Regaining Inspiration: Lumi Tan, the Kitchen, and Some Odd Personal Tangents

Honestly, I wanted to start this post off with any number of kitchen-related puns. Something about ideas marinating, or how the conversation lit a fire under my butt (motivationally speaking), or how I have ideas but they’re only half baked… like this whole pun idea. I can’t come up with much that’s witty or shallow to say about last Friday’s class, because honestly? Meeting with Lumi Tan was an incredibly illuminating experience– and one that I have no wish to make light of.

I’ve known about the Kitchen pretty much about as long as I’ve been interested in art history as an element of a future career—so, probably early-to-mid high school. I was working at a museum at the time, and I just have such a strong memory of talking with my high school librarian about gallery spaces and immersive art experiences, and she just handed me a whole stack of articles about the Kitchen and said something along the lines of “I used to work here. You should look into it, it seems like something you’d like.”

To clarify, my high school librarian knew me really well, and she was absolutely spot on. I adore anything interdisciplinary, immersive, and nontraditional—the Kitchen is one of very few spaces that fits that bill. I knew that, even as a fifteen-year-old kid in Atlanta, Georgia. Not as far as you can get from the New York art scene, but not exactly terribly close, either.

So, I started keeping an eye on the Kitchen. When I saw an online review, I clicked. When I came across something in a magazine, I cut it out. When my boss at the museum where I was working said she’d been to a show, I demanded every detail. My endless fascination with the Kitchen is a large part of what made me realize I kind of want to be a curator (of a different kind of museum, but still—this is an enormous part of what set me on my current path).

So it makes sense, then, why meeting Lumi Tan, Kitchen curator, was so completely, undeniably cool. Even over Zoom, Tan comes across as endlessly self-assured, confident in her work and her ability to accomplish whatever she wants to do even in a pandemic, still bringing people together in the way that the Kitchen always has. She knows how to construct and tell a story. She can guide and navigate a conversation with remarkable ease. And she answered my questions! And talked to me! And said my name out loud! I’d be starstruck just listening to her talk, but no, she engaged with things that I was saying. And that’s more than a little insane.

Talking with Tan was particularly enlightening when I asked a question and she told me that it was the right kind of question for understanding how a curator thinks—I asked about how a curator uses ambient tools to move people through a space (the phrasing had something to do with the word “choreography”) in a way that engages multiple topics and disciplines. Tan gave a detailed and interesting answer, referencing multiple shows that the Kitchen has put on that she’s had a hand in, and then said those little, totally inspiring words. I was thinking like a curator.

That tiny bit of validation fueled me through my weekend, through writing grad school applications, through mapping out my final project for this course. Suddenly, I was excited about art again—about interdisciplinary, multimedia projects, about the question of what makes something art, about engaging with politics and media and art again.

After the last week of election insanity and the last eight months of quarantine, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t think I’d really get that inspiration spark back again. It makes endless amounts of sense to me, in a roundabout sort of  way, that the Kitchen is the institution that brought that inspiration back to me—much in the same way as it’s the institution that inspired me to go chasing an art history degree and an arts career in the first place.

A note: If this whole piece of writing sounds like I’m just really excited to have met one of my curatorial idols and I’m seriously fangirling over having been told I’m doing something kind of right… then I’m okay with that. Frankly, last week was an enormous roller-coaster of emotion, with the election and finals starting, and all other types of chaos. Having a moment to just be excited about art, and engaging with the art world, was exactly what I needed, even if I didn’t know that was what I was looking for.

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