Unrequested Advice by

by March 22, 2022

A Monthly Column on The Art of Giving Unrequested Guidance.

Now that I’ve turned fifty, it feels more legitimate to share with you a new series on the nature of advice. I am aware that being a middle-aged curator has many limitations, but one of the potentials is sharing with others and trying to be of use. These words come from a person who actively blocked all forms of advice when young, and yet, consequently, I probably followed it more than anyone. Coming from a radically uneducated and therefore nonacademic context, my teachers, particularly one who became my doctoral adviser, took upon themselves the task of guiding me. I still remember much of my adviser’s advice.

“When writing on a given subject matter, try to gently acclimate the reader. Imagine she arrived a little late to a dinner and does not know the whereabouts of the subject matter. Then, she encounters a group friendly enough to explain the details. One by one they will introduce to her the questions and the terminology, so that she will be immediately familiar with the terms and also how everyone uses them, so that she can imagine what it is possible to do with them.”

I knew, then, that in my paper I had jumped directly into the subject, presenting my position as if I were trying to win a trial and leaving the reader half informed about her chances. But instead of thanking my teacher for the advice, I would say, “What do you know? Can one not reinvent the way papers are written?” He often sat down with me when I was deciding what seminars to take, and actively asked me to explain my choices. I would recite an eternally long list of seminars dealing with very similar subjects, and he would smile and say, “It is great to be interested in chocolate, but make sure you know something about cakes, the price of ingredients, and the potential allergies they cause. Don’t only go for things you like. Train your tolerance and patience by listening to things you do not feel any affection for.” And again I would reward him with a beautiful, “What do you know about me?!”

This led to me secretly doing as he said, but trying to hide it so he wouldn’t find out. Without a doubt he was — and is — an incredible adviser, one that also took no advice from his own teachers and suffered greatly from his mistakes. So, as Yoko Ono advised, he learned from his pain. He swallowed his pride and began relentlessly advising students like me.

Of course, advice is a fishy substance. Grand scenarios in which gender, age, class, background, and power relations play a part generally do not favor the advised. But exactly because of this, we may be presented with a very interesting and important set of options and possibilities:

Can we take advice from those we do not even like? Is it possible that someone with a radically different, even opposing background can give us useful advice? Is trust the only ground upon which to generously listen to what others have to say? Should the adviser have experience themselves in similar situations in order to be able to give advice?

These are very complex questions. One of my reasons for starting this series is because I couldn’t become a formal advisor — and make a living from it — and so I am bound to eternal and gracious forms of informal advisory duties. Ever since I entered the art world I’ve dreamt of advisory boards, advisory committees, advisory groups. I really thought — and I still think — I could help build incredible collections full of works with soul, with ambitions toward the values of life, with incredible beauty, with very diverse ways of understanding artistic languages… I could advise on the need to work more closely with children, to integrate artists in residence in different infrastructures and also research and scientific contexts. I could advise on communication, on the importance of word choice, the need to be humble, direct, diverse in telling. I could also advise on the need to embrace technology, to try to think of those using it not as “media” artists but as artists exploring and developing essential and organic parts of our experience. I could competently give advice on reading contracts, on administrative concerns and their simplification. I could advise on career choices based on happiness, real conditions, age, expectations, and gender… Am I arrogant for saying so? Not at all.

An adviser brings a certain amount of experience, and should have a capacity for seeing the question, the task, or the problem from the point of view of those requesting the advice. I can do this. Why then was I unable to end up on all those committees and boards and think tanks? I sadly but very realistically realized that being small and a woman is not how certain groups interested in seeking advice wish to see their adviser.

During one very crucial, very big conflict that I had the “honor” of surviving in New York, a very, very famous adviser told me: “You are extremely petite to be in my shoes, but wait until you’ve aged.” And this is exactly what I expect. I expect the world to understand that every year counts in my favor, and that I am ready to become an adviser and I am starting here with you.

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Chus Martínez