Curating the community: How the Durham Arts Council works

Susan Tierney, artist services manager, at the Third Friday exhibit for “America Wants.” (Staff Corin Hemphill)



The Durham Arts Council aims to provide resources for the community so people can reach their full creative potential.  Through classes, funding, and cultural events the staff works towards making the council the hub of arts in the Bull City.

Susan Tierney is the Artist Services Manager at the Durham Arts Council. She’s a visual artist from the University of Wisconsin and has experience doing marketing for non-profits. Tierney has been living in Durham for five years and in her spare time does oil paintings for commission work. Tierney’s mission is to provide artists in the area with the funding and opportunities they need for success.

Her positon at the Durham Arts Council involves a blend of arts and outreach work. “I’m just continually trying to reach as many people as we can. One of the things we’ve been working on in the time I’ve been here is a directory of artists and organizations that we’ve been looking at launching this spring,” Tierney said. “We hope to include a lot of people in it and have it be something that the community can come to and say ‘Hey I want to have a mural’ or ‘who’s doing good work in Durham?’ and be able to find what they’re looking for.” The directory will also provide artist with opportunities to find collaborations.

The Durham Arts Council has exhibit programs and festivals. “CenterFest is our signature that happens every third weekend of September. The Durham Art Walk is a non-juried opportunity for people who maybe don’t have a lot of experience showing their work to come out, set up a booth every November the weekend before Thanksgiving.” Tierney says the CenterFest brings in about 150 exhibitors.

According to Tierney the Durham Arts Council generally has about 12 exhibits each year. Some solo shows, some group shows, and some from area organizations the Council contracted out.

“A great example of that is the show we have upcoming through The Artist Studio Project,” Tierney said. “They’ve done some great work for us putting shows together in the last couple years as part of their El Quijote festival. So they go out find great artists, curate a show around a particular theme. This year it’s a woman of honor theme.”

This May, the Durham Arts Council will be having a group from the Nasher Teen Council come in. The Nasher Teen Council is having an open call to curate artists between the ages of 13 and 25.

An annual call is one of several ways to curate or select and organize artists for an event. “There’s an online platform where people can submit their work called Call for Entry Café,” Tierney explained. “We asked artists to send 5-10 images of your work, your resume, your artist statement and we convene a jury of people from the community who are heavily involved in the arts to take a look at the work, give us their ideas of what they’d like to see in a show.” The staff at the Durham Arts Council then reviews that feedback and selects shows for the exhibits.

Tierney described the critical process for curating art as gut-level work. “We’re looking for something that’s visually compelling. Something that has a really distinct point of view. If it’s thematically on topic with something that happens in the world today.”

This can be seen in the gallery with the recent exhibit “America Wants” by Owen Daniels. Owen Daniels is a visual artist/photographer who became involved in social issues and the nuances of manipulation in media. “I take that issue and I try to dig down to it and find a niche,” Daniels said. “Social issues that challenge America inspire me to create this type of work.”

Tierney says the council loves to represent artists from Durham and surrounding communities. However, it’s an open call so naturally they have voices from all over the country. “Artist that we invite from outside the immediate area; we try to make sure that they’re bringing something to Durham we’re not seeing here or would be particularly compelling to audiences here.”

When it comes to a piece being compelling, subjectivity and objectivity are difficult to separate. While there’s art that can be seen as objectively good, personal taste will certainly play a factor in judging art. For that reason, the Durham Arts Council involves as many people as possible in picking shows, so they can represent a wide range of perspectives.

It’s also difficult to handle a large number of submissions with a limited number of shows. “We want a lot of submissions because we want to pick the absolute best work out there,” Tierney said. “It’s mostly time. Spending a lot of time reviewing the work. When we have our jurors taking a preliminary look at the work coming in, that’s a valuable tool because they’re kind of doing a first level of review.”

Tierney says anyone who makes their radar will be kept on a list for reference. Somebody who could serve on a panel, would be good as a resource, or someone who could fit a later exhibit.

On the third Friday of every month Durham art venues host FREE receptions to celebrate their current exhibitions. The Durham Arts Council has seen a steadily growing presence at Third Friday events as the art community has blossomed. Tierney says an event that took place last December drew in 600 people.

The Council is currently featuring “Us & Them,” paintings by William Paul Thomas.