Reflecting on the life of Armenian-American curator and social activist, Neery Melkonian

The Armenian-American community lost one of our famed art figures this year. Curator and social activist, Neery Melkonian passed away after losing her battle to pancreatic cancer. She lived an interesting life, being born in Aleppo, Syria and raised in Beirut, Lebanon by an Armenian family. She later emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s during her teen years and went on to study art at UCLA.

captureMelkonian had taught at the Pilibos Armenian School in Los Angeles before she began her career as a curator where she worked at the Center for Contemporary in Santa Fe and the Bard (College) Center for Curatorial Studies. She included Middle Eastern diaspora in both the historical and contemporary art collections.

She was seen as an intelligent and confident woman, one who did not “bear fools lightly.” She also supported the Palestinian artists and their cause, which did not go down well in the institutionalized art centers she worked with, and may well have cost her what could have been a more successful mainstream career. She, however, had her heart set on the art and people she supported.

She still managed to write for some of the leading art publications and eventually became an independent curator. In 2008 she joined an innovative project, the goal of which was to gather Armenian and Turkish artists, civil societies and diasporas.

Melkonian along with Turkish curator, Defne Ayas, created a show and conference, “The Blind Date Project” at the Pratt Gallery Space located in downtown Manhattan. For the project, she set up a Turkish artist with an Armenian one who would then go on a date together. Twenty or so such couples were paired up for the Pratt Gallery show.

During her career as a curator, she started a small festival in Nagorno-Karabagh, the NK Arts. The festival was held in an ancient Armenian fortress focusing on the local pottery tradition.

In 2012 she implemented a project for Armenian women entitled “Accented Feminism” and was an avid supporter of diaspora art. She is fondly remembered by artists and free thinkers within the art community and was always up for a discussion over a home-cooked meal and a glass of wine at her Lower East Side apartment, where artists would gather.

The critic Jürgen Habermas said, “Everywhere one looks, things are seemingly becoming more alike,” and “few people have the courage to be truly independent and think originally.” As for Melkonian, she one of the latter. She will be remembered as both an argumentative and brilliant women whose honesty and bluntness only added to her charm.