With its inviting library and fireplace, Tribeca’s Smyth hotel is the perfect setting for a meeting with Isolde Brielmaier. Warm and elegant as this cozy clime, Brielmaier has spent the past 20 years engaging the art world as a scholar and curator. A graduate of Columbia University with a Ph.D. in art history and cultural studies, she has curated shows at the Bronx Museum, The Guggenheim, and the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Art, with a focus largely on women and artists of color.
“I have a very global scope,” she says. “I’m interested in artists of color and underrepresented artists but within an international mix. Some of that comes from my background as well.” A first-generation American born to an engineer-turned-entrepreneur father from Uganda and a social worker mother from Germany, Isolde attended secondary school in Hamburg. Trained in both modern and classical dance, she used this experience as a point of entry looking towards the audience and their needs.
“Four or five years ago, I realized that my dance instruction had a huge impact on me in terms of visual literacy: how I curate and work with artists, how I think of audiences and understand costumes,” says Brielmaier. “All of these pieces revealed through reflection have allowed me to connect the dots and it’s been an interesting experience, specifically as a practice in the new year.”
In addition to working with artists like Fred Wilson as part of SCAD’s deFINE ART programming, one of Brielmaier’s favorite experiences with an artist happened when she curated “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists” at the Bronx Museum in 2011. For the exhibition, Brielmaier paired the then-95 year-old Catlett’s work (like those with Mexico’s Taller de Gráfica Popular) opposite artists that shared a dialogue with her oeuvre—think Shinique Smith’s graffiti-esque paintings and Hank Willis Thomas’s street jewelry sendup of a golden pendant from a bound slave to family portraits by Renee Cox and Kalup Linzy’s video work—all of which was archived by the museum in an elegantly illustrated catalogue. Today, Brielmaier oversees art and cultural programming at Westfield World Trade Center, is an assistant professor of critical studies at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and was recently appointed as the curator-at-large at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum, where she just received a three-year Mellon Foundation Grant.
“It’s geared towards amplifying and turning up the volume on artists of color, underrepresented artists and women,” she says. “They want to increase their profile a little bit more and maybe even do some programming here in the city.” An analogue to this effort might be found in the New Museum’s school and teen programs (partnered with Westfield), which highlight the museum’s mission for “new art, new ideas” and work with several New York City high schools to engage students with contemporary art. With the Public Art Fund, they plan to bring video art to the large screens extending the length of a large hallway connecting the Path Train, the Oculus and the World Trade Center.
“Now more than ever, thoughtful action is critical on the part of curators, artists, and museums,” says Brielmaier when asked about her role as a curator in a post-Trump environment. “There are so many artists whose work is engaged—both implicitly and explicitly—with the world and the important issues that confront us and I am very committed to providing platforms for these artists.”