#AskACurator Day: You Asked, They Answered

You see the exhibitions and the beautiful works of art in our galleries, but how often do you see the people who, through careful thought, research, and planning, helped bring them here? 

Much of a curator’s work takes place behind-the-scenes, and most Museum visitors only get to see the final products—new art acquisitions and stunning exhibitions. But on September 18, 2019, in honor of International #AskACurator Day, we encouraged our social media followers to ask our curators anything! Check out some of the questions and responses below.

Ariel Pate, assistant curator of photography, leads a tour through her exhibition Portrait of Milwaukee.

How did you start your career in the art field? Always a curator or did you dabble first?

“I dabbled in painting as a child and teen, but even then it was obvious my talents were in analysis rather than practice. I actually majored in history as an undergraduate, but fell back in love with art and with museums, and went to graduate school for art history and museum studies. During that time, I did many internships and practicums and through those opportunities, finally landed my first job as a curator.” –Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art

What work of art started your passion for museum work?

Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady, at the National Gallery of Art” –Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

How did you become a curator? What did you go to school for?

“I became a curator because I love to think and talk about art. I studied art history as an undergraduate, and did a graduate program in curatorial studies.” –Ariel Pate, Assistant Curator of Photography

“Graduate school, internships, entry-level museum jobs, slowly working toward becoming a curator; I have an MA in decorative arts/design history and a PhD in architecture/design history” –Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- and 21st-Century Design

 “In order to become a curator you have to be interested in visual language and how it reflects the time in which it is produced. I studied art history in college and graduate school, and focused on the history of photography and contemporary art. Then I interned at museums around the country until I finally landed my first fellowship. I find that having a good visual memory is key to success in this field.” –Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts

What is considered a MAM-worthy piece of art; what’s the protocol?

“We look at numerous factors—quality is paramount—but we also ask a range of questions. Is it in good condition? Is it an excellent representation of its type? Is it compelling and unique? How does it connect to the Museum’s Collection? Does it build strength on strength or offer us something we didn’t have before? Does it connect disparate parts of the Collection? Etc. It is hard to describe the process simply, as it is also something intangible—an object should speak to you, it should be something that is so appealing, so compelling, for whatever reason, that it demands to be added to the Collection.” –Tanya Paul,  Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

What is the oldest work of art in the Museum’s Collection?

“Our Egyptian Statue of Sekhmet, Late New Kingdom (1069–664 BC), ca. 1000 BC” –Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

What’s the oldest painting in the Museum’s Collection?

“Our Al Faiyum, Portrait of a Woman (AD 100-150)” –Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

What is the oldest artwork in the Museum’s Collection that is known or suspected to have been made by a woman?

“It’s a toss up between our Diana Mantuana and our Sofonisba Anguissola, although likely the work by Sofonisba is a touch earlier” –Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

How do you decide what pieces to display downstairs (in the Herzfeld Center of Photography and Media Arts)?

“As curators who oversee the Herzfeld Center, we aim to present a balanced program of photography and media arts that engages with the history of the medium as well as contemporary concerns. Photography is a light sensitive medium and so it must rotate more often than other objects in the Museum’s Collection.” –Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts, and Ariel Pate, Assistant Curator of Photography

How do you decide what pieces to move when you rotate what is currently on view?

“Sometimes we are making room for new acquisitions; other times, we may want to work through some ideas…and we are always considering how the works relate to one another, which may cause a work to rotate off view if there is a more compelling story to tell, etc.” –Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- and 21st-Century Design

What’s your first step or thought when you begin curating a new exhibition?

“I started Portrait of Milwaukee looking at the Museum’s Collection: Which story or stories did the photographs tell, and what was missing from the narrative? With that in mind, I reached out to local collections to find photographs that told other stories—such as that of tannery workers in the mid 1970s, with photos borrowed from the Central Library.” –Ariel Pate, Assistant Curator of Photography

“What’s the thesis, and has something like this been done before?” –Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- and 21st-Century Design

Are there any curations that are not your own that didn’t get the attention you believe they should have?

“The smaller rotation spaces in our Museum are sometimes overlooked. This is where curators get to explore just one idea, like the small posters Jules Cheret made for a Paris weekly; Milwaukee’s connection to polymath László Moholy-Nagy; or an introduction to Functional Fashions, a clothing line focused on providing disabled consumers with stylish clothing choices.” –Ariel Pate, Assistant Curator of Photography

What do you enjoy most about being a curator?

“Working with great art and the excellent team!” –Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art

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