WORDS Paul Polycarpou
“Formally, I’m an art historian, and the Dutch Golden Age is where my heart beats just a bit faster.”
Why Nashville? What brings you here?
This job. I knew nothing about Nashville but saw this opportunity at Cheekwood and everything just fell in place by finding everything I love in one position. So we uprooted from Miami and came here. I say this with complete affection, but Nashville was a Plan B for us. The long-term plan was to return to Europe, until this opportunity came along. Hurricane Irma also helped us with the decision. When we evacuated, we stayed in North Georgia; by this time, I already had my first interview. So, we drove a little further and saw enough of Nashville to know that it was a viable possibility.
What were your first impressions?
It’s not Miami, that’s for sure. Very manicured and clean. Very homogeneous compared to Miami, which is an incredibly multicultural and dynamic place. There’s no ocean! I’ve always lived by an ocean, so being landlocked is a first for me.
Any local artists in particular that interest you?
Oh, yes, lots. I’m really looking forward to meeting María Magdalena Campos-Pons. With her Cuban heritage and my time in Miami, I think there will be some interesting conversations there.
When and where are you the happiest?
In my professional life, working with artists on site—specific projects and the challenges that brings. The trial and error, I love that. Seeing how artists reshape their own practice by thinking about site specificity in contrast to the white cube and studio setting. That’s a rich and rewarding process for me. In my personal life, it’s traveling. It’s the one luxury my partner, David, and I agreed we should give our two children.
Which places on your travels have stayed with you?
Sintra in Portugal, an extraordinary mountaintop village. Certainly Cusco, Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu in Peru. The Azores, the feeling of being on an island literally in the middle of the ocean is an exhilarating one.
Who are the artists that make you weak in the knees?
Formally, I’m an art historian, and the Dutch Golden Age is where my heart beats just a bit faster. From that era, I like Gerard ter Borch, Frans van Mieris, and Jan Steen. Do Ho Suh, a Korean sculptor and installation artist, and Xavier Veilhan, a French artist. Artists that are thinking specifically about interacting with the public and with spaces. Robert Winthrop Chanler, a relatively unknown artist who did a lot of commissions for gilded- age houses, whom I published a book on in 2016. His immersive murals and decorative embellishments operate as Gesamtkunstwerks. Janet Cardiff’s sound installation Forty Part Motet, which I saw at the Tate Modern last summer, moved me in profound ways and showed how a space can be filled with something intangible.
What was the last great book you read?
Probably Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese American humanist geographer. It’s been the foundation for a lot of the things I do and shows how much agency we have over our relationships with spaces, especially those that may seem static. The last show I curated at Vizcaya in Miami took Tuan’s ideas as a point of departure.
Who would you like to have a long conversation with?
Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, a museology expert. She has been very influential in the way we think about museums and how they impact our lives. Yi-Fu Tuan is still alive; I’d like to talk to him.
What music do you listen to?
David Bowie, Massive Attack. A lot of Icelandic music, Björk, Röyksopp, Sigur Rós. The Clash. Cocteau Twins. Love and Rockets. Damien Rice.
Who has been a major influence on you?
My parents, definitely. The way they live their lives. The energy and passion they put into everything they do. They’ve always been crazy risk takers and never think something isn’t possible. Joel Hoffman, an incredible museum director, art historian, and visionary. Every good thing I accomplished professionally, he was in my corner.
What are you good at?
Multitasking, balancing a lot of things in my work and my lifestyle. I’m very active; I run a lot. I cannot stand to be idle. That stresses me out.
So, what are you bad at?
I think I compromise a lot, but I think I could compromise a little more. Sometimes you have to relinquish parts of your vision because of external circumstances. Patience, I don’t have patience. I like things to move really fast. By default, I expect others to be at the same pace, which is an entirely unreasonable expectation.
What’s your greatest fear?
Not being able to leave a mark. To go through life just taking up oxygen. I want to make a difference through my work, through my children, my family. The arts are so vital in so many ways, especially right now. You can think of art and museums as a luxury, but to me they are essential.
What advice would you give the young Gina?
I would tell her to maybe spend more time on friendships and relationships. I was always so busy and goal oriented that I never really valued personal connections. I would tell the younger me to invest more time in people.
What can we look forward to here at Cheekwood?
I’m working on a fall exhibition with local and regional contemporary artists. Looking at the intersection of new work with our permanent collection. It will give me the opportunity to get to know the local arts community. I’m also trying to kick off a salon series that will allow Cheekwood to become a forum, dialogue-based space where relevant conversations can happen. We have major plans for the sculpture trail and for a children’s garden, and we’re renovating the horse stables. There’s a lot going on, big and small, tangible and intangible.