EL PASO — “It’s a dream,” said Laura August, Ph.D., about her newly appointed position as the inaugural curator of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
An art historian by training, August earned her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, and has worked between the United States and Central America since 2014. As a freelance curator and writer, she operated from a home base in Guatemala City, collaborating with a community of artists on projects and exhibitions for audiences in the US and Guatemala.
“I’m someone who loves to be in close dialogue with artists over long spans of time,” she says, “and I insist that artists are the key people who are helping us to think differently and better about not just the future, but the past and the present.”
In early 2021, after the pandemic prompted a period of re-evaluating what her work might look like and what it might mean in the world, as well as how to stay healthy and safe, she relocated to the small agricultural town of Rincon, New Mexico, between Hatch Valley and the Chihuahuan Desert.
August soon learned that the Rubin Center was looking to hire a bilingual curator who was committed to community-engaged practices and who had experience working across borders. As a curator involved in the politics of what it means to work across borders at this particular historical moment, she was immediately drawn to the job and its possibilities.
“Often, the way that the border is talked about elsewhere is super reductive. I think about places like this — places of migration and geopolitical conflict — as being at the center of how a country actually enacts its values (or abandons them),” says August. “[The Rubin Center] is an electric place from which to understand what art actually does in a world defined by endless change.”
The Rubin Center has supported responsive visual art exhibitions, arts-led interdisciplinary and community-engaged programming, site-specific commissions, and performances in a dedicated effort to understand the international and multicultural character of the region, as well as to increase visitors’ appreciation and awareness of visual culture. The siting of the building on the edge of campus offers views of both Mexico and the US — August can see Juarez from her office window — a constant reminder of the important work at hand.
“I’m excited by the Rubin Center’s longstanding commitment to thinking carefully about what it means to live in a place that is so much about transition, about movements of people, and about human experiences in moments of profound dislocation, with a depth that reflects local experience,” August expressed.
For example, Minerva Cuevas’s recent exhibition Migratory, co-curated by artists Lara Goldmann and Elizabeth Shores and produced with Edgar Picazo of the El Paso-Juárez-based nonprofit Azul Arena, was built in part around a long conversation and collaboration for the publication Migratory Yellow Pages / La Sección Amarilla de la Migración.
The Fund for Ethical Practices of Transborder Art emerged out of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Border Tuner | Sintonizador Fronterizo, an ongoing engagement with artists in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas, and a consideration of how to work in both directions related to the border.
Sandra Paola López Ramírez, director of the Institute for Improvisation and Social Action, was the Rubin Center’s inaugural interdisciplinary artist in 2021. She has been working extensively in performance and with the community in the Río Bosque Wetlands conservation area, and in dialogue with the Tigua tribal community at the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.
Other projects include the center’s recent site-specific commission of Gaku Tsutaja’s Enola’s Head, a suspended, floating “motion picture theatre shaped like the nose part of the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945”; Teresa Margolles’s exhibition We Have a Common Thread, which involved artist-embroiderers from Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, and the US, with a focused concern for violence against women; and a two-person exhibition of works by Tania Candiani and Regina José Galindo, which explored “the feminine body preparing for or engaged in battle with unseen forces.”
Until now, director Kerry Doyle has coordinated most of the Rubin Center’s exhibitions and projects, periodically inviting guest curators. With August’s hire, it’s the first time that the center has had someone entirely dedicated to exhibitions.
“Kerry is crucial to understanding how the Rubin Center works; she is a visionary,” states August. “The way that she has led this institution is a model for others that are starting to grapple with some of the bigger questions of community, history, audience, and the institution’s responsibility to the world around it.”
In these first few months as curator, August has been busy developing a three-year exhibition program centered on research, continuing the Rubin Center’s commitment to respond to what artists are working on at the moment and building a structure so that the center’s communities of artists, educators, writers, and activists can have entry points.
In addition to annual student shows and biannual faculty shows, she is planning to curate a series of materials-based solo shows, in which solo projects allow artists to focus on and research thematic questions through the lens of a specific medium.
August’s formalized institutional experience includes her time as a Mellon Arts + Practitioner Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Prior to that, she was a Core Critical Studies Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Her writing about contemporary art in Guatemala City has been awarded the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
“In my heart, I am a writer, always. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about exhibitions in relationship to writing, and how written forms can push against the structures of exhibition-making, and by extension knowledge-making,” she says. “If we break down some of the structures of how exhibitions have been thought about historically, then of course we’re breaking down much more than that — we’re breaking down how history, places, and objects are understood and experienced.”
August is also working on a book of essays about contemporary visual art in Guatemala City since the democratic uprisings of 2015.
“There are so many things that were important to me as an independent curator in terms of being able to move freely across places and institutions, but also to have a criticality in how I approached institutions — what I was able to ask for, and also demand, for the communities I wanted to serve,” she notes. “But now, to find a place that speaks to those concerns with the kind of long-term commitment that the Rubin Center demonstrates, and to find that place within a university community with its depth of resources and research possibilities, I really think I might be dreaming.”