Saying goodbye to SECCA, curator Matijcio celebrates ‘unexpected’ cities

by Jordan Green

After five years shepherding the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem through significant transition, Curator Steven Matijcio is leaving to accept a job at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, another mid-sized city attempting to reinvent itself for a post-industrial future.

The move fits a pattern for the Toronto native who came to Winston-Salem from a curatorial job in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“There’s a strong history of contemporary art in Winston-Salem,” Matijcio said in an interview in the library at SECCA a week before his final day on the job. “But it’s also part of the Bible Belt and it’s a place that, like Cincinnati, is still wrestling with the aftermath of the culture wars. I found the most opportunity when you distill ideas that are important locally or regionally and open them up to an international conversation.”

As curator at SECCA, Matijcio had the opportunity to travel to smaller international cities such as Gdansk, Poland and Guangzhou, China, bypassing major metropolitan centers such as New York that often stifle creativity through commercial pressure and the relentless evolution of tastes and trends.

“You can find out how other people are wrestling with similar topics,” Matijcio said. “You can move very seamlessly from local to international. Once they get over the fact that it’s Winston-Salem, when artists come here they’re willing to be more experimental.”

Beyond the fact that both SECCA and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati are non-collecting institutions with a focus on challenging audiences through new work, the two institutions also each became entangled in pivotal skirmishes that led to a realignment in the relationship between art and government in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Through a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, SECCA selected Andres Serrano for a traveling exhibit. As the exhibit moved across the country, public outrage in response to Serrano’s “Piss Christ” piece put SECCA “at the eye of the storm,” as Matijcio put it, although the exhibit never made it to Winston-Salem.

Similarly, Cincinnati police shut down a posthumous exhibit of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1990 and charged the museum director with obscenity.

Both episodes prompted politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Sen. Al D’Amato (R-NY) to call for the federal government to withdraw funding from the arts.

“I like that those unexpected cities were at the forefront,” Matijcio said. “That’s what drew me to Winston-Salem.

“SECCA gained quite a bit of national credibility as supporting challenging work,” he added. “I was proud of SECCA because they didn’t dilute their programming after that.”

Coming of age in the aftermath of this charged atmosphere, Matijcio’s curatorial persona developed more as an intrepid explorer than a provocative warrior. As a graduate student at Bard College in the early 2000s, Matijcio was tapped by the Mapplethorpe Foundation to curate an online exhibit of the artist’s photographs. Playing off Mapplethorpe’s reputation for capturing “the perfect moment,” Matijcio took a sidelong glance and selected images that reflected what he calls “slippage.”

Matijcio said he hopes to build a collaborative relationship between SECCA and the Contemporary Arts Center through his move to Cincinnati. He said he proud of having guided SECCA through a transition after the institution was incorporated as a division of the NC Department of Cultural Resources when the state stepped in with funds to complete renovations.

Matijcio said he feels that his time in Winston-Salem well prepared him for the next stage of his career.

His experience at SECCA “honed my vision,” Matijcio said, “of how fertile places like Winston-Salem can be and the opportunities of building places like Winston-Salem into laboratories of experimentation where the most impact can be had.”