Artists as Museum Curators and Directors

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Most artists don’t know what kind of career they will have, or if they will even have a career, but sculptor Jock Reynolds knew he was making a career-changing decision in 1983 when he took over the directorship of Washington Project for the Arts, a nonprofit multidisciplinary art space in the District of Columbia. “It was a six- or seven-day a week job, requiring a total commitment, and I know it meant not really being able to do my own artwork,” he said. The organization was $160,000 in the red, and salaries hadn’t been paid in some time (“I had a wife and two kids”), but Reynolds left a tenured position at California State University at San Francisco where he was director of the graduate art program to take a job whose primary role was exhibiting the work of other artists. The decision turned out to be a good one for him: Somehow, he managed to erase the debt and put the art center in fiscal order within six months (“Fundraising isn’t so hard, you just have to care about whatever you’re raising money for”), and his career as a gallery director was firmly established. After nine years at Washington Project for the Arts, he became director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, leaving six years later for his current job as director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

A studio art training prepares one for a life of unemployment, so says the cynic. However, to a less jaundiced eye, a background in fine art is particularly suitable for fields that involve fine art. Reynolds joined the many artists who found a place in the nonprofit gallery world, working as curators and directors of nonprofit art spaces, college or university art galleries and even some smaller private and municipal museums. The focus of many of these institutions is contemporary (sometimes, contemporary regional) art, making a familiarity with current art and art materials, as well as the ability to work with living artists important criteria for hiring. Others with only training in art history or arts administration may lack one or both of those essential elements.

It would be difficult to chart such a career trajectory like Reynolds’ in advance: He was “making art like mad” after receiving an MFA from the University of California at Davis in 1972 and soon thereafter hired to teach at California State. On the side, however, he and some artist friends started up an alternative art center in San Francisco, called New Langton Arts (it is still in operation), in order to exhibit the kind of artwork not otherwise shown in the city. Good with his hands, Reynolds took part in sheet-rocking, wiring and carpentering an unused warehouse space into an art center, then taught himself how to light and install art. Those skills were called upon when he went to the Washington Project for the Arts, although when both the Addison Gallery and Yale’s Art Gallery required renovation he limited his involvement to supervising others doing the physical work.

The curators working under him all have doctorates in art history, but Reynolds does not find their credentials intimidating, and the curators themselves recognize that “I have a real understanding of what it takes to make art, and that I have an eye,” he said.

Others working in the nonprofit arts have also found their experience of being artists helpful in bringing forth new art to the public and presenting it in a way that benefits both artist and audience. “I think I’m more sensitive to the plight of the artist than a nonartist might be,” said Dan Talley, director of the Sharadin Art Gallery of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, who earned a Masters in Fine Arts in the mid-1970s. “I try to imagine what the artist would want to have happen,” making an exhibition look good, documenting the show with a catalogue and bringing important people in to see it. That sensitivity requires Talley to understand that, for the exhibiting artist, the gallery show is a stepping-stone to (it is hoped) larger things; Talley also recognizes that he is abetting someone else’s career, rather than his own, displaying work that he may not believe is as good as what he creates. That tension may increase if the visiting artist acts the prima donna (but that usually isn’t the case – artists tend to be quite happy just getting their work shown). Artists are supposed to have big egos, and big egos cry, “Me, Me, ME!” to one and all, but Talley and others in his position understand that showcasing another artist’s work involves maturity and self-confidence as artists (“I’ve gotten a lot of positive attention for my work in my career,” Reynolds said. “I’m not hung-up about taking credit for things”). It also requires a number of skills – such as art selection, programming, exhibition design, writing publicity notices, perhaps fundraising – that tend to fall outside the more defined scope of what arts administration graduates and certainly art historians learn.

Perhaps as well, art historians and administrators aren’t taught to develop a comfort zone with artists. “Some people are uncomfortable with living artists,” said Dan Mills, who received an MFA in painting in 1981 and is currently director of the Bates College Museum of Art, having previously worked for nine years at Bucknell University’s Samek Art Gallery, both of which have a focus on contemporary art. “The involvement of artists adds something unknown whereas, when dealing with the work of someone who has been dead 100 years, your thesis is your thesis.”

As with all art-related careers, there are benefits and drawbacks for artists. An obvious benefit of working in galleries and museums is a paycheck and the contacts artists are able to make with collectors, critics, gallery owners, curators and other artists, which may prove helpful in the who-you-know art world. “The artists working here are making phone calls to people who might not talk to them if they were just calling as artists,” said Edmund Cardoni, director of HallWalls, who himself came to the job with an MFA in creative writing.

On the down side, work gets in the way of work. Energy expended on building and running and organization, or promoting the work of other artists takes away from the pursuit of one’s own artmaking. “That part of me that is an active studio artist has diminished,” Reynolds said. “However, I don’t feel I made the choice to do something else because of failure. I think I’m good at both.”

As good a job as they may do, artists often still find a “glass ceiling” keeping them from rising to upper-level positions at larger or more academic museums. Doctorates in art history are generally the union card for employment at this level in these institutions. Charles Steiner, former director of the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas, noted that he attended a recent meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors and “I didn’t see anyone there who was an artist.” His degree is an MFA in painting from George Washington University, although his first hire at the museum was a curator with a PhD. Steiner’s plan upon receiving his MFA was to teach (“I applied to 50 some-odd universities and didn’t get a bite”), but during his graduate schooling he had set up a program to bring in the disabled to the university’s museum, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum hired him to set up a similar program there. That program involved a host of administrative responsibilities, including gallery talks, fundraising, training teachers, and creating and scheduling exhibitions and activities for the target audience. After nine years at the Met, he was hired by Princeton University as first assistant and later associate director, where he stayed for 14 years before being hired by Wichita.

Specialized knowledge and being in the right place at the right time are helpful for artists looking to be hired by museums. Mark Pascale, who received an MFA in printmaking from Ohio State University, taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and used the museum’s study room for lectures, eventually becoming familiar with the associate curator of prints and drawings who ran that room. In the early 1980s, the museum acquired the collection of the renowned print studio United Limited Art Editions, and curators began to tap Pascale for his knowledge of printmaking. “They asked me about techniques, papers, procedures, texture and process,” he said, “as few curators knew much about the making of art.”

Eventually, Pascale became a regular resource for the curators of prints and drawings whenever a technical question arose. By the late 1980s, he was helping curators with a catalogue raisonne on Whistler’s lithographs, checking entries for technical correctness. Not long after, he was hired by the museum to run the museum’s study room as an associate curator of prints and drawings. “I was not given to understand that I need additional degrees,” he said. “I did, though, take a writing class, because I would be doing some academic writing.”

Artist-curator adds to the growing number of multiple roles that artists have assumed (artist-writer, artist-collector, artist-teacher, artist-gallerist) over the years. Maintaining an artistic career in the face of a full-time job is often quite difficult, and creative energies may be channeled into the paycheck work. Perhaps, the artist’s loss becomes society’s gain.

By Daniel Grant

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