Art Professional Spotlight | Visual Arts

Reflections of an Art World: A Conversation with Nancy Rivera

Image courtesy the artist

Born in Mexico City, Nancy Rivera is a Salt Lake City-based artist, curator, and arts administrator.

An interdisciplinary artist, she utilizes photography, video, sculpture, and installation to explore themes of dual cultural identity and its effects, such as code-switching, cultural assimilation, and displacement. Her work has been selected for a number of group, solo, and two-person exhibitions and is currently in public and private collections in Utah, Arizona, and Georgia. In 2021, she was awarded the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Artist Empowerment Grant and was a NALAC Leadership Institute Fellow. She received her BFA from Weber State University and her MFA from the University of Utah.

She has curated exhibitions including Spacemaker (2021), an exhibition of University of Utah faculty works and Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism (2020), co-curated with this author. She has overseen the Visual Arts Program at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums since spring 2019.

She has worked for Craft Lake City, CUAC, and Utah Film Center, and since 2019 she has managed the Visual Arts Program at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums

SH: You are an artist, curator, and administrator. How has your work as an artist informed your work as curator and administrator?

NR: In my early days as an arts administrator and professional artist, I used to think they were two entirely different entities. But I soon realized that having a background as a working artist gave me unique insight that was really helpful in the different facets of my work as an arts administrator.

The network of friends and colleagues I’ve built as an artist has been really valuable as well. I think back to when you and I were curating our exhibition in 2020 [Women to the Front: Perspectives on Equality, Gender, and Activism]. A lot of those connections I knew at that time were from being an artist myself and having access to people in a different, more intimate way. My (professional) curatorial work only started a few years ago, so most people knew me as an artist, or a colleague on a creative level, so that was an interesting process that translated well for curating a show and connecting artists to various opportunities through the Division of Arts & Museums.

As an artist-curator, I have a curiosity about the behind-the-scenes of how artists create work, because as an artist myself, I know how intricate their thought process and creative process can be. For me, the best part of curating is having a different way of collaborating with artists and accessing their work through a different lens.

S.H. What are some lessons or observations you have from working with countless local artists in your time at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums?

N.R. One of the biggest projects I oversee is the Fellowship program, which, as one of the most significant awards in the state, and provides financial stipends to individual artists.

This program provides one of the most fulfilling parts of working as an arts administrator, because seeing the number of artists that engage with us through that program and learning about their work through the application has really made me proud of the quality of work that comes out of Utah and just how talented and smart the artists we have here are [applications for this year’s program are due March 7].

We are very isolated as creators sometimes, and it’s easy to be focused on a small circle of artists that are really active, so having a process where you’re able to see hundreds of artists and their ways of seeing and visualizing the subject matter they create is really valuable. It’s been enlightening [to see] how large the art community actually is.

During the pandemic, it’s been a rough spot to be in as an arts administrator — to assess how artists’ needs have changed and creating opportunities for them over the past couple years. Things have changed a lot. I’m really hoping things can slowly come back to a state where we can provide artists sufficient opportunities to thrive.

S.H. What are some of the most memorable pieces of art — be it visual art, literature, television, or film — that you’ve consumed during the pandemic that have resonated with you?

N.R. Throughout the pandemic, especially at the beginning, there was a collective desire to connect because of the isolation. In some ways, it was nice because a lot of things moved to an electronic format, so they were more accessible to anyone.

When thinking about a work of art that’s resonated with me, I keep coming back to thinking about the early days of the pandemic days and a specific virtual art interaction that had a big impact on me. The Orange County Museum of Art invited artist Kathryn Garcia to create a guided meditation using one of her artworks as the object of meditation. The piece itself is a beautiful geometrical drawing with soothing shades of blue, and soft but precise line work. I’ve never been great at meditating but the act of sitting quietly and deeply connecting with this artwork was very grounding. The idea of artwork operating as meditative tools and portals to inner experience really resonated with me and has changed the way I approach art and art-making.

S.H. Do you have any shows or projects in the works?

N.R. As far as my art practice, 2022 is about really carefully considering the next steps.

For all of January, I have been working on applications for grants, fellowships, etc. It’s taxing but essential as an artist to ensure your art is seen and to get critical funding. These steps are important but aren’t always discussed by artists because they can be monotonous and time consuming and therefore are seen as less exciting parts of being an artist.

Without the pressure of having to write out statements for applications, I’m not sure I’d press myself to sit down and articulate what my art is about and finding opportunities to create a better understanding of my artwork. I’m at a place where I feel really comfortable talking about the subject matter, what I intend and what my intention is behind the work and that’s been really helpful as I think about what I’d like to do in the year ahead.

We [artists] tend to move really quickly through work, especially if we’re engaged in social media, where you are really pushed to show how prolific you are and that you’re always working on something. This works against us because you don’t sit and reflect about the work you’re doing. I realize there are a few parts of my projects that I have started but I don’t feel there’s closure to them yet, so there’s a lot of ongoing work from 2020, that I want to take and continue the work with so that by the end of the year, I have all of that completed and feel satisfied with the results. In particular, my series of cross-stitched portraits that continues to be a very personal project, and as I started writing about it, it had a lot more content than I originally thought that I had. My plan is to continue this for a larger series of work. I tend to start projects quickly, so I’m looking forward to slowing down and letting the works sit with me for a bit.

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  1. Nancy Rivera is a self-effacing administrator and a remarkable communicator. She has made interacting with the state arts organizations even easier than it has always been. Her remark to Scotti Hill, ‘I soon realized that having a background as a working artist gave me unique insight that was really helpful in the different facets of my work as an arts administrator’ explains a lot; I’ve had the same experience as a critic who was a full-time artist for years. It makes all the difference in our work that we know something about what it means to be and work as an artist. Thank you for a typically lucid and thorough introduction to this asset to the community.

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