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A blog from the 2013 AAMC Annual Meeting in New York.


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Small Fish, Big Pond

Posted By Jessica Cochran, Curator of Exhibitions and Programs, Acting Assistant Director, Columbia College, Monday, July 22, 2013

As a first time attendee to the annual conference, I was particularly excited to consider my own curatorial practice—I work both independently and at a small, non collecting university gallery (Center for Book and Paper Arts, Columbia College Chicago)—relative to curators working mostly at collecting institutions much larger than my own. Would the issues be the same? Do all curators wear as many "hats” as I do? Can I adopt strategies of larger institutions for funding exhibitions or generating innovative programming?

I was pleased to find out: the conversations are the same. Most of the curators, museum administrators, and educators I met or listened to, from institutions large and small (and some working independently!) shared similar challenges:

¨ How do we engage audiences and quantify successful engagement? (Panel: Museums and Civic Responsibility)

¨ How does a curator represent culture and geography in non-Eurocentric ways? (Presentation: Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Associate Curator for Africa, Baltimore Museum of Art, "The Great Map Debate: Context and an African Art Installation”)

¨ How do "the curatorial” and "the educational” intersect in the gallery space? (Panel: Participation, Engagement and the Curator)

¨ What is the role of technology in relation to visitor participation? (Panel: Participation, Engagement and the Curator)

And if anything unites curators from all walks of life, it has to be the challenge of communications and public speaking. The conference ended on a high note, with a public speaking workshop led by Barbara Tannenbaum: there she taught us strategies for successful, confident public speaking—from presenting works for acquisition to a committee, leading a gallery tour or participating on a panel, to tips on successful email communication!

As I continue to build my curatorial value system (not to mention my career!) through work at my home institution as well as independent curatorial projects, I will continue to attend the AAMC annual meeting. Did I receive every answer I needed? No! But I learned that I was asking right questions…

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Networking and Realizing Yourself as a Resource

Posted By John P. Lukavic, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Native Arts, Denver Art Museum, Monday, July 22, 2013
As a first-time attendee at the 2013 Association of Art Museum Curators conference, I did not know what to expect when I walked into the welcoming reception hosted at Sotheby’s New York office. My specialty is American Indian art and I knew from looking at the list of registrants that I was one of only three attending the conference who shared my specialty. That is correct: three out of approximately 350 attendees. I did not expect to meet the pillars of my discipline—other conferences provide those opportunities; however, what I found was a group of colleagues who were fascinated to hear about my interests and experiences, and in many cases, identified me as a resource to tap in the future.

Many museums have some collections of American Indian arts; although, few have staff with the knowledge and experience to assess these collections, identify cultural sensitivities, or how to handle repatriation issues. I come from a department with two curators, and both of us specialize in American Indian arts. We have a large collection and extensive experience working with this collection and collaborating with Native communities. Identifying and effectively communicating your skills, knowledge, and experience to your colleagues of other disciplines in other institutions through networking helps to integrate yourself at AAMC, but also provides a service to other member institutions.

From this conference and the various networking opportunities provided, I realized that one way I can serve the Association is to make myself known to others as a resource. Attending conference sessions is always a benefit you receive as an individual as the speakers share their knowledge and expertise; however, just because you are not a panelist does not mean you have nothing to provide to others. Taking the time to meet your colleagues, share ideas, and offering your assistance to those who could benefit from your skill-set is a vital resource you can provide and one that makes the AAMC conference such an important yearly event to attend.

I have heard many times before that the best conferences are those where you give as much as receive. Each of us has value that we can share with our colleagues and the AAMC conference is a venue unlike any other where this value is identified and appreciated.

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AAMC 2013

Posted By Sarah M. Wolfe | Curatorial Assistant, Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Monday, July 22, 2013
The 2013 AAMC Annual Conference in New York was my first experience with the organization—and in fact, my first professional conference overall. I am very grateful to the Luce and Kress Foundations for providing a travel grant to enable me to participate! One of the themes that ran throughout the conference—and really stuck with me—is the idea that we curators, and museums in general, need to step outside of our research projects and consider new ways to engage diverse communities that don’t necessarily think of an art museum as a destination. As a curator at the beginning of my career, I’m not particularly wedded to only one method of displaying information, increasing foot traffic, or generating exhibition ideas. As Holland Cotter put it in his keynote address on Monday morning, to influence art history, we need to present original concepts in fresh ways. We work in historically classist institutions and so there is a constant need to bring our collections and scholarship out to where the non-museum-goers are. I found the Dallas Museum of Art’s new program of membership-by-affiliation to be an intriguing way of bringing new people into the fold—visitors are rewarded for participation and also receive a much more personalized experience. And although there were definite rumblings among the curatorial masses, the DIA’s concept of developing exhibitions in close concert with education teams likely reflects many mission statements—the Mint Museum’s commits us to engaging and inspiring all members of this global community.

In addition to the food for thought provided by the panel discussions, the mentor/mentee program has been very helpful. I spent a wonderful hour with a veteran in the field, asking many questions about my areas of interest (contemporary craft) specifically and how to grow as a curator. I’m encouraged to seek out more opportunities to develop my knowledge and credibility (i.e. getting papers published and delivering public lectures). While I have already had excellent mentoring experiences with my own supervisor, it was valuable to discuss the curatorial experience from another institution’s perspective. My mentor and I have continued to communicate and collaborate on ideas after the conference; this connection is enlightening and I’m looking forward to continuing as my career develops.

I also attended the Public Speaking workshop presented by Barbara Tannenbaum. Much of the information presented was not new, but I appreciated the fact that the program was tailored to curators. The idea that "all speaking is public speaking” is empowering and has made me consider my words and behavior very carefully. As I develop my career and build credibility, I now have more information to make a bigger impact on my audiences (whether at a public lecture, a board meeting, or a conference with colleagues), and feel confident that I will make an intelligent, professional first impression.

My first AAMC experience has been a wonderful one. I wasn’t sure what to expect—I had just been advised to learn a lot and meet as many colleagues from across the field as I could. I was fortunate to have lunch with several peers who are also fairly fresh to the field, and came away with a great deal of information that I hope I can use to make myself a better curator and my institution a better art museum. Based on my experiences in New York in 2013, I am very much looking forward to Houston in 2014.

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Experience Report

Posted By Kelli Bodle, Boca Raton Museum of Art, Monday, July 22, 2013
"Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing,” wrote Oscar Wilde. As a presenter at the AAMC Annual Conference in the Pecha Kucha Slam section, I am grateful for my grant because it allowed me to harness the experience of hundreds of curators at one time and use their comments and criticisms to improve both my public speaking ability as well as an exhibition very dear to my heart.

Because the focus of the Pecha Kucha section was on the presentation of an exhibition in planning stages rather than one already completed, I was given the motivation to consider the exhibition as a whole instead of the scattered piecemeal way I often begin the process. This greatly aided me in compiling resources and in determining layout.

The exhibition I presented, "Detroit: the abandoned city?” was one that I have been working on outside of my job as the Assistant Curator at the Boca Museum of Art, Florida, and so the competition took something over which I normally would have dawdled and forced me to really address the issues that come with an exhibition proposal: sourcing artists, images, and references.

The Pecha Kucha setup was also helpful in that rather than presenting a fully formed idea, a closed concept, it allowed for brainstorming from audience members. Following the talk, curators from the Philadelphia Museum, a Tokyo museum, the Peabody-Essex, freelance curators, and a previous curator from LACMA all offered helpful suggestions on artists to include in the show as well as the overarching narrative.

In fact, some of the artists that the other curators suggested for inclusion even dovetailed which was a sure sign that they should be added to the show. Besides the encouragement and helpful suggestions, simply chatting with the other curators during the reception was infinitely helpful and enjoyable.

In a matter of hours I took a poll on some registrarial concerns with which my museum has been wrestling, I got multiple opinions from experts in contemporary Latin American art on a possible donation we’ve been considering, and was extended the offer to visit a number of museums to continue discussions. It was so refreshing to spend time with other curators. Admittedly, curating can sometimes feel isolating despite the constant contact with docents, artists, and the public.

Meeting with hundreds of people who all are familiar with, and have opinions on, social practice art, the care of conservation, and philosophical issues in the arts can really hearten an individual in the creative field.

I have a renewed vigor now both for the exhibition I am planning as well as my profession in general and I think that was reflected when I returned to Florida. I opened an exhibition on May 7th and so unfortunately couldn’t stay for the MoMA portion of the conference but my enthusiasm relayed itself to the opening – a group show of Floridian artists – and thus I received many emails and calls of thanks the following day, many more than I normally do, as I hold this exhibition annually. For both myself and my associate who also attended the meeting, Marisa Pascucci, Curator of 20th Century and Contemporary Art at the Boca Museum, the conference was a resounding success and we made many new contacts, learned much, and secured a few new shows. Artists have their studios to meet with others of their ilk to exchange ideas and offer support, and curators have conferences like this one to do the same.

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Engaging the Public

Posted By Amber Ludwig, PhD, Curatorial Assistant, Department of European and American Art, Honolulu Museum of, Monday, July 22, 2013
The focus on visitor engagement at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Curators was particularly timely, as my institution, the Honolulu Museum of Art, has made education and visitor experience priorities now and in the years ahead. From conducting employee forums on customer service to the creation of a space curated by educators, the Honolulu Museum of Art is actively seeking to engage the public in a positive and meaningful manner, and I was pleased that the sessions this year dealt directly with issues I am currently tackling.

The AAMC session "Museums and Civic Responsibility” shared how some museums and curators have adapted their practices to build audiences. The Dallas Museum of Art’s simple yet elegant solution to switch from using the word "members” to "friends” to describe museum supporters represents a way in which museums can alter a seemingly insignificant practice and hope for big returns. Other museums, like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, are testing labels for special exhibitions or reinstallations before installing them permanently. Such a practice ensures that labels are clear and accessible and offers curators the opportunity to modify their approach to serve better their constituency without sacrificing content. "Participation, Engagement, and the Curator” considered exhibitions from the perspective of the educator, and the panelists encouraged curators to incorporate participatory features into their plans to inspire visitors to connect with museums and their collections on a personal level. When accompanied by or founded upon scholarly or historical principles relating to the exhibition or art on view, participatory activities like those described in this panel can enhance the exhibition’s educational potential. As sites for learning and repositories of culture, art museums bear a responsibility to visitors both to educate and inspire, and the 2013 AAMC annual meeting focused curatorial attention on these important obligations.

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Annual Meeting blog post

Posted By Benjamin Hickey, Masur Museum, Monday, July 22, 2013
Last year’s Annual Meeting was the first I attended. It was an amazing spectacle that was nearly too much to take in. The 2013 Annual Meeting was different. This year I felt an undeniable sense that I re-dedicated myself to art history and a whole slew of professional standards that sometimes seem ancillary even though they are the forces that drive nearly all of my decision-making on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps I felt this because I spent a fair amount of time preparing for a Pecha Kucha presentation that made me analyze my relation to museums and the history of art in a broad sense. Delivering my presentation gave me an unexpectedly strong sense of ownership in the AAMC and curating as a profession. I believe this experience is at the heart of the AAMC’s mission and the reason we share our experiences and research.

The panels on Museums & Civic Responsibility, Innovative Conservation, and Participation, Engagement & the Curator all dealt, to some degree, with the profound challenges of collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting art in the name of the public trust while still fulfilling our profession’s high academic standards, standards that often seem to alienate the aforementioned public. There does not appear to be a singular approach that will bridge this gap. What became apparent to me as I tried to articulate an answer to this quandary for the sake of a blog entry was this; the answer starts with curators and then other museum professionals. It is the human element in our interpretations and how we articulate them that will make our institutions relevant both civically and academically. If both of these goals are taken into account when a project is in its gestational period, I think both will be more easily attained. This is more or less the tact Holland Cotter urged us to take in his Keynote Address, and I agree with him.

Thank you to all presenters for sharing your work with us and giving us all a great deal to discuss.

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Keynote as Leitmotif or Counterpoint?

Posted By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Baltimore Museum of Art, Monday, July 22, 2013

Holland Cotter, the well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning staff art critic at the New York Times, began The Association of Art Museum Curators conference with a dare. Mr. Cotter exhorted attendees to avoid cautious, obvious shows in favor of experimentation. He implied that it would be productive to forget entirely what art exhibitions ‘should’ look like. Mr. Cotter began his remarks with a brief autobiographical sketch, which underscored the fertility of unorthodox paths. From studying poetry with Robert Lowell at Harvard, to writing criticism while living among conceptual artists in pre-gentrified Soho, and later studying art history in India and Kashmir via Hunter College and Columbia University, Mr. Cotter has always encountered art as lived experience. He recalled a number of exhibitions that recreated that immediacy, including the Japanese galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, which share an immersive presentation style, as well as the rule-breaking, category-redefining Museum for African Art shows curated by Susan Vogel and Polly Nooter Roberts in the 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, Mr. Cotter found this inspiring ability to bring art into a living space at the National Museum of Bamako, where the textile exhibit combines the graphic impact and immediacy of contemporary commercial cloth with fine, canonical textiles.

As a new curator, the encouragement to break new ground is of course exciting, and a major critic’s respect for art exhibitions that introduce topics outside of Europe or Euro-America is better still. Yet if it were not for the pressures currently facing Museums, the exhortation to ‘be bold’ would seem almost clichéd, the sort of bromide frequently heard during graduation addresses. Mr. Cotter’s keynote became more meaningful over the course of the conference, as it became clear that the embrace of testing, measurement and "Big Data” puts museum staff at a crossroads. The data-gathering efforts presented by Rob Stein’s discussion of the Dallas Museum of Art’s new Friends program, or Sebastian Chan’s tour of innovative museum efforts around the world, will certainly give us a better understanding of our audiences. Will we use this new knowledge to continue to challenge our audiences? Or will we wield the data in a way that blandly appeases some perceived majority of visitors? When Salvador Salort-Pons described the Detroit Institute of Art’s process of exhibition design, with the curator defining the "Big Idea” of the show and the education department developing the in-gallery delivery methods, I recalled Mr. Cotter’s definition of exhibitions as "materialized thinking.” Will we harness the considerable expertise of curators and museum educators to promote deeper thinking through exhibition practice? Or will the limits of audience testing (or funding for robust measurement methods) shift our focus to simpler narratives? Nina Simon’s discussion of audience art-making and participation made Cotter’s final words—that art should be seen in the context of life, and not in the context of art history—seem apposite in an entirely new way. In an increasingly connected and user-driven world, how will museums balance visitors’ desires to make art, and thus enter art history, with our commitment to preserve and present the historical tradition? Throughout the conference, the presentation of tools and theories of audience engagement prompted new ideas. Yet Mr. Cotter’s words recalled the end goal of all of these techniques—to surprise, inspire, delight and ultimately transport visitors.

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AAMC blog post 2013

Posted By Al Miner, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Monday, July 22, 2013
This year’s AAMC conference in New York provided a platform for discussions that went on far longer than the sessions themselves. Two sessions in particular sparked dialogue about the relationships between curators and other museum staff, namely educators and development officers.

A panel entitled "Museums and Civic Responsibility” proved to be about more and different issues than I’d expected. Audience engagement has been a hot topic in museums for several years, but institutions have met the challenge in very diverse ways. What I thought would be about visitor services, outreach to under-served communities, and possibly the use of technology to engage audiences on local issues took an interesting turn when Salvador Salort-Pons of the DIA shared his museum’s approach to education and curation. The relationship between educators and curators has long been complex and is changing rapidly. I and others that I spoke with later in the conference were quite frankly shocked to learn of the level of participation DIA educators have in the curatorial process. Whereas at my home museum, the MFA, Boston, educators enter the picture when labels and gallery text are written and after a show opens steering some related programming, at the DIA an educator is paired with a curator from a show’s inception and has a lot of say in the delivery of a curator’s project and also in its concept and approach. To learn that educators there write the labels and curators edit them, as opposed to the opposite tactic, among other such responsibilities caught me by surprise. Have educators overstepped their bounds? Is the traditional art of curating itself at risk of extinction? Will educators play an increasingly active role in shaping content itself? Very interesting indeed.

Another complicated and sometimes fraught relationship is that between curators and development staff. With funding growing increasingly scarce for all museums the few grants to be had are especially prized and the application process more competitive than ever. The workshop on grant writing hosted at the Museum of Arts and Design was illuminating and tremendously helpful. What do granting organizations want to see? What makes a successful proposal? James Bewley of the Warhol Foundation, an organization vital to the work of contemporary curators such as myself, strongly cautioned against allowing development staff to write proposals for curators revealing that his panelists could sniff out such applications easily and are inclined to dismiss them. How does the average over-taxed curator find the time to write these important documents? How would that affect the relationship with and role of their development officer(s)? I have plans to meet with one of my grant writers to review my notes in relation to an upcoming project.

Attending this year’s conference was an enriching experience, which provided me greater insight into the changing face of our field and lasing connections with great colleagues at intitutions across the country.

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Thoughts on the 2013 AAMC Annual Conference

Posted By Barbara L. Jones, Chief Curator, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA, Monday, July 22, 2013

First I want to thank the conference committee for putting together a conference that, over the course of the two days, related thematically. I know that this was not popular with some, but I appreciated the cohesiveness of the topics. With Museums and Civic Responsibility on Monday and Participation, Engagement and the Curator on Tuesday, curators were presented with a timely topic to digest, and one that generated much discussion afterward. It seems inevitable that this is the direction museums will be moving as it becomes more and more competitive to attract and get visitors in the door. Engagement is key to making collections relevant to visitors. It’s not to say that we as museums can compete with sports or other forms of entertainment, nor do we want to, but by creating ways for visitors to feel less intimidated by art and experience or re-experience it in a way that is meaningful to them, we can ensure our future. The panelists in both sessions presented very different approaches to the topic and provided some interesting ways to engage in new ‘conversations’ with the public.

My favorite session was the Pecha Kucha (and I’m glad to finally know how to pronounce it). I love the fast-paced format that gave six curators the opportunity to present on a broad range of topics. This is a great way to share ideas and generate feedback for critical discussion. It is also a fabulous exercise on how to distill a topic to its most essential ideas, something that is good practice for curators who make regular presentations to funders, donors, board members, committees, among others.

I enjoyed Workshop One, Public Speaking with Barbara Tannenbaum. She was very entertaining while presenting the steps to becoming an effective and engaging communicator. I really like these types of hands-on workshops.

One of the main reasons I want to attend the AAMC conference each year is to gather with colleagues from around the U.S. and beyond. It is energizing to me (and sometimes intimidating) to be in the same room with so many who share similar issues, concerns, and challenges, whether from small, medium, or large institutions. This is a common thread that connects us as curators and provides a means for conversation. I enjoy these conversations the most. It is important to have the opportunity to step away from my day to day responsibilities for this much needed camaraderie. I must say though, that each year I return to my museum even more appreciative of the strong relationship I have with my director and staff. I realize does not happen everywhere.

As a travel grant recipient, I am grateful for the financial assistance that allows this professional development to happen. Travel funds are generally the first to be cut in tight budget years, so I appreciate the continued generosity of both the Henry Luce Foundation and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for ensuring that so many of us can participate in this conference each year.

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The Creative Curator

Posted By Tracee J. Glab, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Flint Institute of Arts, Monday, July 22, 2013

I have been working in museums since 1999, but only recently, in the last 3 years, been working as a curator. So, because of my previous experience in the museum field, I came to the AAMC conference in NYC —my first—as both a participant and observer. In the keynote lecture, Holland Cotter’s admonition to curators to "be an artist yourself” and "put life in art,” I think, inadvertently captured the theme of what I took away from the conference: the need for creativity in curatorial work. In the Pecha Kecha talks, I heard how my fellow curators demonstrate an artistic practice by being creative in their research, organization, and execution of ideas. I also saw how creativity abounds in collaborative activities, such as conservators, educators, and curators working together to create memorable and engaging experiences for visitors.

Over and over again, I learned how curators must be "artistic” in how they overcome obstacles, be they bureaucratic and political at big museums, or financial and logistical at smaller museums. I enjoyed hearing from others "in the trenches” who face the same types of challenges that I do and who have come up with some new ways (or revived tried and true methods) of dealing with those issues. Those interactions over coffee or at the lunch table were invaluable to me, both as a means of encouragement and practical advice. I also participated in a mentoring session, which was very helpful and productive in a more in-depth way as I was able to pick my mentor’s brain about specific projects.

Lastly, having the conference in New York City afforded me the opportunity to add extracurricular activities to the conference, such as visiting the Met, the Guggenheim, the Frick, MoMA, the Neue Galerie, as well as other galleries, which was helpful in not only viewing really great works of art but also learning about other museums’ presentation strategies. In all, the conference underlined to me, what I believe Holland Cotter was trying to get across, that curators can (and should) be as artistic or creative in their practice as the artists who they study and present to others.

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