How did you get started in the curatorial field? Was that part of your specific plan?
The curatorial field specifically was not part of my plan, though I don’t think that I ever had a concrete plan to begin with. On my first day of college orientation I asked the chair of the art department if they hired students, and if I could have a job. She assigned me to work in the college’s art gallery for starters, and I’ve worked in galleries ever since in some capacity. It wasn’t always my primary focus though. I’ve also worked as a studio assistant to multiple artists, an artist-in-residence, a research assistant, etc.
What kind of education is needed to do what you do?
Exhibitions and programming staff come from varied backgrounds. My focus in college was fine arts, specifically sculpture and art history. Often people in this field come from fine arts, art history, museum studies, or art education programs. Most of my training on the general management of exhibitions and gallery organization came from on the job training throughout the last nine years.
Do you make art, as well?
I do, though not as much lately as I should. My primary focus in college was in the sculpture studio, which lends itself to a lot of exploration of materials. I learned a lot of skills that are invaluable to my life now overall, not just my career. I worked with my hands, built things out of wood and steel, learned to weld, and operated a bronze foundry (among so many other things). Since leaving a full-time studio environment, my methods for art making have had to adapt.
What is the mission of the Susquehanna Art Museum and how does that impact what you choose to exhibit?
The mission of the Susquehanna Art Museum is to exhibit nationally and internationally recognized artists to educate, inspire and foster creative exploration, collaboration and public engagement. As I plan exhibitions for the museum, I take in to consideration a few major concerns. Among them are how relevant the artwork is to our community, and if it gives visitors the opportunity to learn something new. Education is a big facet of the museum’s mission, values, and everyday operation. I work closely with our education manager to make sure that viewers of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels with art can be engaged with what is on view. We also have multiple galleries, which gives us the opportunity to offer multiple types of artwork at the same time.
After a long period of time in limbo, the museum just reopened in a great new space, and with a great sense of energy. What was preparing for that opening like?
The staff and board members of the museum spent years planning and fundraising for the new building. I was hired at SAM around the time they first broke ground on site and the construction began. We spent the next 14 months of construction planning the first year of exhibitions and operations of the new museum as well as consulting on the construction process at the facility. It was an intensive period of focus on the upcoming opening while still staging multiple exhibitions in our transitional space. We opened our doors to the public on January 16, 2015 and were overjoyed that over 1,100 people came that first night to celebrate the opening. It’s a time that I’ll always look back at with a lot of pride.
Can you describe your typical day?
I spend most of my days in the museum now, which is fantastic considering how long we were without this permanent location. I work closely with the fellow programming staff members to plan, coordinate, install, and maintain the exhibitions. My especially crazy time happens when we are between exhibitions in either gallery. I oversee the entire change over, including intake of artwork, patching and painting the walls, writing the labels, designing the layout of the works in the exhibition, etc. As a small hands-on staff we all help to maintain general operations in many ways. With the help of valuable interns and volunteers, I manage the social media and website updates, the gallery host volunteers and scheduling, and help with programs. I also sit on a few different museum and community arts committees, and am coordinating a 1,500 sq ft mural being created for one of the buildings adjacent to the museum. And I take a lot of dog walks around the city in between there, somewhere.
How do you go about developing an exhibition?
I go about exhibitions different ways. Sometimes, I curate a group of artists around a central theme and create an entirely new collection of work to be shown together. Other times we engage partnering organizations to collaborate on an exhibition, or loan a collection of works from an institution or private collector. I am part of a sub-committee of the board of directors that focuses on exhibitions and education, so often I bring a few ideas that I’ve already developed and researched to the committee and we all discuss which would fit best within the mission and annual schedule. There a lot of steps to take an exhibition from a concept to a reality, so it’s important to have a group of experienced committee members and volunteers to lend their support.
In your mind, what constitutes an excellent art exhibition?
I think that an excellent exhibition is one that people are drawn to come back to for a second visit, which means they spent time thinking deeper about it after they left the gallery. Some of the most rewarding moments in my job are when I overhear visitors who are surprised to learn something new or find a new technique or type of imagery that they are inspired by and have never seen before. I also personally like exhibitions that have a clean, contemporary design aesthetic regardless of the era the work on view was created in. Consistency in quality is something that I strive for in all areas.
What responsibilities does a museum have to the artists it exhibits?
On a basic level, the museum is responsible for insuring for the care and safety of the artworks in their possession to as high a standard as they would works for that they owned. On a broader level, the museum should ensure the best possible presentation of all artworks as individual elements of an overall exhibition. We also have a responsibility to educate and inform our viewers about concepts and techniques on view, which benefits both the viewers and the artists.
Are there things that the Susquehanna Art Museum won’t show? If so, what and why not?
I always keep in mind our community and the demographic of our members when I plan exhibitions. If something were proposed for an exhibition that may be incendiary, it would be treated carefully. In general though, I don’t often get proposals from artists for exhibitions at the museum that I would consider inappropriate. I dealt with issues of censorship and the appropriateness of certain works in previous jobs at commercial galleries, but not much at the museum (yet!).
Why is art important to the community?
Art provides not only a creative outlet, but also unlimited opportunities for learning. It can unite people from completely different backgrounds, give a voice to those who wouldn’t have one otherwise, and teach people practical skills that they will apply to every area of their life. It’s a different way of thinking, with fewer boundaries and the chance to create something meaningful that is completely unique. Spaces where art are made or exhibited are places where people come together to share ideas, which is how a community grows strong.
Visit the all-new Susquehanna Art Museum at 1401 North 3rd St. Harrisburg, PA 17102, Phone: 717.233.8668