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Art Curatorial

#AskACurator Day 2020

On Wednesday, September 16, we invited the Museum’s social media followers to ask the curators anything—and they delivered! Check out some of the questions and responses below.

Ariel Pate, assistant curator of photography, giving a gallery talk in the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts. Photo by Kat Schleicher.

How do you become a curator?

“There are many different paths to becoming a curator, depending what your area of specialty or interest is. I started out in art school, then realized I was much more interested in researching, collaborating, and facilitating around art than I was in creating it. After a bevy of internships, various professional experiences, and a master’s degree, all of which helped me narrow my focus to photography as a speciality, I joined the Milwaukee Art Museum. But no curator’s path will be the same—what we have in common is a deep care for artists and artworks, no matter if we are working at a museum, in a gallery, or pursuing independent projects. This is encapsulated in the term ‘curator,’ which has its origins in the Latin word for ‘care.’” —Ariel Pate, assistant curator of photography

What does a typical work day look like?

“For me, the workday during COVID-19 is not dissimilar from the past, just with a much shorter commute! There are regular meetings and touch bases with colleagues (albeit virtually), exhibition and project planning, and time for researching the collection (a bit more challenging at this time!), followed by writing for the permanent collection and exhibitions or working on presentations and programs.” —Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art

What are some of the things curators do behind the scenes?

“Most of what we do is research and writing, but we also work with departments across the Museum (like talking to conservators to preserve the works in our collection), and have discussions within our own department to determine how best to share the diverse stories our collections tell with our public.”  —Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts

How do you collaborate or learn from curators of different collections?

“Because it covers five centuries and a range of geographical areas, the prints and drawings collection overlaps with nearly every other curatorial area at the Museum. I often collaborate with my colleagues to discuss works on paper that relate to pieces in other media in their parts of the collection. We plan rotations together, and I talk with them about potential acquisitions. I focused on nineteenth-century French art in grad school, so I always learn something new from colleagues who have other specialties.” —Nikki Otten, associate curator of prints and drawings

With so much art from so many different eras and genres, how do you all decide what to display? And how arduous of a process is it to actually get those pieces to Milwaukee?

“As far as what goes on display, we try to balance between what is relevant to the current moment, what is art historically significant, and what the strengths of our collections are. In regards to the process of getting the works here, we rely on our colleagues in the Registrar’s office—like Lydelle, who I hope can chime in!” —Ariel Pate, assistant curator of photography

“The process of bringing artwork to the Museum is long and complex, and it differs slightly whether it’s an acquisition or a loan. For loan candidates, after the curator chooses objects they would like to borrow, and they have received verbal agreement from a lender, the registrar steps in to deal with the logistics of bringing the artwork to the Museum. This process begins with a loan agreement, obtaining fine art insurance coverage, and determining the most suitable methods for packing, shipping, and storage to best assure the safety of the artwork. The packing and shipping methods can vary greatly, depending on the type and size of the artwork as well as the destination from which it is coming.” —Lydelle Abbott Janes, associate registrar for exhibitions and loans

How do you choose which art pieces are placed where? How do you prepare for new pieces?

“Each gallery in the museum is generally bound together by a narrative or theme that stems from the works that are displayed there. So when we think about what those narratives or themes will be, we look first to the objects themselves—where do they fit historically? What are the stories embedded in the artworks? How can pairing or grouping works together change or enrich those stories? When we contemplate adding a new work, you think not only about where the work fits historically, but what narratives it can most enrich. And then you have to figure out how to physically fit another work in the gallery—which isn’t always that easy, especially when adding a new work means you’ll have to remove another work. It’s all about achieving that balance, and that’s a constantly evolving process.” —Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

How do you determine when and for how long a piece will be placed in storage and when a piece will be displayed?

“Prints, drawings, and photographs are sensitive to light, so we need to limit the amount of time that works in these media are on display. The exact guidelines for each piece vary, but we generally show works on paper for a maximum of a few months and then rest them in storage for a few years.” —Nikki Otten, associate curator of prints and drawings

When you have to borrow works from other [institutions], do you usually get what you ask for? Or how often do you have to adjust your plans?

“When you have to borrow works from other collections, you don’t always get what you ask for! There are lots of variables involved in loan requests. Sometimes the lending institution has already promised the artwork to another exhibition, so it isn’t available when you want it. Sometimes it has been out on loan a lot and the lender doesn’t want to let it go again so soon, or they have plans to use it themselves in their own programming. Other times, a loan is turned down because it’s just too important to their own collection, or the artwork isn’t stable enough to handle the movement of shipping from place to place. On the other hand, an artwork may be able to travel but the lender requires that conservation work be completed first—so, in order to get the object, you agree to pay for the conservation work. And sometimes lenders agree to lend to you, but they request a ‘lend-back’ to replace their work in the galleries. All of these happen regularly with major shows, so we always have a checklist of objects that are ‘first choice’ and back-up lists if we can’t get the first choice things.” —Catherine Sawinski, assistant curator of European art

Duane Hanson’s Janitor truly moves me. [Does the Museum] have any more hyperrealistic works like it?

“As it turns out we recently hung a photographic installation by Sharon Lockhart (Maja and Elodie, 2003) that includes a Duane Hanson sculpture as part of a staged tableau!” —Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts

How come the “Mexican Silver” [Mexican Modern Jewelry] section doesn’t actually feature any artists who are Mexican?

“While American artists such as William Spratling and Margot de Taxco, who were both active in Mexico in the early twentieth century, are represented in the Museum’s Mexican Silver display, works by Mexican artists Antonio Pineda and Hector Aguilar are also featured.” —Margaret Andera, interim chief curator and curator of contemporary art

I’m often curious about the sizes of the large-scale paintings. Is there a reference list somewhere to access this information?

“We keep track of the dimensions—both framed and unframed—of all of the paintings (and indeed all the artworks) in our collection, in our collection database. However, this isn’t something we necessarily use as a primary organizational characteristic. The dimensions for most works can be found on the individual object pages of our collection website.” —Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

What is your favorite exhibit you put together and why?

“I loved working on the Winslow Homer exhibition that MAM presented a couple years ago—Homer is such a fascinating artist, and having Hark! The Lark from the Layton Art Collection here in the community is so rewarding, as a curator. The Americans in Spain catalogue just went to press, and I can’t wait to share that exhibition with the community next summer—such great artists and paintings!” —Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art

How far forward in time does a curator need to plan [for an exhibition]?

“Planning time for an exhibition varies greatly, depending on the scale of the exhibition. For a smaller project that draws work solely from our collection, an exhibition can be pulled together relatively quickly—within a year. But for a larger loan exhibition, at least three to four years (if not more) is best because that allows enough lead time to fully research the topic, find a partner institution, develop a checklist, request loans and publish a catalogue—not to mention internal institutional needs like exhibition design, development of programming, marketing, etc.” —Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

Who gets to decide the subject of an exhibition?

“Curators are trained in art history, which means that each of us has a specialized knowledge of a certain medium or time period (be it photography, Modern art, etc.). So part of our job is to be aware of trends in the field as it pertains to new scholarship or contemporary artists moving ideas forward. Once we have an idea that we want to pursue, we present it to our colleagues and to the senior staff for approval and then it gets added to the Museum’s calendar.” —Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts

How many people do you interact with while planning for an exhibit?

“For planning a major loan exhibition, curators have to interact with dozens of people. You interact with staff in all of the departments of your own museum, of course. Then, outside the museum, you work with curators, registrars, and conservators at each institution you are borrowing from. First, you negotiate the loans with them, then they help to arrange to have each one packed, shipped, insured, and installed. Most major exhibitions also have publications, which means hiring authors, editors, and designers, and getting photographs of the artwork from all of the lenders. Curators are also involved in fundraising for major exhibitions and have to meet with possible donors.”  —Catherine Sawinski, assistant curator of European art

“I work with a myriad of people in the exhibition planning process. An exhibition can have fifty or more lenders, so I could be coordinating with that many registrars, private lenders or galleries, various craters and shippers, insurance representatives, framers, various other suppliers and storage facilities and couriers as we work to get objects prepped for shipping. Not to mention all of the internal staff that I interact with to coordinate objects coming into the building—curators, curatorial assistants, the curatorial administrator, art preparators, conservators, members from the finance and development departments, exhibition and graphic design team members, security officers and cleaners.” —Lydelle Abbott Janes, associate registrar for exhibitions and loans

What was it like working with Barbara Brown Lee?

“It was and remains an absolute joy. She is part of the DNA of the institution, and was on the front lines of so many early decisions, exhibitions and acquisitions. She also worked directly with a lot of the founding collectors whose collections we think of as synonymous with the museum, such as Peg Bradley and Richard and Erna Flagg. Plus, she tells fantastic stories!” —Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art

If you could meet one deceased artist, who would it be and why?

“I would like to have met Eva Hesse. She was among the first artists to experiment with synthetic materials such as fiberglass and resin. Her work pushed the boundaries of Minimalism by introducing organic forms and irregular spatial relationships. She is a tremendously influential artist, despite her death at a young age. Her work, ‘Right After,’ is one of her most important sculptures, and one of my very favorite works in our collection.” —Margaret Andera, interim chief curator and curator of contemporary art

“I would love to have met Helen Levitt, a photographer known for her candid photographs of children playing in the neighborhoods of New York. She was able to create images of their creativity and inner worlds with respect and curiosity—it never feels like her camera is intruding on the scene. Plus, I’ve heard she was quite a card sharp!” —Ariel Pate, assistant curator of photography

What type of art inspires you?

“I am inspired by art that makes me see the world in a new way. I am especially excited by moments of revolutionary upheaval that create radical new aesthetics, such as the photography coming out of Postwar Japan, when artists sought to find new ways of understanding their world.” —Lisa Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts

Sculptures or paintings?

“Prints and drawings!” —Nikki Otten, associate curator of prints and drawings

What advice would you give someone who aspires to work as a curator?

“I found internships helpful. They allow you to gain a better sense of what being a curator is like, and you gain practical knowledge and skills that often cannot be taught in art history programs.” —Nikki Otten, associate curator of prints and drawings

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