Ask a Curator Day

Robert Gober (American, b. 1954) Untitled, 1997. Photo credit courtesy of Robert Gober Studio © Robert Gober, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery
Robert Gober (American, b. 1954) Untitled, 1997. Photo credit courtesy of Robert Gober Studio © Robert Gober, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

Does the Museum show work by Wisconsin artists? What’s the deal with frames? What’s the piece that has a hole in the floor? How do curators deal with new technology? Any ancient Chinese paintings? And the all-important question: are we hiring? These are just a sampling of the many juicy questions asked by visitors on Ask a Curator Day, last week.

Ask a Curator Day took place on Twitter, giving millions of museum feed followers the chance to ask curators around the world any question they liked. After Mel Buchanan, Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design, and I found out about the event, we enlisted the help of the Museum’s social media queen Kristin Settle (also known as PR Manager), and a few months later, on September 1, the talented and well-versed curatorial staff at the Milwaukee Art Museum joined in the fray. We fielded nearly two dozen questions, choosing to break out of the 140-character limit posed by Twitter and getting into more in-depth answers (curators are, after all, very thorough people!) on our Facebook page, where you can find answers to all the questions mentioned above.

And what did the curators here think about Ask a Curator Day? I thought I’d ask them. Catherine Sawinski, Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art, was happy to get a chance to share the inspiration behind her Portrait Miniatures exhibition, a story she tells in gallery talks but isn’t on our website—”ideas [for exhibitions] come about sometimes by accident,” she says, as in the case of this show.

Among the questions, a favorite concerned the frames in the Museum’s Collection. Mary Weaver Chapin, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, was even a little jealous that she didn’t get to field it. “I’m always thrilled when visitors notice the frames,” she told me, “because we take a lot of effort to find the most historically appropriate frames when we can. It’s a constant process, and it’s slow, because we don’t want to make a mistake, and we always try to honor the artist’s intent. I’m just delighted that someone asked about them.”

Lisa Hostetler, Curator of Photographs, noted that many responses tended to begin with “it depends”—an answer she admits “may not be satisfying, but that’s how it is!” One of the things that I thought really got highlighted was how varied and intense curators’ jobs really are—on any one day they could be organizing an exhibition, overseeing works coming into the collection, meeting with donors, or giving a gallery talk with visitors, among many other tasks.

Still curious about what those many other tasks might be, or have a question we didn’t answer on Ask a Curator Day? Don’t wait till next year to throw some questions our way—comment on our Facebook page, tweet us @milwaukeeart (or me personally at @MAM_Chelsea), and of course, comment on this blog, too. And a big thanks to everyone who asked us questions—keep ’em coming!

Chelsea Kelly, the School and Teacher Programs Manager, oversees school tours, special K-12 programming, and events for teachers at the Museum, and also creates resources for educators about the artworks in the Museum’s Collection.

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