Behind the Scenes Curatorial

MAM Behind the Scenes: Tanya Paul, Curator of European Art

Emma Fallon talks with Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art, about her role at the Museum.

Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts highlighting a variety of different positions within the Milwaukee Art Museum. Each day, hundreds of visitors enter the Milwaukee Art Museum to stare in awe at the incredible wealth of artworks within the museum’s collection. But what can too often go unrecognized is the equally awe-inspiring work of the many museum staff members, without whom the museum in its current state could not exist. “MAM Behind the Scenes” is a blog series written by Digital Learning intern Emma Fallone to showcase the wide range of positions that make up a museum, and to reveal just a few of the many people whose work makes the Milwaukee Art Museum a source of inspiration and education.

Can you give a brief description of your job, in thirty seconds or less?

As a curator, I do many different things. I work on everything from research and building the permanent collection, to working on exhibitions, to the display of the permanent collection–and that’s one of the big projects we’re working on now, the renovation and re-installation of the collection.

What would be a “typical day” in the life of a curator?

It really varies, and to be honest, the variety is half of the fun. There’s actually a lot of email and such–I can’t spend all of my time researching paintings, though of course I wish that I could! Usually, I spend the morning catching up on correspondence, and then there will be any number of meetings, related to upcoming exhibitions or to the reinstallation. Sometimes I’ll give a gallery talk. And then, if I’m lucky, I’ll have time to work on my own upcoming projects. But, as I said, every day is different, which is actually kind of nice.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love creating exhibitions. I think it’s just tremendous fun. I love the learning process that’s built into it – you’re always uncovering new things, developing your thesis. And I also love the process of making acquisitions, of building the collection. Again, this is a process of discovery, of finding a new object – something new and beautiful, or interesting or challenging. It’s so fun to be able to bring a piece back, to share it with everyone and to see how it plays with the rest of the collection. Finally, the reinstallation process is quite fun. Working on that kind of comprehensive, complete re-envisioning of how the collection should be represented is just incredible.

One experience in my work that has been perhaps the most transformative for me was an exhibition that I created in 2012 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which later went on to be shown at the National Gallery in DC. The idea for the exhibition was born out of my doctoral dissertation on the Dutch still life painter Willem van Aelst. I had the unique opportunity to choose an artist that I’d worked on for eight years and knew very intimately, and then to pare his entire body of 127 paintings down to the thirty that we ended up showing–presenting an artist who was fairly unknown to the broader world. And then it was great to see how well-received the exhibition was, because it had seemed like this wonderful secret that I’d been working on for so long, and then suddenly I was able to share it with the world.

What is one challenge that you have encountered in your work?

One of the hardest aspects is time management. I have a lot of different tasks that I have to focus on as the day goes by. It can be hard to both attend to the short-term needs, which certainly exist and are very important, and yet also make time for the larger long-term projects as well. Finding that balance is definitely my biggest challenge.

Is there something unusual or unique about your position that most people may not know?

When I talk with people about what I do, they’re often surprised that there’s one person who is in charge of so many varied tasks. I think my role in building the collection is probably one of the most surprising aspects for people. People often don’t realize the degree to which we curators think about and actively work to expand the museum’s collection. An art museum’s collection can seem very monumental, and thus unchanging, but in reality it is constantly in flux. There’s always a long-term plan, and we’re constantly looking for new works, either to fill in gaps or establish new relationships.

Tell a bit about yourself–how did you come to have this position?

There’s really no one single way to become a curator. And, of course, it varies depending on what type of curator you want to be. To be a curator in charge of European Old Master paintings and sculpture in today’s market, you need to have your PhD. As for my path, I graduated from college with a major in English and an Art History minor. At that point, I realized – as most undergraduates do – that I actually needed to find a job. Museum work was really what I was interested in, and so I started doing some internships to gain experience. During that time, I started applying to graduate school as well. I got my Master’s degree with concentrations in 17th-century Dutch and 18th-century French art, and then started coursework towards a PhD, still doing museum internships on the side whenever I could. I can’t stress it enough – if you want to work in a museum, practical experience really is key. After I earned my PhD, I did a fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where I had previously interned, working on the Van Aelst exhibition that I mentioned earlier. My first job was as the Curator of European Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And then, a year ago, [Milwaukee Art Museum Chief Curator] Brady Roberts called me about an open position here, encouraging me to apply – and I did, and the rest is history.

Why do you believe that art and art museums are important in today’s society?

What museums offer, more than anything, is authenticity. So much of this world today is digital – you’re interacting with people so much more via the Internet. It’s very fleeting and very quick. Yet what museums can offer is something entirely different: a slow, quiet, meditative experience, focused on looking and observing, and on taking the time to engage and explore. Museums are a wonderful opportunity to learn, and to have that kind of quiet pleasure that is increasingly hard to come by in today’s world. It’s important that we still have the opportunity to come to a museum, stand in front of a painting that was painted 500 years ago, and come to understand what the artist was thinking and feeling. I think there can be times when museums try too hard to be a part of that fast-paced, digital world – and while we certainly engage with the advances of technology to some degree, we have a truly wonderful gift: We are the caretakers of incredible objects. And we need to embrace that, to celebrate it, and to share the pleasure in this celebration with everyone who comes through our doors.

Is there anything that you would like to tell future visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museum?

I would encourage them to slow down and look. I see a lot of people going through museums with their phones or cameras -I have no problem with photographs, since people want to document their experience. But I would encourage people to take a minute and engage with the artwork. Shut off all of the hundreds of other thoughts in your brain, and just look. Just enjoy the moment. It’s a single act, and a simple one, but I guarantee that if you spend five uninterrupted minutes taking in a work of art, you’re going to see things that you never expected. It’s a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and really showcases the beauty – and power – of these objects.

What is your favorite work in the Museum’s collection?

Such a hard question! And quite honestly, it varies from day to day. But I would have to say that Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Francis of Assisi in his Tomb, Philippe de Champaigne’s Moses Presenting the Tablets of the Law, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Shepherdess are all real masterpieces. And I don’t use that term lightly – these works really are extraordinary. Whenever I am showing people through the collection, whether they’re visitors or curators from other museums, I always bring them by those works, and there’s always a moment of pure awe. I guess in many ways that’s the best part of being a curator: I don’t have to pick a favorite. I have the opportunity to work with all of these incredible, beautiful artworks every day, and I am even luckier in that I can share this sense of wonder with all who enter.

Emma Fallone was a summer digital learning intern, focusing on blogging. At the time, Emma was a junior at Yale University, majoring in history and art history. In June 2014, she moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

4 replies on “MAM Behind the Scenes: Tanya Paul, Curator of European Art”

I like this series of “Behind the Scenes” blog posts very much.

I’m wondering , as MAM pursues its Plan for the Future, whether there are any plans to display, from time to time, at least some of the lovely European works that have gone off-view. They are greatly missed!

Thanks for your quick reply. The Glasgow exhibition should be very enjoyable. But of course the next question is when in 2015 do you anticipate MAM’s European collection will be back on view again?

Hi John! The permanent collection should be on view again in fall 2015. You can find more up-to-date information throughout the year in this area of our website. Thanks again for commenting!

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