21 questions

Legacy Russell Wants to Live in the Whitney’s Tiny Adobe Houses

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Daniel Dorsa

New York’s 21 Questions is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Legacy Russell is the executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen and the author of Glitch Feminism. She recently curated “The New Bend,” an exhibition of contemporary quilters and textile artists that’s on view at Hauser & Wirth through April 2.

Name: Legacy Russell
Age: 35
Neighborhood: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
Occupation: Executive director and chief curator, The Kitchen

What’s hanging above your couch?
I have a painting by a dear friend of mine named Kaitlin Kylie Pomerantz that depicts an outline of dust left behind after you remove a painting that’s been hanging for a long time. It’s a very gentle but beautiful piece.

What’s the first job you had in New York? 
I was a bit of an entrepreneur as a kid, and I had a business where I created performative experiences for kids on playdates. For one of them, when I was 13 or 14, I was hired by a family to do a party where the kid wanted to have a pie fight. It was a bit Carolee Schneemann Meat Joy, but with pie. I spent hours hunting for hundreds of mini-pies at all the downtown bodegas, covered their entire house with plastic, and proceeded to have this insane pie fight with these little kids.

But my first official job with a real paycheck was to be a hostess for a party named Beige that happened every Tuesday night at BBar. I was probably 14, and they looked me up and down as this scrawny kid who brought their résumé and assigned me on those evenings to seat people at their tables. I got a better understanding of the downtown art scene, and it was incredible to see all these people getting together every Tuesday to have a cocktail with their friends. It was my first real immersion I had into understanding a certain version of queer nightlife.

What color are you always drawn to? 
Black, because even if you’re wearing a garbage bag, it still looks like a vibe.

What art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
Simone Leigh gave me the most beautiful blue ceramic banana. She’s been an incredible mentor and role model to me in so many ways, and so it’s amazing to look at this very strange object that lives in my house.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Probably my dad, who passed away. He was a Harlem-born, East Village–based photographer and technologist and was just a really amazing, weird, excellent human. He was always very artful in thinking creatively about what experimental art, avant-garde art, and radical Black history should look like. A lot of my memories of being in New York as a kid growing up — and even now as I move through the city — are dictated by the walks we would take and the conversations we would have.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
Hula hands, which is telling a story through your hands. My mom is from Hawaii and I was doing the hula with her.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
I have this obsession with tracking down Kodak mirrors. They’re vintage novelty items and look like a giant slide except there’s a mirror where the film would be. I have three of them.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?
The Studio Museum in Harlem is always a go-to, and I say that, of course, with the most prideful bias because I worked there for a long time and it’s one of my favorite institutions in New York and in the world. I will always find excuses to go back there. I’m really excited about the institution’s growth and how it will expand its residency program. Being a museum where art is made inside of it makes the institution very special.

What do you always have next to your computer? 
A pen, a pad of paper, and a lit candle. I light candles before doing any of my Zooms and things. It just makes me feel calm.

Where is the best view of the city?
Sitting on the steps of the Met in the middle of the night in the summertime. Even though it’s not a traditional view, or a view from above, the city will really show its true character there. There’s so much activity and really interesting things that occur there. I have so many memories walking from uptown to downtown, and I would always stop and sit on the steps.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
Wouldn’t it be incredible if the Guggenheim was, like, a really amazing color?

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 
The deficit of gratitude and the models of care. People inside of the arts don’t say thank you to each other enough. Thank other artists. Thank curators. Thank educators. Thank folks who are in visitor services. For models of care, what I am referring to is how institutions are talking right now with deep commitment and curiosity about this idea of decolonized models of curatorial practice and exhibition making: How to center artists, artwork, and the labor of cultural production, with an equitable imagination that addresses head-on the failures of institutions and art history. We have to talk about the models of care that are built into the systems of institutional operations. This is what we deserve when we think about the future of the art world.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
There’s a tiny adobe house designed by Charles Simonds on one of the landings in what used to be the Whitney. I bet it would be an amazing adventure to live inside of that house.

What would you hoard, if it stopped being produced?
I have a very easygoing relationship with things. I deeply enjoy my books and my artwork, but there isn’t anything that I would be devastated by if it was discontinued.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I dance or I walk — basically anything tied to movement helps me recalibrate.

Where was your first NYC apartment and how much was the rent? 
It was on St. Marks Place in the East Village and the rent was zero because I grew up there.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
My stoop. Sitting on your stoop you imagine that you don’t have much privacy, but it’s like hiding in plain sight. People whom you know very well might walk by and unless you wave at them, they might not see you. So sometimes I’ll sit on my stoop in quiet meditation, and it’s quite peaceful.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
“Just hang in there.” I think it’s literally the most absurd thing for an employer or someone who is supposed to be in a position of mentorship to say to an employee. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it can be true. But sometimes “just hang in there” is asking way too much, and sometimes it’s great to recognize that “hanging in there” is not the same as giving oneself time to think through individual needs and and reconciling them with the needs of the space you might be inside of.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back? 
Everything that I’ve ever given away, I’ve done really intentionally and I don’t harbor any resentment or bad feelings about.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order? 
There’s a kale salad from Cafe Select that I could probably eat for the rest of my life. The ultimate decadent comfort food is at this spot in Clinton Hill named Locanda Vini e Olii. They have an amazing pappardelle. You can’t get better than sitting with the pappardelle, a glass of red wine, and a little bit of sun.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
A legacy made.

Legacy Russell Wants to Live in the Whitney’s Adobe Houses