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Essence Harden Leads With Feeling

Shawna Ferreira / Cultured Magazine Photo: Shawna Ferreira

Essence Harden had a particularly vibrant week at the fifth exhibition of Frieze Los Angeles. Still, for one of the West Coast’s most sought-after curators, Harden’s life perpetually runs off a reserve of creative energy and artistic inspiration. As a visual-arts curator at the California African American Museum, the curator of Frieze L.A. and Focus 2024, and a co-curator of Made in L.A. 2025, Harden spends her time studying art, selecting it, and crafting concepts around it in hopes that it will educate and resonate with a broad and diverse public. Below, Harden speaks to the Cut about the beauty of archives and the ongoing education being in community with artists promises.

What drew you to curatorial studies? Was there a defining moment in your life that led you on this path?

I went to UC Berkeley for graduate school. I think, in part, my entry point to art as a discipline was through Black studies and visual culture. So I had an understanding of curatorial practice that was fairly academic and also not so rooted in art history. My dissertation changed and became about this collective that happened in L.A. called Studio Z in the 1970s. And so I moved here to do research. And while I was here, I started writing reviews about art. I participated in Black Portraitures in 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. So the impetus around curating came from those three points: Black visual studies, doing the Black Portraitures conference, and writing about art. I took my presentation from Black Portraitures and made it my first exhibition, and have never looked back. I did 27 shows in the last seven years.

I love that you come from that sensibility of subcultures and countercultures, outsider and underground art. And by contrast, you’re also moving through these major, more corporate art spaces — like Frieze Art Fair, for instance. How important is having both of these artistic worlds and sensibilities as part of your creative consciousness? How do they benefit one another, and how do you hold them in equal balance?

I don’t know if I hold them in equal balance. I think I probably lean quite heavily on doing what I want, and I feel honored that people trust me to be able to do that. I think about sales somewhat, but I’m not a salesperson. And that’s fine. But I think a lot can be gained from having a deep investment in people working in more ephemeral-based practices. So performance, and working with objects that are fragile or might fall apart or disappear, remains paramount, as much as a painting or a photograph. I just kind of go off of my general investment, which is often abstraction and ephemeral-based practices, and I lead with that. I think it allows me to have my own kind of curatorial voice, which is attractive to something like Frieze. They want someone, I imagine, who is also working outside of the traditional kind of efforts that have been put forward with art, because there’s a lot of that. And it’s not to say that that’s bad. It’s just that I don’t know it. And I’m happy not to know, and to not operate out of that space. I think companies like Frieze are also happy to give me a platform to give other people a platform for a very beneficial endeavor, essentially.

Speaking of Frieze, how did you approach curating this year’s “Focus” section? And what felt poignant and timely about “ecology” as a theme? 

I got nearly 100 proposals for only 12 slots. I was selecting not with a rubric but with a feeling or a sensation, so I led it from that space. So then after I distilled it to these 12 galleries and 12 artists, because they’re all solo presentations, I was asked, “What thematically am I looking at here? Why did I choose these things? What is happening that’s connecting all of them because they’re all very different?” There must be something cohesive about where I was coming from, and my perspective around choice. I kind of worked backward. A level of intuition guides, and then there’s a return to being a theoretical person to whatever degree.

I thought about ecologies, which is just to say that there’s an interest in the relationship and tensions between humans and the environment, which is happening in myriad ways with all of these artists. And so that can look like someone like James Perkins, who works with marble, and the sculptures are being treated in the ocean. Or someone like Widline Cadet, who is thinking through family archives, land, and being Haitian American, and how Los Angeles has become this kind of replica of Haiti for her in relation to how she composes her images. And so it was like this other type of ecological finding around not displacement, but removal of home to enter a new home and how that appears via this creation of the archive for Widline. I could see how the term “ecology” could allow for all these people to converse with each other, and how I could then begin to have a curatorial concept that made sense. But it gave me enough room and breath for everyone to do their thing.

You’ve just been announced as co-curator of the Hammer Museum’s 2025 Made in L.A. biennial. How do you keep your ear to the ground on what’s hot, who’s up and coming, and who’s thriving in the art scene here? What’s your early research process for the show looking like now?

I’ve been here for nine years and what’s cool is that I’m friends with mostly artists, other curators, art workers, people who make music, film, and TV, and many people who just love art. And so right now — I mean, I have my own kind of endless list of people who I want to have business meetings with — but I always ask artists who they’re interested in because artists are not deeply invested in a market; their intentions are very different.

As visual arts curator and program manager at California African American Museum, how do you feel your work there fits into the broader landscape of the Los Angeles art world? How do you juggle having a home-based institution while collaborating with other places like the Hammer Museum and Frieze?

I think that my loyalty is to myself; I think of jobs as jobs. And that’s the kind of separation I like to have. You know that Toni Morrison quote, like, “My real life is with my family.” I feel like it’s important that I reify that I don’t belong to anyone besides my people.

How would you define an “art city?” Is Los Angeles one? How has the presence of Frieze Art Fair here since 2019 helped boost the city’s fine-art reputation, especially compared to other places where Frieze takes place internationally, like London, New York, and Seoul?

I guess it’s really about economy. I imagine any city could be an art city because there’s art happening anywhere and everywhere, but when you think about the density of a place and its capacity to make money from that thing … these kinds of terms feel very aligned with whatever the market forces. So like, the Bay Area becomes a “tech city,” even though 90 percent of the population of the Bay Area doesn’t work in tech. People are working in food service or for the government, but the industry making the most money for the market is tech.

People have always made work here. And it happens around so many areas of the city that are recognized as fine art and in ways that people can’t consume privately. So then they aren’t named “fine art” because maybe the art is a mural or graffiti.

What are the symbols and tropes and other visual cues that help define Los Angeles and distinguish it from other places?

I think every moment of L.A. has its thing. And I think there’s something to be said about the billboards, neon, and the public kind of advertising space recruited by artists.

There’s also celebrity culture: I feel like people paint and photograph celebrities. I think the thing that I find really interesting is the use of cement, and other hard materials like wire and iron. I don’t know how much of that’s happening in the present day, outside of Nikita Gale. But that’s something I love from the ’70s and ’80s.

I think collage is another thing, like Mark Bradford’s work. And assemblage being a sort of re-creation within itself that L.A. artists are always refiguring — reconfiguring that term and expanding it. Lauren Halsey is an assemblage artist who has really expanded the term to not think about refuge but thinking of sustaining smaller economies, but also the idea of memory and having objects be infused with spirit.

How do you stay organized and motivated? Do you have any rituals, tips, or tricks that help you stay grounded and focused, especially during busy weeks like this one?

I love my vitamins, I love my supplements. I love drinking water. I make sure I eat breakfast and lunch, I make sure I go to bed early. I do not have too many drinks because there’s so much alcohol that flows, and I have to go to things every day. It’s giving boring earth sign because I’m a Taurus. And when I have a moment or an evening where I don’t have to be somewhere, I will be in that bathtub in water up to my neck watching Gilmore Girls.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start building a stronger relationship to art, whether that’s through collecting, curating, scholarship, or otherwise?

I would say go to exhibitions, go to smaller galleries, go to museums, go wherever. Just find a time in your week to go be with art. Show up and make it a part of your life. And then go to panels and other kinds of programs; Those are great places to find like-minded people who are also interested in investing in the same things you are.

And then there are archives, like the Southern California Library, which has the most Black Panther Party newspapers. It has like all of L.A., Black, and California history there. You can go to the Huntington and look at Octavia Butler’s archives and other places with an incredible amount of information.

Essence Harden Leads With Feeling