The Zuckerman Museum of Art’s new curator, Sarah Higgins, joined the staff in October. Like her Kennesaw colleagues, Higgins commutes from Atlanta and enjoys the challenge of producing thought-provoking projects that push the boundaries of a university museum.
Higgins earned a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in upstate New York, where she also worked as the graduate program coordinator from 2013 to 2015. She also has held positions at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, ArtPace in San Antonio, and the New Museum in New York. I chatted with her about her formative experiences and her vision for the Zuckerman.
What brought you from the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies to Atlanta?
Everyone who knows me knew that Atlanta was my dream. I was always talking about how I wanted to come back. But I’m in a specialized field, so the ways I could come back were limited. A friend saw the job listing for the Zuckerman position, sent it to me, and said, “this is your job.”
What are your goals going into this position?
My goals are multi-tiered. My initial goal is to reacquaint myself with Atlanta and the region, and what role the museum can play in the larger ecology of the arts ecosystem. I want to learn about the surroundings, and how the area has changed since I left, which is a lot. But it’s still really familiar. I can still go to El Myr and order the same thing I used to get, and it’s still the same.
Goal two: The Zuckerman, a contemporary art museum attached to a university, is unique to the area. I want to push the boundaries of what that can offer—programming and exhibitions that are really engaging and operate on a lot of levels but have a tie-in to an academic context because the university is our primary partner. I think the Zuckerman has the potential to be a leader in the region and on the national stage, but I think that’s going to take time. I want to pave the road by laying one stone at a time.
Do you expect to have a regional focus to your work ? What is your curatorial vision?
The mission of the Zuckerman doesn’t specify a regional focus, but I’m interested in a regional focus. Any museum should be aware of and engage with what is in its backyard. But the role of the museum is to show people in that backyard something they haven’t seen before.
What are some examples of your previous curatorial work that you’re particularly proud of?
My first curatorial work was at Atlantic Center for the Arts. I learned a lot about bringing contemporary art to audiences who hadn’t been exposed to it before. They might have been skeptical about it, or for a variety of reasons were led to believe it wasn’t for them. A lot of times, people came to me and said, “I thought I wasn’t going to like this, but I did.” They learned that it wasn’t always about liking the work, but sometimes thinking about it and interacting with it. Those moments were great. Contemporary art is often about the dialogue between yourself and a thing.
Owen Mundy did a show about activist practices, and there was a work that featured portraits of all the people in his extended family who had served in the military going back to the Civil War. It was a military family tree and operated on a lot of levels. It was a critique of the way military service is passed down through the generations, and the ways family insinuate masculinity through service. A lot of people were anxious about me doing anything critical about the military—a community of retirees, many of whom had served. Owen and I talked about that a lot. The opening happened on VE Day. There were some WWII Veterans in attendance who had a lot of emotions viewing the work. Owen and I both had amazing conversations with those people. They said they had never seen contemporary art about things they felt and experienced.
What is it like going from the Northeast back down South?
I appreciate how relaxed it is down here. It seems a little bit less who’s who-y … but only a little bit. I’m still in this place where I feel an enormous amount of belonging. There’s a warmth and openness. My own personal space can expand back out and breathe.
Prior to you the Zuckerman had issues with works that critique the university. Do you foresee similar struggles coming up?
I think that for any large state university to take on a contemporary art museum is a big move that’s going to involve some growing pains. The differences between most institutions and art institutions is that art institutions interrogate themselves. Critiquing yourself as an institution as you go is different from the way most other organizations work.
When I saw that the Zuckerman is hosting the exhibition “Art AIDS America” [opening February 20], I thought it was a great sign. That’s a brave show for an institution to take on, especially in the South. I don’t anticipate that the museum will be free of controversy in the future, largely because it’s serving a diverse audience.
Do you want to bring in things beyond traditional visual art?
One of the things I’m really excited about in the Atlanta art scene is performance. A lot of the most interesting work coming out of the city right now has a performance element. I think of Atlanta as a theater town, so there’s a kinship to performance in the visual arts.
There’s an element of social practice in most of the work I do. That’s because it’s the emergent modality of our time. It’s coming from an awakening in the art community, that we can no longer operate in a bubble. But I have a strong criteria for judging social practice. It can’t just be bad activism with a visual element. I’m mindful of when and where and how work can be social practice. Is this just reproducing the thing it’s trying to critique? I’m hard on social practice, but it’s because I love it.
What do you hope to see arts in the South become?
That’s an interesting phrasing, because there’s a sense (both when I lived here previously and now) that arts in the South are always “becoming.” It’s an ever-cresting wave that never breaks. Arts in the South are suspended in a constant state of possibility. Rather than thinking there’s something it needs to become, I like that it’s always becoming. I don’t think arriving at a destination is a healthy place for the arts to be. In thinking about why I wanted to come back here, it was because there isn’t an urgency to maintain a primacy – there’s an urgency to reach for something greater.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.