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MARK SCALA ON LEADERSHIP: ART IS A SOCIAL PRACTICE. ART IS ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD

Author: Emily Hunt

Rina Banerjee media preview: Courtesy of Frist Art Museum. Photo by Emily Beard.

Webamp recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Scala, chief curator for the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Before becoming a curator, Mark Scala shares he started out as a painter back in the 80’s. 

His first job out of graduate school was to run a university art gallery in conjunction with teaching painting classes. Scala recalls that he found he enjoyed running the gallery more than he liked teaching. Thus, he decided to go back to school to get a degree in art history with a museum studies emphasis so he could focus on curation. He has been a curator ever since. Scala shares,

“For me, having been trained as an artist is beneficial because I do a lot of studio visits where I meet with artists and talk to them. It helps give me the insight into their practice that comes with anyone who has tried to create things. You know where the frustrations lie. You know where the desires lie. And where the successes come.”  

Scala emphasizes that he loves working with artists who genuinely get to know subjects such as sociology, politics, physics, and so on through research or collaboration with specialists in those fields. He enjoys seeing how artists can sometimes find the real grist for their mill in disciplines outside of art. Scala remarks, 

“Art is a social practice. Art is an engagement with the world.”

Leadership & Exhibitions

Mark Scala unpacked what it means to be a leader when organizing an exhibition by sharing his creative process for the 2018 thematic exhibition Chaos and Awe: Painting for the 21st Century. In this exhibition, Scala brought together the works of painters from around the world to communicate how painting is a poignant medium for communicating contemporary conceptions of the sublime. Scala recalls,

“I had this notion that painting is a really apt medium for conveying the sense of fragmentation and disequilibrium that people seem to be feeling all over the place. Painting has done that for a really long time, and it is still really good at it even though painting is an archaic medium compared to film or augmented reality. For me, there is a paradox there. That is, the oldest way of making art is also a way that conveys the most recent feelings of the social imaginary.”

That, to Scala, is an interesting phenomenon he thought would interest both the art lover and casual viewer because we are all feeling the same things. We are all feeling that things are falling apart. Scala explains if an artist is addressing issues of disillusion and fragmentation, then when she makes them into a painting she is reconfiguring them. The artist is postulating the capacity of the world to be reconfigured. That, for Scala, is a really interesting thing. He wanted it to be a global exhibition, not just an American or European one in order to convey that these feelings are universally affecting everyone in similar but different ways. Thus, Scala organized an exhibition embodying this notion of a fluid language through art.  

Chaos and Awe media preview: Courtesy of Frist Art Museum. Photo by Ramona Whitworth.

Art can have a powerful impact on individual lives 

Scala shares his greatest pleasure is to work with artists who are not just passionate about what they do, but are able to articulate and share the excitement of what they create with a wider audience. He is drawn to artists who don’t simply think of art as an activity or opportunity to make something attractive and interesting, but actually see art as a life changing force. For Scala, this is really inspiring. As a leader in curation he strives to make art accessible to both the art lover and the novice viewer. Scala states, 

“For me, it is always about helping a visitor understand Why is this here? Why am I asked to look at this? Why is it important? How does it fit not just within this artist’s work, but how does it fit in the world? You know, that is a really important question.”  

Scala told Webamp one of his favorite things as a curator is to work really hard on an exhibition and then go into the gallery after it opens and see a lot of people there. Due to the impact of COVID-19, Scala admits it is a little hard not to see that right now. He stresses the need for museum attendance. In order to survive, museums need to demonstrate that they are having an impact. 

If you would like to stay up to date on everything Mark Scala is doing, connect with him on LinkedIn. Scala has been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Art Daily. Additionally, for more information on the Frist Art Museum visit their website.

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