking the last 25-year history of Tate Liverpool.
Your first curatorial effort for the Bass, "Gold," marks the museum's 50th anniversary and is currently on view. How long did you work on your official Bass debut show, and what are some of your favorite works on display?
I worked on the exhibit for about a year. As you can imagine, I really love all the works! The online new-media projects, by Patricia Hernandez and Yucef Merhi, are always in a state of flux, and I love that. One continues to monitor the price of gold, and the other, by Patti, is selling a virtual island for bitcoins, a type of online currency unregulated by the government. Anyone can access these works from home [at simulatingvalue.com and quetzalcoatl2012.net].
Silvia has turned the museum's profile around in short order, giving visiting and local artists a platform to exhibit projects in conjunction with older works in its collection. What's the importance of this approach in terms of education?
Our museum has a permanent collection that really allows us to go beyond and explore many areas. In fact, we have had real success focusing on fashion: Just last spring, Harold Koda curated a show about the subject matter found in Dutch vanitas-style paintings by pairing haute couture with contemporary works also addressing the same themes.
What are some of your plans for the Bass, and what role does the museum fill on an institutional scene that has radically changed in the past year?
I am working on some exhibitions and projects for the future. Many are a surprise!
What can you reveal about yourself that readers might not know?
I have a twin brother who won the Latin Grammy last year for best children's album [Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band].
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