BACK TO THE ROOTS: Interview With Storefront’s New Chief Curator José Esparza Chong Cuy

José Esparza Chong Cuy has an expansive curatorial résumé that spans no less than five countries on two continents. Trained as an architect in Mexico, the 34-year-old jump-started his career back in 2007 when he interned at Storefront for Art and Architecture, the tiny non-profit gallery space in SoHo co-founded by an architect and two artists. Since then, Esparza Chong Cuy has held curatorial and editorial positions at, among others, Domus magazine, the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, the Museo Jumex in Mexico City, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Since November 2018 he’s back where he started, sort of, as Storefront’s new chief curator and executive director, and aims to return the institution to its initial interdisciplinarity.

José Esparza Chong Cuy photographed by Josep Fonti for PIN–UP. Chair by Artek.

What are your new responsibilities at Storefront?
Well, pretty much everything. (Laughs.) As chief curator I’m responsible for developing both the exhibition and public program, making sure Storefront continues to do what it’s doing but also expanding our mission to a broader audience. My duties as executive director are more along the lines of ensuring the organization can make longer-term plans and respect the integrity of its core mission, while building on that to remain relevant to future global audiences.

Storefront was founded in 1982 by the architect Kyong Park and the artists Arleen Schloss and R.L. Seltman, and the artist Shirin Neshat was one of its longtime co-directors. What’s your approach to this unique mission and history? 
I always like to connect the history of Storefront to that of several other independent artist-run spaces that popped up in New York City in or after 1968, which was the year that the Studio Museum in Harlem opened, with a mission to show work by artists of African descent, while Rafael Montañez Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio a year later, with an interest in showcasing Puerto Rican artists. Both organizations set out to address a lack of representation within the existing institutional context. And throughout the 70s and early 80s, other artist-focused organizations were founded, such as PS1, Artists Space, the New Museum, and Art in General. In following their own rules, which reflected their interests and backgrounds, they helped create a new cultural landscape. I think Storefront’s mission is to continue being that space of experimentation at the intersection of diverse and challenging ideas in the fields of art and architecture. That said, I want to reframe how we think about architecture by organizing projects that concern the built environment more generally. Architecture is only one element within the built environment, and by expanding our understanding from the single building towards this constellation we obtain a more complex reading of our surroundings. It’s an opportunity to open up rifts in our ideas of architecture, and also to study what happens in the spaces between buildings.

Do you find that curating — especially curating architecture — is different in the various cities where you’ve worked?
To be honest, I don’t know what “curating architecture” specifically means. But I do understand the role of the curator, and I think that, as a curator, I have the responsibility of working with artists, architects, and other creative practitioners to identify subjects that we believe should have a bigger platform, and of giving them the opportunity to experiment spatially in an exhibition. When I curate, it’s always in the interest of sharing their ideas with a broader audience and of creating the best possible scenario for them to make their best work. I firmly believe that when artists are given that space, we the audience can experience more meaningful work. Does that process differ depending on the context? Yes. I always have to be aware of location. The program we’re planning for Storefront’s first year, for example, wouldn’t make sense in another institution. 

So you already have it all planned out?
Yes, through the summer of 2020. The idea is to do four main shows a year, and we’re calling the cycle of exhibitions Building Cycles because we really want to challenge what “building” means. It’s fascinating how that word is both a place and a process, so with the exhibitions we want to expand the idea of building as a physical place and reinforce the process of it. For example, one could say that the first step in the building cycle is site analysis: you have a space, you have to conduct observations, and you have to realize that no territory is neutral because there are always social, economic, and political forces active there, whether visible or invisible. The first exhibition will be conceptually connected to this idea. The second process in the building cycle is the foundations: once you’ve done your site analysis, you lay the foundations for what’s to come, so the second exhibition will be informed by this concept of creating a solid, safe, secure structure. The third step in the process is raising the walls to create a division of space, making a distinction between what’s private and what’s public — creating an enclosure. And the fourth step is about inhabiting the space, activating it through the body, which is really when a building comes alive.

What impact are you hoping to make at Storefront?
It’s a crucial thing for me to reconnect the institution to its history of operating at the intersection of art and architecture. I want to try to understand what that means. I think architects could really learn from working with artists, with their almost unrestrained creative license, and that architects have a lot to teach artists too. Storefront has always been, and should always be, a space for that relationship to be explored.

Text by Drew Zeiba.

Portrait by Josep Fonti.

Taken from PIN–UP 26, Spring Summer 2019.