how i get it done

How Curator (and Self-Described Workaholic Idea Gremlin) Jasmine Wahi Gets It Done

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Jordan Tiberio

Curator, educator, and activist Jasmine Wahi is “one of those weird people who always knew what they wanted to do,” and that was to make exhibitions. So in 2010, after receiving her B.A. from NYU (where she would also get her MFA in 2015) she co-founded Project for Empty Space (PES), a New York/New Jersey–based nonprofit arts organization that serves as an exhibition site and workspace for artists whose work is oriented toward social discourse. “Culture-makers are essential to the way that we function as societies,” Wahi says of her motivation for building PES. “So we need to make sure that we’re supporting artists beyond just lip service.” 

Wahi’s own curatorial work has focused on issues of femme empowerment and cultural identities, and in 2019 she gave a TED talk on these topics titled “All the Women in Me Are Tired.” The following year, she joined the Bronx Museum of the Arts as its inaugural Holly Block Social Justice Curator, a role she held for two years. Also in 2020, Wahi co-curated “Abortion Is Normal,” a traveling exhibition that explores bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, and gender-affirmation care that will be revived and travel across the country ahead of the next presidential election. 

And only two months ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored Wahi during Women’s History Month as one of four women making a difference in government, philanthropy, and the arts. A self-described workaholic, Wahi has also taught at a number of art institutions, including Yale and the School of Visual Arts. She currently teaches at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her Chihuahua mutt, Momo. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
I wake up around 8 a.m. and take my creature out, which is always a dramatic affair because she hates all other dogs. And then I do a bodega iced coffee and sandwich: Sausage, egg, and cheddar. I commute to our main space in Newark — I take the train or drive. Either way it’s about 45 minutes. I listen to music on the way, alternating between late-’90s R&B and old Bollywood music.

On measuring success:
It’s hard to make money in the arts, to get financial support. Especially with nonprofits. There were times when we were asking, “Where is this next paycheck going to come from?” Or “How do we pay our employees before we pay ourselves?” There are grants we haven’t gotten. There was a period when I was using student loans to fund my life. Rebecca [Pauline Jampol, the co-founder and co-director of PES] was bartending until 4 in the morning for the first four years of our partnership. And I will admit there were times where I was like, I should go to business school or work in finance. Where I think things won’t work out and I have a total panic spiral. And then Rebecca talks me off the ledge.

We only really started making money during the pandemic. All of our studios here in Newark are individual rooms, and because people were not working or going into an office, they were coming and spending time in their studio as a way to not go totally nuts. And so we were finally filling our studios, which is part of our income model.

I would consider myself an anti-capitalist, but I also live in a world where if I want to eat and have a roof over my head, I have to recognize that money is a thing, and artists need to eat and live and enjoy life just like everyone else.

On the people who help her get it done:
I am proudly single and on full auntie status, but I love other people’s kids, my dog, my girl gang, family, nieces and nephews, and my goddaughter, who helps keep me sane. But really, Rebecca keeps me in check or my head would just float off my shoulders and vanish into the cloud somewhere.

I always say, she’s the one who does all the work and I’m just the weird ideas gremlin. She is the person who makes sure that we get it done and that I get it done. And I don’t even know how she does it, because again, I’m single, no kids, and I feel like I’m always stressed out and drowning. And she’s a single mom, teaching, doing all the public art in Newark, and running this place. And still she finds time to make sure I’m not only okay on the business front but surviving as a person and not just eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in my office all day long.

On the small delights that get her through the day:
I have a mini-fridge here in the office that holds Diet Coke, Champagne, and a Halloween-size bag of cheap chocolate. The major food groups in my life.

On building self-confidence:
Even now, I deal with imposter syndrome all the time. One thing that I’ve found really helpful is just being transparent and open with other women who are my friends and my peers, not only to gas each other up to be like, “you’re great, you are worth it,” but also to look at the root of where this feeling comes from. And I’ve realized it’s a result of conditioning from other people. It’s other people telling us that we don’t belong. And the fact is, who’s to say that but us? I don’t know if I necessarily believe in mantras, the effectiveness of them, but I think it helps to tell yourself that you do belong here. It’s by virtue of the fact that you are in a space, on your own merit, that you belong there, over someone else.

On the one thing she does every day that grounds her:
This is a sort of mundane, unsexy one, but I’m a diabetic, so I check my blood sugar on my finger once a day. That’s a thing I’ve been doing for 30 years. My medication regimen is super-consistent because I don’t really have a choice. I just embrace it.

On winding down:
My family wasn’t very religious, but I grew up going to a Quaker school, and that was sort of my spiritual guidance. From the age of either 4 or 5, we would meet for worship and reflection in school several times a week. And so at the end of the day, I just find myself in my apartment reflecting, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes. I take that time to be quiet.

I’ll also turn on an audiobook. I listen to a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. Game of Thrones is what I’m listening to right now as well as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I also listen to a lot of zombie-apocalypse novels.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How Curator Jasmine Wahi Gets It Done