In 2008, Larry Ossei-Mensah returned to New York after spending years in Switzerland studying marketing and hospitality. Or at least that was the pretext — he went there to find himself as a black man.
Back in New York, he walked into the House of Campari’s show “Defining a Moment: 25 New York Artists” and was immediately drawn to the works of Titus Kaphar and Rashid Johnson, artists who would soon become modern black masters.
That show helped propel the career of Ossei-Mensah — a Ghanaian-American who grew up in the Bronx — as an independent curator and entrepreneur. A co-founder of communities like ArtNoir and a writer, critic and teacher, the 38-year-old is seemingly everywhere. In September, he became the Susanne Feld Hilberry senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (known as MOCAD).
He talked to The New York Times about his transition to an institutional role and connecting the dots, connecting people to what inspires and excites them. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: How are you? You’ve been traveling for a week straight.
Two weeks. I started my first show at MOCAD, “Parallels and Peripheries,” which is Part 2 of a series that started in South Florida [Miami Beach]. It looks at how artists use their practice as a platform for inquiry, storytelling, asking questions. Particularly thinking about artists who function on the margins. That could be black and brown artists, that could be queer artists.
The show in Miami was specifically all women. And then, in the case of this show, it was looking at artists whose work functions at the intersection of art, technology and science. It’s 12 artists, 10 women.
The show also relates to the fact that, in my experience of growing up in the Bronx, most things that I find to be culturally exciting come from the peripheral. So I opened that, and then opened up another show, “Race and Revolution: Still Separate, Still Unequal,” at Penn State, which I co-curated with Katie Fuller.
I opened two shows in one week, which is not smart, but it worked out because it fed two different desires. I’m a Gemini, so it feeds two brains.
Q: What do you find culturally exciting?
People who are looking to instigate a conversation that might not be in the mainstream, voices that might not always have a platform. Because I look at a lot of art all the time, I see a lot of shows, but then there are the things that stimulate me because it’s historic or an artist who is trying to break the form.
Q: What’s it like, marrying your years of independent curating with working at MOCAD?
With MOCAD, it’s definitely a continuous work in progress. You’re continuously trying to make the shows weirder or more tactile. With the independent shows, it’s pretty much one and done. At MOCAD, you have got to keep it interesting, asking different questions, seeing what people were responsive to and what they weren’t.
And I think, over time, the shows that I do at MOCAD will have a slightly different lens than the independent stuff, because the independent stuff is just me and whoever I’m collaborating with. Whereas at MOCAD, there’s more of a process. MOCAD’s definitely taught me how to be more patient and not try and do everything at onetime. That will seep into my other projects where, it’s like, OK, how do I do three dope programs that are going to change the game now?
Q: How has it been, moving around back and forth between the Bronx and Detroit?
I think the nomadic component of my practice is really kind of what fuels it. New York has its own energy, pace and tension. And Detroit is a city that’s redefining itself, and to be part of that moment — it’s just a rare life opportunity. But then I’m also traveling everywhere all the time.
It’s going to slow down at some point, but I think that’s where my head is at, because so much of my life is about connecting the dots. Right now I’m single, but if I’m blessed to have a family, I’m not going to be able to move as much, so I’m planting these seeds, building my tribe.
Q: How do you see your role in this reinvention of Detroit?
I’ve done my best to be aware and listen and not try to project my ideas, and to spend time with artists and curators on the ground, who really know the city. Detroit is a very nuanced space, so for me, it’s about how can we amplify the magic of Detroit. How do we find the diamonds in the rough who have been grinding, doing their thing, and give them a platform?
That doesn’t just mean an exhibition in the museum, but it could be recommending them for, like, an art prize or a show. I never want to be a savior, I always want to be a good neighbor, and add value where I can. And I’m cognizant about how a lot of cities are going through a similar shift.
Q: A shift in what way?
Like, when I tell people I’m from the Bronx, they’ll say the Bronx is gentrifying. Where I am? No. Where I live? No. The day that happens, I know that I’m in trouble. And I’m still there because of that reality check.
Working in the space that I work in is a privilege, but when you’re dealing with an everyday reality, friends are dealing with whatever they’re dealing with — it brings you back to center. That grounding is important. It gives me this edge to hustle because [opportunities] are not going to be given to you.
So, in the case of Detroit, it’s how do we create that space, or amplify the magic of that space, in a generous, generative way. And how do you bring people with you? How do you watch out for each other? How do you make sure everyone is good? Because you got a lot of people who will put up a front, to save face. Nah, we got to do this together.
Q: Do you think you’re redefining what a gatekeeper in the art world could be?
I think so. I mean, it’s a reality that I won’t say I’m in denial about, but I’m cognizant of it. I try to be careful not to embrace it to the point that, like, I become something that I don’t want to be. I don’t abuse it. But, for me, it’s also that a lot of this is coming from illusion, and I’m not caught up in the illusion. For me it’s more about supporting people who are passionate, working hard, deserve a shot, deserve the attention.
I think that I’ve built a lot of trust, and so much of this is about trust. But, you know, you put in the work, you show up. I think all of this comes from this weird desire to be a great cardinal. There’s so much that curators will do in the background that artists will never see. For me, it’s more like personal nourishment. You’ll never hear me say, “I discovered this person.” That feels weird to me. I would like to say that I was more part of someone’s process.
Q: What’s next for you?
Figuring out what the next shows will be at MOCAD. I’m working on my first public project, a billboard project, that will be in Kansas City. And continuing to spend more time in Detroit, do more studio visits and putting my hand on the pulse. As long as it’s fun, I’m fine. If it stops being fun, time to do something else.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.