Shaping the local art scene: Ola Wlusek at The Ringling in Sarasota5th of 5 in a series about local curators

Artists play a key role in shaping communities and our choices about where we choose to live, work, play, and stay. But do we fully appreciate the role of the curators, the designers working behind the scenes to display artwork in local museums? Here is the fifth of five stories about local curators who demonstrate remarkable thoughtfulness, energy, and vision in how we view and react to what we see.
Last in a 5-part series.

If you’ve been following this series about Tampa Bay Area art curators, you’ll notice threads of inclusivity, representing the underrepresented, and commitment to more community and socially engaged exhibitions throughout the overarching goals of these five curators.

Our last curator, Ola Wlusek, is no exception in leading what visitors see at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art as the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Though she only recently joined the Ringling in 2018, she has an extensive curatorial history like working for the City of Calgary’s Public Art Program in Alberta with artists and art collectives on various social practice projects and community programs, and being a part of other curatorial departments of public art institutions and museums in Canada.
“I was very excited to join a museum that has a long legacy of presenting and collecting work by contemporary artists. I was impressed by Joseph’s Coat: A Skyspace by James Turrell, the immersive light installation at sunset and a lush meditative space during the day that was commissioned by the museum in 2011. This work truly solidifies the important role contemporary art has at The Ringling and in the community. I really enjoy seeing our visitors come into this space for a little respite after taking in the vastness of the campus,” Wlusek says. “So when I first arrived, I was really excited to learn about this strong history of contemporary art at the museum because it helped to establish an exciting foundation to build upon when planning projects with artists in the future.”
One of her goals is to present more work from the collection that have not often been on view, giving the example of there being many interesting pieces by Latin American and African American artists that haven’t been displayed since the 1970s. Another one of her objectives is to transform the Ringling’s collection by acquiring more works by artists who identify as women or people of color, and curate more exhibitions of local and international underrepresented artists.
Most recently, Wlusek assisted in the research and acquisition of a video by Cauleen Smith, a multi-media artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her piece Egungun: Ancestor Can’t Find Me (2017) is inspired by Florida’s Indigenous history and her own ancestry.
“It was exciting when Ola began because I thought that her interest and background in working with indigenous artists and had a track record of that in Canada and working with BIPOC artists thought would really help reorient our contemporary art programs. She was also interested in art as social practice and pulling out stories and perspectives that haven’t been included for political reasons, so I think that the way she envisioned contemporary art and brought that here was a really great pivot for us,” says Christopher Jones, Curator of Photography and New Media at the Ringling Museum. “Coming from Canada -- and she studied at Goldsmiths, University of London -- she’s approaching this position with a bit of an outsider perspective, which is refreshing. American curators might overlook artists who we may think have a lot of exposure or are out of fashion, but she’s really willing to look at things from a new lens.”
As a Curator of Contemporary Art, Wlusek often works closely with living artists, navigating an exhibition to best present their work and intentions -- which should be able to be communicated to their audiences. 
“I am always in awe and admiration of the artists and the way they perceive and consider the world around them,” Wlusek says. “Recently, I’ve also had the pleasure of co-curating a group exhibition Skyway 20/21 and partnering with other museums in the area, which was an extremely rewarding experience. I also hold a deep appreciation for my curatorial counterparts at the three institutions in the Tampa Bay area I had the honor to collaborate with recently on that show; Sarah Howard, Katherine Pill, and Joanna Robotham are not only brilliant curators, but they are also extremely thoughtful and show great care towards artists and their artwork.”
Jones believes that one of the top tasks Wlusek has taken on is compensating living artists for their time, whether it’s for an artist panel or anything that involves creative labor.
“One of the great things she has brought to the museum is an emphasis on ethos and ethics of her practice. She has pushed and been at forefront at changing our culture here so when we work with a living artist, we provide a compensation or fee, which is something not all institutions do,” Jones says.
So what projects can you look forward to from her? She’s currently researching and building relations with Florida’s Seminole, Miccosukee, and mixed-heritage artists and cultural organizations (such as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of Seminole culture and history), as well as looking into the Ringling’s small but mighty collection of Inuit prints for potential upcoming exhibitions. 
Overall, Wlusek firmly believes that art plays such an important role in our lives, with the power to change and transform how we see the world around us. Though viewers must slow down to listen to what the art is saying, it takes a keen curator to build bridges from the artist to the audience to make meaningful experiences.
“Wlusek is phenomenal to work with and is very inspiring because she takes what she does to heart; she is incredibly serious about curatorial practice and how to make a connection between audience and artists,” Jones says. “I think she and our other colleagues are often overlooked and under-appreciated for the impact their making in the area.”
To find out what exhibitions are next, visit The Ringling.

To read about the other curators in this series, follow these links:
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”