Left to right, Michael Rooks, Daniel Fuller, Louise Shaw, Miranda Lash, and Aaron Levi Garvey.
For our new column “5×7,” we pose seven questions to five people who have similar careers, practices, or interests.
For the first installment, we asked museum curators about their jobs, travel plans, and fantasies. We’re pleased to have as our first participants Michael Rooks, curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum; Louise Shaw, curator of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum; Daniel Fuller, curator of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center; Miranda Lash, curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville; and Aaron Levi Garvey, assistant curator of exhibitions at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
Rooks: Inadequate support.
Shaw: Throughout my career, I have zigged and zagged from seemingly contrasting jobs, yet all rooted in cultural investigations and interventions. Those have been great challenges; my current ongoing not-so-great challenge is navigating federal bureaucracy
Fuller: I love my job and cannot say that anything about it is that challenging. Really. Only complaint is the need for sleep. Can’t complain when you get to look at art and talk to artists all day long. This still and always feels like I’ve won the job lottery.
Lash: Having to say “No.” For better or worse, people from all sides of the industry are constantly peppering me with ideas. Some ideas are thrilling, others less so. Even when the idea is terrible, it is still hard to be the person who squelches someone else’s enthusiasm. Still, it makes it all the sweeter when the circumstances are right to say “Yes.”
Garvey: I would say that the most challenging part of being a curator in general, is to create exhibitions that are able to appeal to broad range of audiences without compromising the integrity of the institution, artists or works being presented. Personally, have interest in film, new media and installation work, however I know that not everyone would be interested in attending an exhibition with multiple experimental films or space constricting installations. I wouldn’t say that the challenge is a bad thing in any way, I would say that challenge makes for more compelling exhibitions.
How do you think your profession is changing?
Rooks: The decoupling of curatorial practice from institutional frameworks.
Shaw: When I went to graduate school to train as a museologist, there were only a handful of museum studies and curatorial programs. The curatorial field in many ways has professionalized as training programs have proliferated; it has also become far more expansive in terms of defining what it is curator.
Fuller: There is less hierarchy, or at least there is in the version of my profession that is of interest to me. Spaces, exhibitions, publications are opening up. There is more fun, less rhetoric.
Lash: Fundraising and development are an increasing part of the job. It is not enough to have great ideas. You have to be available at all times to help raise funds, or find the funds yourself.
Garvey: With the onset of mass media and constant communication, I feel that the ones own experience of an exhibition has drastically changed. With that, curators and museum professionals are tasked with strategically keeping the public engaged and educated, and not letting the institution and exhibitions merely become a “selfie” zone or social media frenzy. This media culture also can be a good thing, allowing institutions to reach far beyond their city’s respective borders and gaining visibility on a national/ international level.
If you had to pick a different career, what would it be?
Rooks: Marine biologist.
Shaw: Urban planner.
Fuller: Still waiting for the call from the Toronto Blue Jays to play third base. It will come. In the meantime I just have to stay sharp. Last year I took home the Cy Young Award (best pitcher) and came in third in the MVP voting (still say it was overly political) for an artist and musicians baseball league.
Lash: Film or television production. I like being involved in the creation of visual things.
Garvey: Does second basemen for the New York Yankees count? Anyone that has met or spoken with me for longer than 15 minutes knows that I am a baseball fanatic. Whether by my Yankees cap or a brief anecdote about historical context, baseball is always on my mind to one extent or another. The history, superstitions, traditions, ceremony, folklore, irrelevance of time in a single game…all of it fascinates me. Growing up in New York I spent a lot of time with immigrant grandparents, baseball was a way for me to relate to Americana and American history with them. If I had to change careers tomorrow, I would go on to do something with the Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball, or maybe a Lion Tamer…
Who or what has had the most meaningful influence on your career?
Rooks: Bob Fitzpatrick, director of MCA Chicago during my years at MCA; Michael Heizer earthwork Effigy Tumuli.
Shaw: I have had many mentors and influences over my now long career. But, I have to say the greatest influence was attending art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston every Saturday from 7th grade through my junior year in high school. That experience shaped my ambition to work in museums.
Fuller: Getting run over by a car and changing where I went to grad school. Zero idea where I would have wound up with two good knees running around a school in London. This is better. Although, it would be cool to get my old knee back.
Lash: Bill Fagaly, the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at New Orleans Museum of Art. He is one of a vanishing breed of career curators who built an incredible legacy at single institution. Bill has been at NOMA for over 45 years. Suffice to say he knows the biz. My love also goes to Willie Birch for his perpetual encouragement and critique.
Garvey: I definitely attribute my career path to my family and their being so supportive of me “Playing Art”. My family always had an appreciation for craftsmanship and history. My grandfather was a watchmaker and as a child I would sit in his shop and hover over his shoulder as he meticulously built pocket watches and clocks. Seeing this instilled my appreciation for the artisan’s hand, how every movement was absolutely intentional and had a result. This coupled with never having a shortage of art supplies, visits to the Cloisters, museums and assortments of books, allowed me to explore my own interests in visual arts with their full support.
Ultimately my own interests in history and the visual arts grew, I became fascinated by the Hudson River School and those artists ability to recreate landscapes. Picturesque landscapes that looked familiar to me, even though they were created 100+ years prior. My family has homes in the Catskill Mountains of New York and driving through always made me feel like I was in a Thomas Cole or George Inness painting. To this day, I still have an affinity for that art movement, despite it not necessarily coming out in my curatorial practice.
What are your travel plans this year?
Rooks: Honolulu, Seoul, Bilbao, Venice, Chicago, New York.
Shaw: I will be traveling to West Africa to research an exhibition about the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15
Fuller: Quick trip up to Maine to see where a couple of the amazing artists up there are in their studios since I left. Venice. My favorite museums right now are in Rotterdam and Brussels, so combining that trip would be very convenient. Milwaukee, Chicago, and Houston to visit with artists who have shows coming up here at the Contemporary. And, if there is time, a stop at my parents cabin on the NY State / Canada border. No phone service, no wi-fi… just kayaking and swimming into waterfalls.
Lash: Whew, too long to list! Just this past month: New Orleans, Venice, Berlin, New York, and Durham, NC. I’m looking forward especially to a Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, MS, this fall.
Garvey: In August, a few friends and I are doing our semi-annual baseball/museum tour. A couple of years ago we decided to see a game at every stadium in Major League Baseball. This year we will be road tripping from New York City to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame, Toronto Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Of course while on these trips we visit the museums in each city, the new Whitney, Art Gallery of Ontario, Detroit Institute of Art, Cleveland MOCA, CAC Cincinnati and the Carnegie are all on the list as well.
In the Fall, my wife and I will be heading to Puerto Rico for a friends mid-career solo survey at the Museo de Arte, Basel in Miami and a few other short trips still to be determined.
Which dead artist would you like to have dinner with, and why?
Rooks: Jim Faulkner, because he was my friend and I did not get to say goodbye.
Shaw: Albrecht Dűrer, a true rock star of his time (take a look at his self-portrait at The Prado in Madrid)—amazingly talented, deeply influential during his lifetime, and poetically profound.
Fuller: I’d prefer to have dinner with a live artist. So, having changed your question, I’d love to sit down with Yayoi Kusama and watch her paint dots on all of the plates.
Lash: Definitely Lee Krasner. Her paintings are transcendent and I’d love to kvetch with her about Pollock.
Garvey: Only one … that’s really, really tough! If it has to be just one, then for me it would be Francis Bacon. A dinner and discussion about his take on the human condition would be absolutely fascinating and I hold him in very high regard.
You’re being exiled; what food, book, single toiletry, and comfort item are you packing?
Rooks: Sushi, Melville’s The Confidence Man, Comme des Garcons Vetiver, Hastens bed.
Shaw: [No answer. We think Louise didn’t like this question.]
Fuller: We talking exiled on an island? In the woods? Scranton? I’m going with a blue cheese salad, anything by Barry Hannah, beard oil, and my ipad so I can listen to podcasts while mixing the salad.
Lash: Quesadillas, Dante’s Divine Comedy, toilet paper (how rustic is this exile?), and my iPad.
Garvey: Jeez, being exiled…my shows must have gotten pretty bad press! Really the list of supplies depends on where I’m being exiled to, a dystopian post-apocalyptic exile where I am destined to roam the earth and govern artistic justice OR a secluded island? I’ll assume the latter. The toiletry would be a toothbrush of course, I don’t know that I could go anywhere without one. My comfort item would have to be a desalinator so that I would be guaranteed fresh water, thus I would stay hydrated and remain physically and mentally comfortable. The food would be tricky, since I wouldn’t want to have to carry a mass bulk of perishables or be burdened by the weight while looking for shelter, so I would go with a variety of vegetable seeds. That way once I find shelter, I will be able to plant them and ensure a sustainable garden for the full length of my exile. Lastly, the book I would bring would be a family photo album…