Niki Johnson on Forging a Career as an Independent Curator and Artist

Posted March 31, 2016 in Blog


Niki Johnson, God & Country,” 2012. Altered commemorative plates. Photo by Scott Cartwright.

For Women’s History Month, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC) joined The National Museum of Women in the Arts along with several other institutions around the country to celebrate female artists with #5womenartists, a social media campaign asking the question “Can You Name Five Women Artists?” The following blog entry celebrates a female artist whose work is on view in our galleries.  To read other articles in our series of #5womenartists, click here.

This week, we asked At Your Service artist-curator, Niki Johnson, a few questions about her career and influences.

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft: As an artist and curator, what challenges do you face in your professional practice? Are there any contemporary issues that you identify with and address in your work? 

Niki Johnson: Like most artist-curators, the greatest challenge I face is finding financial support for my projects. When curating, money buys not only the time required to handle the logistical side of setting up exhibitions, but also for their promotion, catalogue development and sometimes gallery rental fees. Locating funding requires a type of creativity and level of community outreach that at first I didn’t realize would be so important to the overall feel of each show. How an exhibition is funded affects every aspect of its appeal. This makes sense, as each exhibition is reliant on the community involved in its building, programming and viewing. Up to this point, I’ve had success with online crowd funding, institutional sponsorships, personal donations, exhibition merchandise sale and occasionally honorariums. While at times, it can be daunting to find funding, it can be done!

The relationship between being an artist and a curator has been natural, if not a reflexive one for me. Typically an exploration in the studio leads me to investigating a topic, which then exposes me to artists who are grappling with similar issues. By communicating with like-minded artists, who demonstrate a level of technical sensitivity, I am able to broaden my considerations for the question I had started with. The five exhibitions I’ve opened nationally in the past sixteen months center on issues of gender, sexuality, identity, power and affective qualities of materials. Each venue and exhibition has been unique, and it’s been an incredible experience to collaborate with the artists, volunteers, students and staff to bring these shows into reality. It’s the collaborative and social practice involved in independent curating that brings me back every time.


Installation view of “At Your Service” featuring Niki Johnson’s “God & Country.” On view February 5 – May 8, 2016 in the Main Gallery at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Photo by Scott Cartwright.

HCCC: What advice do you have for someone who may be an aspiring independent curator? How have you been able to get your ideas out there without working under the administration of an institution?

NJ: Keep going! With each show you’ll gain insight. I started curating by my bootstraps about eight years ago; organizing exhibitions whenever and wherever I could. It began with a need to see better shows, experience artwork in person and see certain pieces in conversation with each other. Over the years I’ve acquired an arsenal of clamp lights for setting up alternative spaces, as well as an ability to hand over the reigns when working with larger institutions. I think the variety of exhibition spaces I work in has developed into a healthy balance—as both institutional oversight and complete freedom leave me wanting a bit of the other by the end of each show.

Another trick to exhibiting independent exhibitions is establishing a rhythm that works for you. Time management, of course, is at the root of successful exhibitions, which  helps prevent burn out. Please do take care! Changing up venues, themes, artist selection (i.e. invite versus application) and co-curating to broaden vision for a show have worked well for me. Lately, I’ve been tackling how to build out programming, press coverage and packaging–from social media to printed catalogues–in an effort to extend the reach of my shows. Curating is an endeavor that will provide an amazing education, if you seek it.

HCCC: Do you have a female role model that has inspired you and your career? If you do, how has this person influenced your life?

NJ: I have two—my mom and my sister, both of whom provide incredible council when I need it. In respect to reader attention and as Mother’s Day is around the corner, I’ll focus this answer on my mom, Ginny Johnson!

My mom grew up in difficult circumstances; the oldest child in a single parent home following the unexpected death of her father. To support the family, my grandmother worked in a factory through the 1960’s when my mom was a teenager. Ginny was the first in the family to graduate from high school and attend college—a choice that inspired her sisters to pursue higher education for themselves in the years to follow.

Growing up, my mom was the main breadwinner. While working full time and commuting daily, she earned her master’s degree the same year I graduated high school, an undertaking that both my sister and I would complete a few years later for ourselves. When my mom retired, she was a Bureau Chief for the Health Department for the State of New Mexico, managing a staff of 300 people, responsible for providing a quarter of the state’s services for the developmentally disabled.

Being raised by someone so determinedly self-made has definitely shaped my perception of what I am capable of achieving within this lifetime. Her guidance has been an absolute gift, but our shared history, and witnessing her personal and professional journey has definitely inspired my own. She once told me that she had children to better society, and I think my sister and I are trying our best to do just that.


Photograph of Niki Johnson by Eric Baillies.

About Niki Johnson
Niki Johnson is an artist, curator and organizer currently based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She holds an MA/MFA from the University of Wisconsin- Madison in Studio Art and a BFA from the University of Memphis. Johnson has taught at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, curated local and national exhibitions, as well as founded MarKEt: Where MKE meets Art, an arts-based organization in the city of Milwaukee. Her artwork is in the permanent collections of Madison Central Public Library, UW-Health’s American Center Hospital and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Reviews of Johnson’s artwork have been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, and Vice Magazine, among other national and international media sources. For more information about Niki Johnson, please visit,

At Your Service, co-curated by Amelia Toelke and Niki Johnson, is on view in the Main Gallery at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, February 5 – May 8, 2016.