Stephanie Smith

For Heartland, a group exhibition focusing on art in the vast, and overlooked, center of the country, Stephanie Smith road-tripped along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Nauvoo, Illinois. She went east to Detroit and west to Omaha and to plenty of places in between.

Accompanying her were two curators from the Van Abbemuseum, the Netherlands-based institution that initiated the project.

The curator of contemporary art at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, Smith encountered the offbeat Kansas City performance art group Whoop Dee Doo, the metaphysically minded Omaha collective Carnal Torpor, and a Detroit couple who aim to turn that city’s housing crisis into an opportunity for artists. Her advice for making a voyage of discovery: “Do enough advance planning so that you have solid people to guide you, but leave space for serendipity.” She compiled her findings into the exhibition that will finally reach the Smart Museum on September 30th, after four months on display in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

One of the most visionary curators working right now in Chicago, Smith, 39, made her name with the 2005 show Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art, which traveled the country before completing its last stop in Michigan in March. The exhibition presented the work of 13 environmentally conscious artists and “caught the wave of broader interest,” says Smith, who often found herself explaining what sustainability meant. It also prompted Smith to move from the North Side to Hyde Park. “I decided I wanted to live the politics a little bit more and walk or bike to work,” she says.

Like artists, curators have identifying styles that distinguish their shows. With Smith, one can usually count on the inclusion of local artists—Heartland incorporates the work of Kerry James Marshall and Deb Sokolow, among others.

“It makes sense to collaborate with the community and make space for practices and forces that don’t have as much purchase,” she says. “Playing together is also more fun.”


Photograph: Saverio Truglia; Producer: Stephanie Foyer; Photo Assistant: Steven Karl Metzer