Governors Island’s New Head Curator Shares Her Vision for the Arts

Governors Island’s New Head Curator Shares Her Vision for the Arts

There’s no shortage of things to do on Governors Island this summer, from music festivals to sailing competitions to swanky parties. But no visit to the island is complete without taking in some of the thought-provoking and frequently interactive art that’s integrated throughout various spaces on Governors Island. The Alliance chatted with Lauren Haynes, the new head cura­tor and vice pres­i­dent for arts and cul­ture at the Trust for Governors Island, about her unique role and the exciting arts programming happening on the island this summer. 

I’d love to know a little bit about how you developed your interest in and passion for the art world.

My interest in the arts and working in the arts developed when I was in college. My first experience was a work-study job. I went to Oberlin College and there’s an amazing museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum, on campus. And so I got a work-study job working in the director’s office for the director’s E.A., doing whatever it is 18-year-olds can do. I fell in love with the behind-the-scenes aspect of museum work and working in the arts, but I didn’t really know what that meant yet. Then, I had lots of different internships throughout the time I was in college. I subsequently started taking art history classes and fell in love with art history. Those experiences really guided me to change what I thought I was going to do, which was to go to law school and be a lawyer. Instead, it was “I want to work in the arts.” 

There were a lot of different experiences. A real formative one for me was when I worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem for about a decade after college. That’s where I learned how to be a curator, how to work with living artists and how to talk to them about projects. And so all of that really is how I’ve gotten here. 

For people who don’t necessarily know about the arts programming on Governors Island, how would you describe what it is and what you do there?

Governors Island Arts really is the arts-and-culture arm of the Trust for Governors Island. We have our three main buckets that we talk about. We talk about public art that takes the form of some of the permanent artworks we have on the island, or our commissions, like the one we’re opening next month with artist Jenny Kindler called Other of Pearl

We also have our Organizations in Residence. That’s where we turn over some of the historic houses on the island to nonprofit organizations from across all five boroughs to really do programming and see what shape that takes. And then they open it up to the public Friday through Sunday. So general visitors get to see what’s happening, and they do a range of things from artists’ studios to performances. Sometimes they’ll put artwork on the lawns in front of their houses. It’s really meant to be a sampling of really the art you can see all across New York City, because we have representation from all five boroughs. 

The third arm is public programs. And so what that takes a shape in sometimes is our series of performances. This summer, we’ll be kicking off our “INTERVENTIONS” series, which will be, as of now, three performing artists doing a whole range of things from music to dance, really just thinking about ways we can activate art on the island. 

My role as head curator and VP of arts and culture is meant to shape that vision. So working very closely with Juan Pablo Siles, who’s our associate curator and producer, to really understand what that means. He does a lot of the orgs-in-residence and the performing arts and I guide the public art program. It’s thinking about artists we might want to work with, artworks we might want to add to the island, and really just thinking about: In all the amazing things that we have going on on Governors Island, how do the arts fit in? We know they fit in everywhere. So what does that mean to work with the wider team to think about that?

You just used the word “vision” to describe part of your role. What is that vision? How are you hoping that people experience or interact with the art you’re curating? 

I want people to come away with some sort of experience. Not everyone is going to love the same thing or feel the same way when they experience the public artwork or performance. But I want some sort of reaction. I want people to feel like they’re inspired or feel like ‘what was that?’ But they’re talking about it. Then they’ll tell someone else, and they’ll keep coming. I want to really make sure we’re creating experiences and opportunities for people to come and experience art on the island, and then they want to come back and see what else is happening. It doesn’t always have to be, “Oh, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I love this so much.” But maybe they learned something. Maybe they learned about an artist they didn’t know. Maybe they saw a performance in a space they hadn’t really had access to before. All of that is really what we think about when we’re thinking about the vision for what Governors Island Arts can do. 

What are some of the goals you have for the arts program as the head curator and vice president?

It’s only been two months, but what I’m most looking forward to is actually experiencing a summer on the island working there versus being a visitor. I want to really understand what people do when they’re on the island. What artworks are they drawn to? Where are some spots that we haven’t considered? I’m really excited to see how our programming unfolds. I’m also excited to start bringing artists out to the island and having conversations with them to think about: What would you do if you could do anything? What does this look like? What are you thinking about? I’m excited to be working with artists that we’ve had relationships with in the past, but also opening up conversations to a whole range of artists. 

I’m equally excited that this project with Jen­ny Kendler, Other of Pearl, was already happening and has been in planning for a few years. It started under the direction of Meredith Johnson, who was a former curator. I’m excited to see that come to life in the next month as we start to install the works in Fort Jay. We’re working very closely with Jenny to really see this come to life. That’s probably the thing that I can’t wait for because it’s something that’s real, and I’m excited to be able to see it and experience it and understand just what the arts can do on the island.

Something I read about in a New York Times feature on you was your emphasis in highlighting underrepresented artists. I’d love it if you could talk a little bit about that. 

I always think about how I got into the arts, which was sort of because I needed a job and because I had some experience. But what I also experienced was that the woman who was the director of the Allen at Oberlin at the time was a woman named Sharon Patton, and she was an African-American art historian. She literally wrote books on Black art history. I didn’t know that at the time, but what I saw was someone who looked like me in this position. So that has very much guided me in: How do we think about spaces? How do we think about our organizations? How do we make sure our visitors feel like they can see themselves either represented in the art, in the artists, or the people that are walking around?

I think a lot about how it is so exciting to do that in New York City because we have people from all over the world living here. We have artists from all over the world who are bringing important ideas and important topics that will connect with our visitors. So for me, I think a lot about that, making connections for New Yorkers, making connections for artists, and just using this platform to elevate voices that sometimes get left out of the conversation or are seen as an afterthought. Doing that in New York City just makes so much sense because really our community is so vast and wide.

To learn more about art on Governors Island, including information on upcoming events, visit the Trust for Governors Island’s website

headshot: courtesy the Trust for Governors Island

Tags: Governors Island

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