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Subterranean Gallery's Ayla Rexroth: exit interview

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Ayla Rexroth never did figure out exactly how much her landlord knew. Some renters leave behind shabby paint jobs or fatally scuffed hardwoods. But a move-out inspection of Rexroth's apartment would reveal something different: an ambitious, under-the-radar showcase for local art (as well as for Rexroth's own projects).

Until this month, the artist and her partner, Clayton Skidmore, were using their garden-level unit (and some adjacent basement storage space) as both a dwelling and an exhibition space. Sometimes Subterranean Gallery was exhibitionist in its presentations. There was, for instance, the 2012 Hot Tub Dialogues, which used a couple of thousand dollars of donated cash to install a secondhand Jacuzzi, so that artists and curators and a small crush of interested onlookers could share a hot art minute. Other shows were less in-your-face, though not necessarily less meta. Last November, Rexroth tested her curatorial skills with the simply titled and exceptionally canny group show Curatorial Studies.

But Rexroth and Skidmore have moved out, leaving KC for New York, where she's set to start work on an M.F.A. at Hunter College this fall. Last week, Rexroth announced a changing of the guard at Subterranean, where former intern Melaney Mitchell is assuming the director role.

In the midst of packing and making arrangements, Rexroth spoke with The Pitch by phone.

The Pitch: What's the plan?

Rexroth: I'm leaving on Sunday and I'm going to be driving with a minivan I'm renting. I'll start in late January at Hunter. I'm going now to establish residency early so that I'll have in-state tuition by the fall.

What are you going to study?

Combined media. The [Hunter M.F.A.] program doesn't have a huge emphasis on social practice, but it's kind of open media — professors working on performance and interactive stuff.

How did you decide on Hunter?

When I first started applying to schools, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I considered getting an M.B.A. or maybe getting an M.A. in art history or going into a curatorial studies program. I had a pretty wide range. I applied to a couple of curatorial studies programs. Hunter turned out to be the only M.F.A. I applied to. The decision came down to curatorial studies or a master of fine arts, and I just didn't think I could deal with the price of a curatorial studies program when the market is flooded [with curatorial hopefuls]. I feel like I saw just enough of that in people I admire — watching them get fed up waiting to find work with the institutions — that I couldn't make that decision.

An M.B.A.?

It would have definitely steered back toward art. I trust commerce more than I trust, basically, arts institutions. I guess getting an M.B.A. and using it within an arts-related business that I start or help run would be something I'd feel more control over.

But I realized I'd have to take — because I went to the Art Institute, I'd have had to take a year and a half of math just to apply.

I just feel like over the last three years, I've gained a lot of perspective in my own studio practice, in the form of curation. I suppose I just want to take in all of what New York has to offer and go back to a setting where I'm working with professional artists who are managing international careers, not just national — basically, just learning to get all around the world.

Any plans to start an apartment gallery in New York?

I don't think I'm done with the concept, but I kind of feel like if I re-entered that, I'd start from a much smarter financial situation. If I opened another space or another type of business, it'd be very different. It wouldn't be an underground business — in every sense of the word. I feel like I've got all the day-to-day communications stuff down [about running a business] and grew up through running the gallery and became an adult member of the arts community.

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