Last week we gave you a brief overview of the departments at the FJJMA, and now we will begin a series of interviews to give you an idea of what workers from each department do on a daily basis. Our first interview is with Dr. Mark A. White of the Curatorial Department.
Name: Mark White
Job title: Eugene B. Adkins Senior Curator and Curator of Collections
Educational background: Ph.D. From the University of Kansas
Why did you want to be a curator? Curatorial seemed to me to be the best way to engage a broad, diverse audience. Through an exhibition, you have the opportunity to explore political, social, and cultural issues and demonstrate the relevance of the visual arts in encouraging both thought and dialogue. It’s possible to achieve that in teaching, but with curatorial I felt that I could expand that audience while working with real works of art. There’s something to be said for the real object and its ability to capture the attention of the viewer.
Describe what your typical day looks like. My day is a fairly eclectic mixture that involves some serious writing, planning temporary exhibitions and gallery rotations, researching subjects at the library, and answering plenty of email. Because I am usually working on three independent projects at any given time, I tend to jump from one task to the next several times over the course of the day.
How much freedom do you have in choosing exhibitions, and how do you choose them? I have some freedom in choosing exhibitions, and I generally try to select shows that will be either relevant to our audience, offer an entirely new experience, or engage some topical theme. Ideally, I would like to do all of that, but that’s not always possible. It is important, though, that every exhibition says something new about its subject. I have never been interested in exhibitions that don’t offer some intellectual experience.
When curating an exhibition, how do you go about finding the pieces and making sure you can get them for the show? Securing works for exhibitions requires a lot of research. When building a checklist, I begin by considering works that help to convey the thesis I have for the exhibition. I look through a lot of catalogues, books, and gallery websites in order to find the right works. Then I contact the owner and make a loan request, which is relatively simple. Sometimes, the lender will have specific conditions for the loan, and you have to honor those if you want the piece for the exhibition. With our spring 2013 exhibition Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy, we were trying to recreate a 1946-47 show. Many of the works were in public collections, so it was not terribly difficult to locate them and arrange for the loan. However, there were about twenty pieces for which we had no location or an unclear location. I spent over a year combing monographs, exhibition catalogues, auction records, and the internet to find those works. We found all but ten of the pieces originally included in the exhibition.
What exhibition at the FJJMA has been your favorite to curate and why? Art Interrupted. We recreated a 1946-47 exhibition organized but the U.S. State Department as a form of cultural diplomacy following World War II. It was intended to be a survey of contemporary art in 1946, so it was a wonderful sample of what was considered important, innovative, or controversial that year. The exhibition became a scandal in 1947 when Congress learned that the State Department had spent government money on modern art. The exhibition was criticized for presenting a pejorative or subversive view of American life, for including artists with leftist sympathies, and for presenting art deemed stylistically and technically deficient. We were able to showcase the art as well as the public and political reaction to it in the exhibition, which made for a great presentation.
What exhibition(s) do you look forward to curating? I am currently working on an exhibition for fall 2014, Macrocosm/Microcosm: Abstract Expressionism in the American Southwest. I’ve been working on this exhibition for three years, so I’m excited to see it complete. It is one of the few critical examinations of mid-century modernism in this part of the country, and it brings together a number of nationally prominent artists as well as those who are not well known outside the region. It will give our audience an interesting perspective on how those artists responded to the expansive spaces and distinctive geography of the region using the language of Abstract Expressionism.
What is your favorite part of your job? I enjoy conceiving new projects, and I am usually the most excited about an exhibition at the conceptual stage. The research offers me the opportunity to learn and discover, and I’ve always liked that process. By the time the exhibit is completed, I am usually onto another project.