Above: Iván Argote, "A Point of View" at DesertX. All photos by Lance Gerber.

California's dry desert got some Minnesota love this year.

Featuring 18 outdoor installations, the Coachella Valley-based desert art biennial DesertX was co-curated by Twin Cities-native Matthew Schum and his wife, Philly-native Amanda Hunt. (Artistic Director Neville Wakefield led the curatorial team.) Closing April 21, DesertX includes artworks that touch on climate change, immigration, gun violence and augmented realit. With the installations located across 55 miles of the Coachella Valley, it takes about two days to see everything.

Schum got interested in art while growing up in Minnesota. With money earned through car sales, he saved enough to travel the world and fall in love with connecting with people from different cultures. He left Minnesota for college in Vancouver, B.C., then moved to NYC to work as a researcher in the photo department at MoMA and an editor at Zing Magazine. He earned his PhD at UC-San Diego, and that’s where he spent time researching contemporary art biennials and exhibitions outside museums.  

The Star Tribune caught up with Schum to learn more about his curatorial path and his Minnesota roots.

Q: How does curating art in this wide-open desert fit into your vision of making art accessible to all? How does it speak to your working-class background?

A: DesertX is open whenever people want to visit. It is not an institution that has regular operating hours, so I think that makes it more populous, in a positive way.

When you go out to the site, what’s amazing is how public it is – very diverse, there is a lot of wealth, a lot of working-class people, and some poverty. You are gonna see a cross-section at each of the sites you go to. 55 miles between the works, from the most northern to the most southern. I think you need 2 days to see it all.

Above: Pia Camil, "Lover's Rainbow."

Q: How did growing up in Minnesota inform your approach to art?

A: I am from a working-class background. The Star Tribune was a part of my early successes. I was forced to get a job when I was 14, and I found one at Brueger’s Bagels during the bagel craze. Then I moved up into the world of fine coffee at Dunn Bros. During this time I bought and sold cars – there was something in the Strib called Thrifties, cars selling for under $2,000. I would buy cars and sell them on there. I sold a 1963 Ford Galaxy. The last car I sold in Strib was 1975 BMW 75 2002. I had $5,000 saved, and I bought a one-way ticket to London. I traveled the world, went from London to Western Europe to Turkey to Syria, we crossed somewhere near Aleppo, and Jordan, Egypt, Israel. And I think that seven-month trip that I took really gave me the confidence to later go out and experience culture, engage with the world, engage with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Q: Where did you have your first art experience?

A: In the 1990s, my older brother had a gallery called Chorus in the Calhoun Building on Lake and Lyndale. I got exposure to artists like Frankie Gaard and Yoshua Okon.

Above: Sterling Ruby, "Specter"

Q: How do you even go about curating such a large-scale outdoor event like DesertX?

A: I wanted to include the Salton Sea in the biennial, which takes place in the Coachella Valley where you have more famous enclaves like Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, conceptions of extreme wealth. [The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, which is rapidly shrinking. Fish and birds are dying, and the dry lakebed pushes toxic dust to the air, which then blows into mostly low-income, Latino farming communities].

The Salton Sea is one of the places in California that is exhibiting climate change at a rapid rate. I wanted to provide some type of exposure not merely as a crisis, but also as a place that deserves attention of every kind – not just negative attention because it is making people sick. It is one of the most beautiful places in the California desert, great place for site-specific artworks. It is also a place that represents diversity – half of the population is first-language Spanish-speaking. So being a person from the working class I would be remiss if I didn’t include that.

Above: Mary Kelly, "Peace is the Only Shelter"

Q: Tell me about one of the artists whose work connects with the Salton Sea.

A: Iván Argote is a Colombian-born, Paris-based artist. His sculpture “A Point of View, [installed at an elevation above the Salton Sea], consists of five staircases with cement steps with poems embossed into them. On one side of the staircase the poem is in Spanish, and on the other one  it is in English. Right there you’re addressing the audience – Spanish speaking -but also view where they live by the Salton Sea from a slightly different perspective. Projects you into the landscape. Just like a plaza with a stairway in it, you can also just sit there with your friends and hang out – it’s just a third space. It is inspired by utilitarian, Brutalist architecture, which was made famous by Louis Khan, and Chichen Itza, the pre-Colombian city built by the Mayans, and the staircases that lead to the top of the temple. This was the largest recent commission of a Latin American artist in recent times. It is still a problem in Southern California, with Latinx artists not being supported enough.

Above: Postcommodity, "It Exists in Many Forms"

Q: What’s the connection for you between Minnesota and DesertX’s location in the Coachella Valley?

A: Growing up in Minnesota, I had access to the Walker – world-class shows, time after time. I didn’t realize how special this was. Looking back later, this was important. Maybe if we put DesertX in these areas that are neglected, that don’t have the same amount of culture as Palm Springs does, someone will go on to make great work one day in the field of contemporary art and they won’t be from a privileged background.

Above: Steve Badgett and Chris Taylor, "Terminal Lake Exploration Platform"