In Conversation with Alula Hunsen

Camilø Álvårez, a gallerist, private consultant, and advisor from New York, is veritably a man of many hats. From putting on exhibitions as a rogue curator-for-hire to owning and operating his own gallery space for nearly twenty years (Samsøñ, with showings now held inside his marital home), and much more, Álvårez lives in and amongst the arts. He explores representation and politics and offers criticality in his curation and operation. In this conversation, Camilø speaks with Alula Hunsen, an essayist, researcher, and editor with a passion for Black cultural production, creating creative spaces, and fostering alternative economies that empower self-determination. Alula caught up with him virtually as he received packages on a farm in the Berkshires to discuss art economies, institutions, and what’s really in a name.

Camilø Álvårez: What's your middle name?

Alula Hunsen: My middle name is Tesfaye; it’s pronounced Tess-Fi. 

CÁ: Oh, cool. I love middle names. My middle name is Ernesto, after Ernesto Che Guevara.

AH: Whoa.

CÁ: My parents were commies and they had to leave the Dominican Republic and come to the US. For Christ's sake, I wish they'd gone to, like, France.

AH: That's an awesome middle name. Let’s start with an introduction of yourself and what you're working on right now. 

CÁ: My name is Camilo Alvarez. I went to Skidmore College as an undergrad and studied art history. I really wanted to be an art historian, and I quickly learned that I did not want to focus on dead, mostly male, mostly white artists. [laughs]

So, I got internships at museums and galleries, including nonprofit and alternative art spaces, and I liked the faster pace of the galleries. I was working with living contemporary artists, diverse not just in their ethnicities and backgrounds but also their media: painting, sculpture, video, film, and performance. 

Early in my career, I worked for the MIT List Visual Arts Center. I helped put together a couple of catalogs and organized multiple exhibitions. After leaving MIT, I decided to open a gallery. I noticed that rent was far cheaper in Boston, so I started Samson Projects there. The gallery was open for thirteen years and represented dozens of local and international artists, including Jeffrey Gibson, who's going to be representing the US at the Venice Biennale this summer. I closed it a year before the pandemic hit. 

In the past few years, to pay the bills, I've become a private art advisor. I'm basically a glorified registrar for my clients’ collections and homes, and we sell, buy, donate, lend, and give artworks to museums. Another half of my work involves advisory boards: I'm the chair of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston's advisory board and a commissioner on the Boston Art Commission, and I am part of the advisory boards of the Tufts University Art Galleries and the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College. 

Installation view, collective selection / selective collection, curated by Camilø Álvårez, April 28 - June 16, 2023, Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY. Images: Courtesy of Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY & Samsøñ, Boston

AH: In light of all your work with collections and institutions, I want to discuss a quote that struck me from your interview in this spring’s tenth issue of the Boston Art Review: “I believe the territoriality inherent within the acquisition of an object is problematic. I’m a sincere believer that nobody owns art; you are just a steward of it.” Can you elaborate on this stewardship and what is necessary to cultivate it in galleries, museums, and the rest of the art world?

CÁ: Let's talk about the US’s arts institution system. It's very dependent on philanthropy, private well-moneyed individuals frequenting the galleries. And for an artist to have a major exhibition at an institution, they have to have gallery representation. How many galleries are there? Not many. In this morass, I think institutions could do so much more for audiences, insofar as they offer connections between artists and the public. The Art Newspaper reported that almost one-third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by just five galleries. That’s the definition of provincialism, right? 

Something sad that I've noticed as a professional is that multiple museum curators over the years who have ended up in gallery jobs were showing artists from that gallery where they now have a position. That can get pretty problematic, but you can't really fault anybody for trying to find a good job.

Anyway, those major institutions move like glaciers or cruise liners. It’s a mess. These institutions are supposedly the elite; they dictate taste. That’s another form of territorial reality.

It's a missed opportunity not to be able to share an object; as a curator slash gallerist, it's my job to spread these objects’ ideas. These objects hold ideas, right? So, in order for those ideas to be shared, the object has to appear somewhere. 

And then, supposedly, people make money off art. Besides the primary market, which galleries are involved in, I've always been involved in the secondary market, which is the resale of artwork. There has been a lot of talk recently about artists getting a percentage of the resale of an artwork. Museums can only resell artworks at auction. I think artists should see a percentage of that. 

Another understanding is, no one person makes an object. That person didn't fully make that paint or that canvas. I think art is more about raising questions than giving answers. 

And that's why I changed the styling of the gallery’s name to “Samsøñ,”  to include the mathematical symbol of the empty set, which means there is no answer and no question. It just is. If you're confused, that's a good reaction: sit with that chaos, let it simmer. You might get something from it ten years down the line. You might get something from it in ten minutes. But as long as you expose yourself to it, that's really what I'm about.

AH: That's also interesting to think about in a critical framework. So much criticism is an exercise not in asking a specific question or finding an answer, but in finding something interesting to ponder or sit inside. 

CÁ: Yeah. It's all about the attempt, the trying, you know? Because you gain expertise through trying many, many, many times—they say you need ten thousand hours to become an expert on something, right? But the more you try, the more you attempt, the more you realize, oh my God, there is so much more I didn't know about. 

AH: You mentioned that you were on advisory boards for some institutions and museums. What changes would you like to see at these institutions? Are you working on implementing any changes?

CÁ: One direct change that I suggested at the ICA is that the board used to be called the Board of Overseers—

AH: Wow. 

CÁ :—and we gotta change the name. [laughs]

The Boston Art Commission is a whole different beast, right? We are stewards, or keepers, of the Boston Art Collection, which includes buildings. [laughs]

There's also the super exciting but highly bureaucratic work of adding pieces to the Boston Art Collection. The most recent addition was the Hank Willis Thomas sculpture in Boston Common. There hadn't been a sculpture in Boston Common in more than a hundred years, let alone one by an African American artist. 

Also, with the Boston Art Commission, institutions vote on commissioners, and the institutions are the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Boston Public Libraries, and MassArt. So I’ve been asking, are there local Asian or African American institutions that can nominate commissioners? Starting that process has been interesting, but that's the level of nitty-gritty work on these advisory panels. The civic responsibility that somebody from an underprivileged background can contribute to a board of trustees is priceless. These trustees, these boards, don't necessarily reflect their audiences. How is that possible? I would love to see a trustee position that was voted by the members of an institution. That's democracy in action. 

Installation closeup view, collective selection / selective collection, curated by Camilø Álvårez, April 28 - June 16, 2023, Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY. Images: Courtesy of Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY & Samsøñ, Boston

AH: That's a brilliant idea, making the boards and commissioners responsive in that way to members and audiences. That sense of accountability seems important to how you think processes should run. 

CÁ: It's amazing how often this has to be explained. You could probably understand this, trying to learn how to plan a city. Oof, there are so many variables—everything from infrastructure to parks to how people walk around.

AH: Planning and policy in general are also top-down; maybe you vote for a city counselor who supports or doesn't support a thing, but you—as a citizen or as a person who lives in a city—don't get that direct say. The game becomes about putting pressure on someone to hopefully do something. 

CÁ: In the US, these city officials wield so much power along those lines, and then we question why they're corrupt. They got lobbyists galore and then they'll be at a city council for a couple years and then the next thing you know, they're working for the developer. 

AH: That parallels what we were talking about with museum curators and galleries! Speaking of galleries, I wanted to ask you: to what extent does samsøñ still exist? You mentioned you closed the gallery space a couple years ago. 

Installation closeup view, collective selection / selective collection, curated by Camilø Álvårez, April 28 - June 16, 2023, Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY. Images: Courtesy of Rivalry Projects, Buffalo, NY & Samsøñ, Boston

CÁ: Yeah, now it's a roving, itinerant platform for presentation; I'm specifically choosing where I want to take my efforts, my labor. I just curated a show this past summer called Selective Collection, Collective Selection for a small gallery in Buffalo, New York, with  forty to fifty artists working in diverse media. For me, diversity in exhibitions includes generations—established, emerging, and mid-career artists. This specific exhibition, and I didn't put this in the press release or anything, was all female or female-identifying artists, and it was beautiful. In the meantime, I have this amazing apartment in the South End in Boston, which is the first home Alexandra, my wife, and I acquired together, and in that space I recently showed Azita Moradkkhani, who was a student at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. She just moved to New York. She's Iranian and all the work was about political protest and Iranian history. Part of the proceeds from the show went to support some institutions that Azita had identified really wanting us to be involved with. 

That show was up only by appointment in my house, but it was also during the pandemic, so I wouldn't say it was well-viewed. It's not a public space. It's in the St. Cloud building, which is historically an artists’ building right next to the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End. Moving forward, what I want to do is only show couples in that space, and I'm still working on the next exhibition. I’ll only do one or two a year, really small, really focused. I was going to try to move into a curatorial position at a museum, but it's just not as alluring for me anymore. [laughs]

AH: What made you decide to use your home in the South End as a showing space? 

CÁ: I wanted to go back to a very intimate experience like the European salons of the seventeenth century. I'm sharing a domestic space; what does that mean? Every single show will have to refer to that. I always tell my wife, “Babe, home is where you are.” It's about questioning what home is and showing some generosity in opening up my home, my time. You don't have to pay. Just check this shit out. 

AH: I'm wondering what futures you see for art spaces—artist-run spaces, commercial spaces, nonprofit spaces, and exhibition spaces. 

CÁ: There are so many amazing things that can be done. For example, there's a nonprofit in New York called Recess; they have a residency program, and their board of trustees and advisors is from the community, and their exhibition program encompasses performance, experimentation, the panoply of culture. University and college galleries are incredibly underappreciated. And when they are appreciated, they're incredibly powerful. For example, the contemporary art center at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago has access to everything. And on top of that, artists want to show at these places because they already have an inbuilt audience. And all these university galleries need to really put themselves together. For example, UMass, UMass Amherst, UMass Lowell, UMass Boston, that network of galleries could transform Massachusetts culture. But they're so segmented; that also underscores a problem with academia wherein the faculty has been losing power over the curriculum. I think there are too many administrative positions currently being created, and instead of deans and provosts, there should be more professors. Adjunct faculty should get paid more. 

There have been unionizing efforts and demonstrations at places like the New School and Columbia University in New York. I think the student body is going to get really mad, and justifiably so. That's something I hold hope for: that these galleries get sat in and taken over. 

These nonprofit academic institutions and university galleries are the examples for other institutions. They're the filter, the muffler, the catalytic converter. 
AH: Yeah. [laughs] That’s a really good analogy. Thank you so much for the time, for your thoughts, for your brilliance, for sitting with me, man. I really appreciate it.