by Sara Morrison
Risa Shoup peers out from behind "Rapture Romance #5," created by two artists who go by the moniker “Ghost of a Dream" and use discarded lottery tickets and romance novel covers in their work. The pair was recently signed to Davidson Contemporary, a division of the “blue chip” Maxwell Davidson Gallery, and Shoup bought the piece in the hopes that it would significantly appreciate in value. Unfortunately, her busy work schedule has left her no time to display it in her apartment. (photo: Sara Morrison)
Risa Shoup, 28, describes herself as a “happy workaholic.” A freelance art curator and development consultant for nonprofit arts organizations, Shoup’s love of her work is obvious whenever the gregarious Brooklyn resident talks about it. Her speech becomes more animated and her eyes light up behind her thick-rimmed glasses. That passion is what fuels her as she juggles her time between her many clients. It’s also why she’s planning to leave it behind in favor of law school.
"I love installation art," Shoup says; "If I’m known for anything, it’s that." Installations are where her curatorial career began. Two weeks after graduating from Skidmore College in 2005, Shoup got a job working at chashama, a nonprofit that works with city building owners to convert vacant properties into short-term gallery spaces, installations, and subsidized artist studios. Six months later, she was the organization’s programming director, where one of her jobs was to curate installation pieces in vacant storefront windows.
At Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center, where Shoup has curated two shows and is currently working on a third, she points to an installation by Chong Gon Byun, packed with re-purposed found objects such as a cellos, cigarette advertisements, gas masks, and scientific models of the reproductive system, all carefully placed on the gallery wall. Pieces like this, she says, “speak to my obsession with space. I’m not an artist – I don’t want to be — but I do feel that creative tug when it comes to working with space.” Shoup doesn’t just select which works will be used for an exhibition; she also plans out where and how each piece will be displayed, taking into consideration how it will work in relation to the other artwork and the space they all inhabit.
It was Shoup’s inability to put a different kind of space between herself and her work that ultimately lead to her leaving chashama: “I loved what I did, so I wanted to do it all the time. But I didn’t know that I also had to not do it sometimes.” Feeling “burnt out,” she decided to pursue a Masters in English/Cultural Studies at Brooklyn College, earning her degree last spring. When it came time to re-enter the workforce, she found that the art world had changed: “there was a lot less money than there used to be and a lot less stability.”
Cultural nonprofits were hit hard by the recession, according to the Alliance for the Arts’ latest “State of the Arts” report, which uses data from the Cultural Data Project that is not publically available. New York City nonprofit cultural organizations lost so much funding in 2009 that they went from a 5.5% budget surplus in 2008 to a deficit of nearly 10.5% the following year.
Organizations that survived are still recovering from that “enormous financial strain” today, the report says, leading to hiring freezes, layoffs, and reductions in employee hours and programs offered to the public. While Alliance for the Arts’ most current data says over 104,000 people in the city are employed by these organizations, more than half of them are independent contractors like Shoup, and the majority of salaried employees are part-time.
This could be good news for Shoup and her colleagues. If a full-time staff curator is an expense too great to bear these days, an independent contractor, who only works for a set time period and is not given benefits or paid sick days, can be very attractive. Accordingly, independent curation seems to be growing in popularity – enough that last year, the Association of Art Museum Curators decided to offer adjunct memberships to independent curators.
Shoup notes that funding for art programs and organizations seems to be returning, though she’s not sure how long the bounce back will take or how high that bounce will be. She’s currently working with Invisible Dog as an independent curator for an upcoming exhibit of R Justin Stewart's mixed media sculptures and installations that will take up the former factory space's entire first floor when it debuts next March. Lucien Zayan, founder and director of Invisible Dog, says he has been really impressed by both her work and her engagement with her artists and their art. “Risa is definitely part of the Invisible Dog family,” Zayan says.
In addition to her curatorial duties, she works as a development consultant for art nonprofits such as The Wassaic Project (where she has also been a guest curator), writing “various grants” and working with the organization’s co-directors on their mission as the organization grew and changed. Between those projects and her part-time position as a grant manager at the Queens Council on the Arts, she estimates that she works “at least” 40 hours a week and will pull in about $40,000 this year.
Risa Shoup enjoys the rooftop garden at Georgia’s Place, an independent living facility for formerly homeless people Shoup visits every week to pick up her partial farm share through the Crown Heights CSA she belongs to. Shoup says the weekly ritual is a “dependable moment of decompression” and a nice reality check for her: “even if your work life is crazy, everything is still going on. It’s a reminder that you’re not the only one.” (photo: Sara Morrison)
"Being busy and having lots of projects at once feeds me," Shoup says; "I don’t really know how to do it any other way." She doesn’t have to, either – for now, at least. The problem with working as a freelancer, though, is that even in the best of economic times, the workload can be wildly unpredictable. Ryan Frank, whose installation “The Bathroom” was the first Shoup ever curated and who has remained a good friend and frequent collaborator, agrees: “being a freelancer is a challenge right now.”
Diana Glazer, Shoup’s girlfriend of a year and a half, moved in with her and her cat, Nina, last November, into a cozy one-bedroom apartment with stickers haphazardly placed on the front door that read “Welcome friends!” Glazer knows all about the life of a freelancer, both from what she’s seen of Shoup’s work and her previous career as an independent theater director and producer. Deciding that she “needed stability,” she took a job in the theater department at International Creative Management. “For me, I do better work when I’m able to hustle as part of my job, not for my job,” she says.
Shoup agrees: “it’s a constant hustle to have enough gigs so I feel like my financials are stable enough and my work level is stable enough.” She feels “very fortunate” to be in that place right now, but has to constantly worry and plan ahead in case she hits a slow patch in six months, which, she says, can be exhausting. And for someone who prefers to live “a little farther in the future than I do in the present,” it can also be frightening. “It’s hard to take the pulse of the industry because of the economic conditions that have befallen us so rapidly in the last few years,” she says.
Though she can – and does – save money to prepare for a dearth of projects, it’s the emotional toll the lack of work takes that most concerns her. Shoup says she grew up watching three “workaholic” parents – her mother, father, and stepfather — “so I don’t know what it is to not work a lot.” She struggled in the past with setting boundaries between her work and personal life, and still finds it difficult today not to take dry periods personally. “When I don’t have work, I go through some periods of pretty serious self-doubt,” she says; “Maintaining momentum and confidence can be difficult.”
To that end, she’s decided to make a change: “I like to know what’s coming and it’s hard to know that right now. And I feel like going to law school and pursuing that professional opportunity will give me a better idea about what’s available.” LSAT test prep material and law school applications are now part of Shoup’s loaded workday; she plans to take the LSATs in early December and is applying to law schools such as Columbia, NYU, Fordham, and CUNY for admission next fall.
It seems like a far cry from curatorial work, but Shoup hopes to integrate her experience with the local art scene and nonprofits to become a community development lawyer. Ideally, she’ll study real estate and administrative law and work for a larger nonprofit that provides legal services to smaller cultural nonprofits, helping them find spaces to work in and develop their programs.
Walking down the sidewalk in her Crown Heights neighborhood, she says this is the kind of community in which she wants to work: “I see a lot of growth opportunity here and I believe in communities. I believe in my own community and I believe in working locally as a way of enhancing the overall quality of life.”
Glazer sees Shoup’s decision to go back to law school not as a way to change her career path, but to build on it. “I think Risa’s interested in empowering herself and getting a deeper knowledge that will lead to greater success,” she says; “You can’t necessarily guarantee stability but you can make yourself the best possible candidate for the opportunities that you want.”
Shoup seems excited about what the future holds. Now that she’s in a committed relationship and has a responsibility to both her girlfriend and herself to be as financially and emotionally stable as possible, she’s ready to move her career forward. “I always knew some adjustment would need to be made in order to create a permanent path,” Shoup says: “I knew that I needed a couple of years to freelance before I figured out what I had to do.”
Still, the fact that she’s giving up a successful freelance career to do it has baffled some people close to her, Shoup says: “I’ve had some friends who are like, ‘you’re doing great. Like, you’re so awesome. You work on cool stuff, like, just keep doing it, it’ll happen for you.’ And I’m like, no, I don’t work that way,” she says. There is, it seems, at least one job the self-proclaimed workaholic refuses to do: “I don’t work on blind faith.”
In Her Own Words: Risa Shoup talks about what she learned on the job during the first project she ever curated — an installation called “The Bathroom” by Ryan Frank and Cecile Evans for chashama’s Windows Program, which places temporary art displays in vacant storefront windows:
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