Curators vs. Artists

By F. Lennox Campello

Those of you who are regular visitors to this column, know that one of my constant concerns is the poor relationship between Greater DC area museum area curators and DC area artists, and the rarity of interest by most DC area museum professionals in their own city’s art scene and artists.

Like anything, there are notable, but rare, exceptions; off the top of my head, the only one which I can think up is the dynamic duo of Jack Rasmussen and Kristi-Anne Shaer at American University’s Katzen Art Museum, coupled with the wonderful Alper Initiative.

Add to that the fact that one of the unexpected benefits of the Trawick Prize and the Bethesda Painting Awards has been that they have “forced” the hired DC, VA and MD area museum professionals and curators to look at the work of artists from the region; some amazing success stories have spawned from that exposure.  Area artists should be very grateful to Ms. Trawick and Ms. Alper for all that that they have done and continue to do for the fine arts around the capital region.

But getting back on subject and generally speaking, most of the DC area museum curators and directors still find it easier to catch a flight to another city to look at an emerging artist’s work from that city, than to take a cab to a DC area artist’s studio or visit a local gallery.

I think part of this is because, again with an exception here and there, most of these curators came from other parts of the nation and overseas, and they tend to bring their regional familiarities with them, rather than discover new ones (it takes a lot of work). They are also part of a curatorial scene where little risk is taken, and the herd mentality reigns supreme.

As a result, one can count in one hand the number of area artists (local or otherwise) who have had their first ever museum show in a DC area museum. And yet, even major museums (such as the Whitney in New York) have given our regional artists their first museum solos, although this is becoming rarer and rarer.

Example: I know that I wasn’t the only one amazed to find out that the now gone Corcoran’s Sam Gilliam retrospective about two decades ago was the first solo museum show by arguably DC’s best-known painter.  The Corcoran is gone, but Sam is at the zenith of his career!

The rarity of local focus is also caused partially because of the fact that DC area museums generally tend to think of themselves as “national museums”, rather than as “city museums”, like all other major cities in the world have.

Furthermore, because of the sad lack of coverage by the DC local media of the DC local art scene and events, our museum professionals have to spend more personal time (which they often lack) to “learn” about DC area artists and galleries, rather than learning from reading, as they do about what’s going on in NYC and LA and Miami and Seattle from the national art magazines, or perhaps the coverage that those cities’ news media gives to their local arts.

And so it takes an “extra” effort on the part of a DC museum curator to get his or her interest aroused on any event in the local scene. Some of it is networking (a big name museum donor demands a visit to a gallery or a studio), some of it is financial (they are paid to jury a show), some of it is media-driven (such as the rare positive review in the even rarer news media coverage), and some of it is accidental (such as a curator admiring the work of a “new” artist in a LA gallery only to be told that the artist is a DC artist).

All of these have happened in my experience.

Here’s a little test that I suspect 8 out of 10 local museum professionals would fail:

“Mr./Ms. _____, can you quickly name for us about five contemporary artists from anywhere and five contemporary DC area artists whose work you admire and why?”

If anyone does ask, please email me his/her response.

I’ll end with a happy story on one success, and the hope that more stories like this will continue to happen.

Anne Collins Goodyear and Amy Lin

Many summers ago, Dr. Anne Collins Goodyear (who was at the time the Assistant Curator of Prints & Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery) juried a show at Touchstone Gallery and selected one of then DC area artist Amy Lin’s pieces for the show.  Then later that same year, she juried the All-Media Membership Show at the Art League Gallery in Old Town Alexandria, and gave one of Lin’s drawings an Honorable Mention.

Lin and Dr. Collins Goodyear met at the gallery reception for that show and Lin invited Anne to a group show that Lin was part of at the Pierce School that same month. Lin told me that “not only did she want to come, [but also] she wanted to make an appointment so that she could see the work and talk to me about it at the same time!”

The two subsequently met at the Pierce School and Dr. Collins Goodyear looked at Lin’s art and discussed it with the artist.  In May of that year, Lin was offered a solo show at DCAC. Since Lin needed a curator for the DCAC show, and since she knew that Anne was interested and familiar with her work, she asked Dr. Collins Goodyear to curate Lin’s solo at DCAC and Dr. Collins Goodyear agreed to do it.

Several studio visits (as well as an essay about the show) later, the show was curated and was a resounding success, which then led to Lin being picked up and subsequently represented by Addison-Ripley Fine Art, easily one of the top fine arts galleries in the region. Lin’s career skyrocketed, and the artist (who now lives in South Africa), now shows worldwide.

That was a curator who was willing to spend part of her precious time working and looking in her own backyard and who exemplified (above and beyond) the sort of interest that we would expect, once in a while, from our area curators as part of their job.

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