Outside Inspiration: Melanie Cohn

Outside Inspiration: Melanie Cohn

All artists need support. We hope that the articles and reviews that we provide here provide some support to local artists. Michigan is blessed with several organizations that focus on providing much needed support to artists (and there seems to be new ones every day). For example (and as a reminder), ArtServe Michigan will host a summit tomorrow at MoCAD “designed to empower artists of all disciplines to take the next step in building sustainable professional creative practices.” I will follow-up with them next week to see how the sumit went and what their future plans are. Until then, I came accross an artist turned Executive Director that uses her tremendous creativity and energy to support artists in Staten Island, New York. Her name is Melanie Cohn, she is the Executive Director of the Council on the Arts and Hummanities for Staten Island, and below are her insights and advice.

Thedetroiter: How did you get involved in the arts?

Melanie:

I saw “Empire Strikes Back” when I was a little kid, and I became a big fan. I bought this book that showed all the behind-the-scenes stuff–the storyboards and models–and I became really interested in it. It led me into drawing and sculpting, and that led to me pursuing a BFA and an MFA.

Thedetroiter: What is your role at the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island?

Melanie:

I’m the Executive Director, so I work with a lot of great people to find ways to bring art to the center of community life in Staten Island.  

 

Thedetroiter: Why advocate for the arts?

Melanie:

I was at this conference, “Camp Finance,” a few weeks ago, and one of the keynote speakers had us do an exercise. Half of us had to yell “Yes” and the other half had to yell “No.” We yelled at each other for a few rounds. Then he said, “Okay, now I want the “Yes” people to be quiet. And it was just this overwhelming “No!”, “No!”, “No!” from one half of the room. The point being, if you want your story to be told, if you want what is important to you to have a place at the table, you need to speak up. Otherwise, it’s only one side of the story. And to me, the arts are important. Art is what weaves us together.

Thedetroiter:  How has your art career changed over the past five years?

Melanie:

Well, five years ago I was at the New Museum preparing for the opening of the new Bowery location. Now I am working to make sure Staten Island artists have a place in the bigger New York City art scene. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. It’s going from one of the biggest platforms in contemporary art, to one where you fight every day for the artists to get the recognition they deserve, recognition that is a hard fight because people have preconceived notions of what Staten Island is.

Thedetroiter: What or who inspires you?

Melanie:

Marcia Tucker and Dan Cameron have been huge inspirations for me. I worked with Marcia at the New Museum. In her obituary in the New York Times, it was said that she ran the New Museum in her own image, “a somewhat chaotic, idealistic place where the nature of art was always in question, exhibitions were a form of consciousness raising and mistakes were inevitable.” And there is an importance to the mistakes–in Marcia’s case it meant she was taking risks, pushing into new territory, doing as much as could be done with the given resources. Working with Dan was very important in my development on a day-to-day level. He has a way of working with artists and his own staff that allows them the space to pursue their own vision within his projects. I try to bring what I learned from him, that ability to empower others, to my work every day. 

 

Thedetroiter: Is art criticism important?

Melanie:

Yes, when it is at its best. When it shows a solid thought process and is relevant to the work and to our culture, it is important. When art criticism helps you to see things in a fuller way or in a different light, its importance is obvious.
Thedetroiter:  Why have you taken on curatorial projects?

Melanie:

I love art, I love the art experience. And curatorial projects are a great way to build a place for those experiences so that others can take part in them. I love curatorial projects in unexpected public places, because I love the idea of someone stumbling upon art–experiencing something that they might not otherwise.

 

Thedetroiter: What do you look for when viewing new artwork?

Melanie:

I don’t know that I look for anything in particular.  I think I come to it and wait.  Some works hit you over the head, others are quieter and reveal themselves more slowly. I try to be open for that. Here is a confession, sometimes I just don’t get it, and then I start searching for what I’m missing through other people’s texts.

Thedetroiter: How do you define success?

Melanie:

Success is very incremental for me–one small goal achieved at a time, which builds into something bigger over time. When we (COAHSI) help artists get their vision out to wider audiences, those are the successes.

Thedetroiter: How can Detroit attract art advocates like you?

Melanie:

I think Detroit has art advocates on the ground already. I encourage the wider community to support the local arts organizations and artists, and help magnify those voices. We could all take a lesson from OWS’s human microphone. There is power in many voices joining together. Many voices are more important than any single advocate.

 

Thedetroiter: What’s next?

Melanie:

The Council on the Arts has some exciting plans coming up next year. We are working on a new project space that will be opening in a very un-traditional, public venue. I can’t talk in detail about it now, but it is going to be a great cultural experiment!