Justine Ludwig was in Cincinnati at the same time artist Jeremy Deller brought a maimed car from Baghdad to the center of town. It was 2009, and U.S. troops were leaving Iraq. Deller was using the bombed vehicle in public spaces across the United States to facilitate discourse on the war. His institutional partner for the Ohio stop was the Contemporary Arts Center; his liaison was Ludwig, a young curator there. She watched people talk one-to-one, in a public square outside the context of a museum or gallery, with the guides Deller hired for the project.
“It was this very direct and human conversation. That was something that I really loved. It was about conversations with individuals, rather than looking at a sort of blank, uniform public. It was really about individuals having a stake in the subject matter,” she says.
Over the next decade, Ludwig continued to favor artists who bring complicated environments to people, as opposed to collectors or patrons. In 2014 the curator earned a coveted spot at the Dallas Contemporary, a non-collecting institution that would offer freedom to experiment. And she did. Ludwig’s presence there has been bright, sweeping, and cleverly imposing. The art she’s brought to Dallas can be described the same way.
You can see Ludwig’s strategy in the Instagram photos of Contemporary visitors poking their heads through the holes in Pia Camil’s bright t-shirt tent Bara, Bara, Bara, physically entering the artist’s critique of global consumerism. The light patterns of Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections, a document of the Alhambra Islamic Palace in Spain, testify to Ludwig’s faith in architecture as an accessible haven for cultural memory. There are many more examples.
On June 15, Ludwig will take her place as executive director for Creative Time, the public art-focused nonprofit that commissioned Deller’s project, which moved her almost a decade ago. The job will take her outside gallery walls to New York City. She’s been known internationally as an influencer for a while. The move is not a surprise. It’s an elegant fit.
“I got into the field partially because I thought art could engender difficult conversations in a productive space and that was something that I saw manifest so perfectly in Creative Time,” she says.
Ludwig first arrived in Dallas to help with the last phase of install for exhibitions by world-renowned fashion photographer Mario Testino, modern art subverter Piotr Uklanski, and the personal memory conservator/Dallas artist Cassandra Emswiler Burd at the Contemporary. The curator knew no one in the city. It was Burd who took Ludwig to the eccentric and intimate Reading Room, introducing her to curator Karen Weiner. They went to Beefhaus straight afterward. Arthur Peña’s warehouse-friendly Vice Palace project was in full-force then. Those DIY shows were part of Ludwig’s first entry to Dallas.
“I’m from the northeast and moving to Texas was something I had never imagined,” she says. “Frankly, it never even crossed my mind. Coming here and contending with that reality – it was crazy … such a central part of being a curator is representing your community and directly interfacing with it,” she says. “I got lucky. Dallas is really warm and engaging I feel like I got adopted by people immediately.”
One might say Ludwig’s distinct talent for style and her understanding of the power of visual culture helped her navigate a market-focused art world on her own terms. She would never refer to Dallas’ art scene like that, though. She has relentlessly avoided generalizations, honoring the nuance of different circles like the one that first embraced her. Note the way she dodged the binary of definition offered by this Miami Rail contributor:
RAIL: On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the most provincial backwater and 10 being the epicenter, how would you define Dallas, as an international art city or as a more regional one?
LUDWIG: That’s a really complex question, because it depends on which aspect of the city you’re looking at. It’s an unbelievably multifaceted city. So I see it as super international. People generally are quite well traveled. There are people from all over that live here. The job market is really good, so people are constantly moving here, and there’s energy. But yet there is this very specific Dallas identity. There’s something that is very uniquely Dallas that makes it seem very small and unique in some ways.
Ludwig’s rise to Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Contemporary delivers her to Creative Time. She’ll assume her post a month after two major projects come to fruition for the organization in May. Bring Down The Walls, created in partnership with the artist Phil Collins, will turn Lower Manhattan’s Firehouse, Engine Company 31 into a center for education on mass incarceration and house music culture by day. At night it will become a dance club. For Basilea, artists will design and build a multi-purpose civic structure with locally sourced and second-hand materials in tandem with Art Basel.
The Dallas Contemporary has benefited from Ludwig’s commitment to artists. She recently curated New York artist Valerie Keane’s first ever museum exhibition at the same time she co-curated fashion designer Mary Kantrantzou’s first solo exhibition, which was such a hit that the museum extended its run by a week.
A prolific writer and art critic, Ludwig has been chipping away at two books she hopes to finish — “before work, after work, and on weekends.” One is about global borders, architecture, and memory. The other, which she says is more pressing, is an inquiry into “visual manifestation of acts of violence.”
Ludwig, who was named one of Dallas’ 10 most stylish people by this publication last year, wrote about Kantrantzou’s effusive clothing for the Joule’s magazine, 1530 Main.
“Two years ago, I had the honor of wearing a dress by Katrantzou to Two x Two,” she wrote, referring to the annual benefit. “All intricately worked lace and emblems, the dress felt heraldic, something intended for a contemporary Joan of Arc. It’s amazing how transformative clothing can be. Katrantzou’s clothing is powerful and in wearing one of her garments you feel like a warrior woman, high priestess, or queen.”
In Dallas, Ludwig used her power in the service of bold ideas and the careers of artists who fill spaces with them. She has presented as an executive director from the start. With this new post, she’ll truly take her place.