From Marina Abramovic to Glenn Ligon: Mari Spirito on getting Art Basel talking

The outgoing curator reflects on five years leading the Conversations program – and reveals the 2018 Premiere Artist talk

Few artworld personalities have a more diverse profile than Mari Spirito. The globe-trotting curator and director of Protocinema – an itinerant organization fostering artistic exchanges between the United States and Turkey – started her career at 303 Gallery in New York, before switching to the non-profit world. Since, she has also been leading Art Basel’s Conversations program in Basel and Miami Beach, convening the likes of Marina AbramovicArthur Jafa, Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi, and Guggenheim Foundation director, Richard Armstrong.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2018 will be Spirito’s last contribution to Conversations. She shares some of the tips and memories she has gathered along the way.

What is the secret to a successful panel discussion?

The most important thing is to have different points of view. The panelists need to be challenging each other and pushing to extract something that’s important and meaningful. We don’t want people fighting on stage, but we don’t want people sitting and agreeing with each other, either – which happens a lot in talks in general. It’s can become a mutual-admiration club. This might be lovely in other parts of our lives, but to create discourse that’s going to be valuable for the listener, you need different perspectives.

Organizing a talks program is also about letting go. Once you’ve picked the subjects and invited the speakers, the conversation takes its course. How do you deal with the unexpected? Have you had any major surprises on stage?

We had an artist – who will remain unnamed – who was on a panel with another artist and a moderator. This artist gave such a long presentation that the other artist stepped off stage to listen. It wasn’t a conversation at all! Even when I went up and put a hand on this person’s shoulder, asking them to speed up, s/he ignored me and carried on. It was so shocking, yet revealed a lot about this artist.

Can you remember a particularly moving moment?

Glenn Ligon and Claudia Rankine did an Artists’ Influencers talk moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, which remains one of my favorites. Having Glenn and Claudia talk about race issues in the United States, and the way things have developed in the 15-20 years they’ve known each other, literally moved people to tears. It was a fantastic example of artists addressing things that people want to talk about but don’t know how to talk about. What was particularly poignant was the fact that they discussed these issues in a very compassionate, empathetic, and loving way. It was productive and beautiful.

Have any of these Conversations led to something else? Have people who met through the program ever gone on to put on a show together, say, or got married?

Maybe not married, but Maura Reilly, for instance, who took part in the 2016 panel discussion Why Is Gender Still an Issue?, told me how inspired she was by the exchange she had with the public. She is well known for her books on feminism, and for being the founding curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, but her point was that people who read books about feminism are already aware of the issues. This Conversation really broadened minds and gave her a new audience. And we’ll have her back this year, speaking with the artist Billie Zangewa and curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill on a panel entitled Feminism, The Global View.

I invited Adrian Paci to speak on a panel about migration, and I ended up doing this beautiful exhibition with him at Protocinema in Istanbul last year. So, yes, we put people together with the hope that relationships will grow out of that.

Recent Conversations have tackled topics such as sexism in the artworld, the impact of data on the market, and museums in a global narrative. How important is it for the program – and Art Basel as a whole – to follow, and contribute to, contemporary discourse?

You know, it’s essential to speak and to express yourself – which is the right we fight for – but it’s more important to be heard. And to make a good talks program, I have to listen. For example, when I hear again and again that Native Americans in the United States don’t feel that their voices are being heard, I feel that we have to incorporate those artists, those curators, those collectors, or the museums that are collecting that work – or we’re simply not doing our job. Instead of me looking for something that’s ‘of the moment’, it’s about listening to what’s going on and responding, responsibly and authentically.

Art Basel Miami Beach is just around the corner – which panel are you particularly looking forward to?

There will be an excellent Conversation about the role of private funding in curatorial practices, specifically related to biennials, gathering Istanbul Biennale 2019 curator Nicolas Bourriaud, Michelle Grabner, the artistic director of FRONT International in Cleveland, and Diana Nawi, co-director of Prospect, New Orleans. It’s crucial to discuss if and how private money is affecting the art that is being promoted, and what kind of voices get heard at biennials, specifically in the increasingly privatized realm of funding for the arts. It’s vital that we consider how – in events such as the Sharjah Biennial, the Honolulu Biennial, or even Venice – sponsor’s and patrons’ sensibilities affect what work gets seen, and the potential benefits and pitfalls of such situations.

A last word: there’s a very important slot in the Conversations program – the Premiere Artist Talk. Can you reveal who it’s going to be in Miami Beach?

The Premiere Artist Talk this year is going to be very special – Allora & Calzadilla are speaking. We were hoping they would speak last year, but Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, where they live, and they naturally had to focus on what was happening there. I think it’s going to be a very pertinent and timely conversation about their practice, as well as issues that affect their work, such as natural disasters, how they get handled by governments, and the role that institutions – whether cultural or educational – can play in these situations. They’re great, insightful artists, so we’ll be really lucky to hear about their work and future projects.

Conversations will take place from Thursday, December 6 to Sunday, December 9, 2018 and present dynamic discussions exploring key issues in today’s artworld. Browse the full program here.

Auditorium, West Lobby, free public access.