Cassandra Coblentz: Q&A with the West Juror

One of our most anticipated editions of the year, the West competition of New American Paintings is now open for submissions through April 30. (Apply online!)

The 2011 West Juror is Cassandra Coblentz of Scottsdale, Arizona, where she is Associate Curator for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA). A native of Los Angeles, Cassandra has spent her career all across the country, from L.A. to New York, and her years-long focus on museum education has largely informed her practice as a contemporary curator and how she approaches exhibition-making.

New American Paintings /Blog caught up with the Arizona-based curator to talk process, emerging work, and the importance of considering viewership when making curatorial decisions.

Coming from a background in education, does that give you a different approach in terms of your curatorial projects?
CC: It made me very conscious of audience and I think that has shaped who I am as a curator. Working in a place like Scottsdale, Arizona, it’s a different kind of audience than you’d find in L.A. and New York, and I’ve found it most effective to conceive of projects that touch on issues and ideas that are specifically relevant to this community, that give audiences opportunities to connect to the art in meaningful ways.

I also believe strongly in the kind of learning that takes place in a museum. That alone has played a really important role in how I actually curate exhibitions. For me there is a largely educational motivation for the work that I do here. I like the idea that contemporary art can challenging our audience to think critically about the world in which we live.

EJG:Tell me a little bit about your background before you were at the Scottsdale Museum and what you do now.
CC: I came to SMoCA from the Hammer Museum where I was Head of Academic Initiatives. It was a position in the education department that was a kind of liaison between artists working in the museum and UCLA students. My background is in museum education, I worked for many years in the education department at the Getty Museum and was also in education at the Dia Foundation in New York. I always knew though that my heart was in curating, so I went to the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard for my masters degree. From there I went on to work at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, which is a very unique kind of museum in that it focuses so intently on the artistic process and creating opportunities for artists to realize new work. Recently I’ve realized how important that experience was for me and my own curatorial practice as I’ve tended to do a lot of commissioning new works and developing that effort here at SMoCA.

What’s the biggest difference coming from LA?
I think there is a difference in people’s knowledge of the broader context of the art world and also their comfort level with contemporary art. We often find that people might not consider themselves to be an audience for contemporary art in the first place.

Tell me what excites you about working with emerging artists.
Process and the collaborative aspect of working with artists to realize an idea is something that I’m really passionate about. I think working with emerging artists in particular, you have access to the thinking process behind the creation of an artwork and you can sometimes play an important role, as a sounding board, in shaping that thinking. Also with emerging artists I am often giving an artist an opportunity to create something that they might otherwise not have been able to do, which is always exciting.

What are you looking forward to the most in reviewing submissions for the West competition?
It’s always nice to have an opportunity to learn about new artists, so that’s the first thing. And to see what some of the trends are in contemporary painting. I do my best to always make efforts to learn about new artists and to see as much work as possible, but to have the opportunity to review work by artists  from such a broad region of the country—places I might not have the opportunity to visit in person—is exciting.

The West Competition of New American Paintings is accepting submissions through April 30, 2011, and is open to artists working in AZ, CO, ID, KS, MT, ND, NE, NM, NV, OK, SD, TX, UT, and WY. Artists may apply online at

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