By curatorial intern Treasure Flavors
July 19, 2018
This summer, I’ve been working in the curatorial department at Telfair Museums as an intern, specifically on the forthcoming 2019 retrospective on artist Suzanne Jackson (American, b. 1944) titled Five Decades under the supervision of Rachel Reese, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. I had the pleasure of speaking with Reese about her work as a curator, what interests her, what decisions she makes and what her thought process is as I begin to ponder my own future museum and curatorial career.
We discussed some of the prevalent issues of the contemporary art field and touched base on the intricacies of curating such as the responsibilities that fall upon an individual within the field. Reese had some interesting advice for prospective curators as she deconstructed her curatorial process, as well as some exclusive insights into the vital aspects of Jackson’s upcoming retrospective, which is the most comprehensive presentation of her work to date. The exhibition is scheduled to open June 28, 2019.
Treasure Flavors: It is said that the role of a curator is to, in a sense, serve as an author. With being an author comes an individual style and voice—what would you say is yours?
Rachel Reese: Though I like the idea of thinking of a curator as an author, I also like thinking about a curator as a facilitator and a supporter. I think it’s about finding a balance between what your own voice is and also how you’re supporting artists’ voices; how you’re framing their voice for other people to interact with their work. I think about that responsibility. In terms of exhibition making, I think you can think about curatorial work as authorship. Sometimes I think about exhibition making like an essay: How would you craft a really smart essay? What’s the thesis, what is the main argument of the show, what are your supporting arguments, do you have any kind of surprise or supplemental, tangential arguments that add to them? Or, conflict with that argument to add a nice tension?
TF: Do you make any assumptions about your audience when you’re curating a show and if so, how does that influence your decisions?
RR: I think it’s varied. I might have some pre-conceived ideas about types of audiences, but I don’t want to make any assumptions. If I’m thinking about the work that I do and the work that I want to be doing, perhaps in a vacuum, I would think about myself as an audience or my professional peers as an audience. The kinds of things that really interest me intellectually, something that challenges me as the originator of an idea. It’s an intellectual process: being a curator is about making ideas, but part of this responsibility is thinking about other audiences. So being aware of who’s coming to your museum (if you’re in a museum), who’s coming into your gallery space? What is the context in which you’re showing this work? Is it in public space, is it in a museum, is it something site-specific? You do have to think about all those different types of audiences and there’s not only one audience.
I want to make ideas accessible, otherwise why share them? Here at the museum possibly 80 percent of our public might be one-time visitors; perhaps they’ve never been to Savannah before, let alone to this museum, or maybe they’ve never been to a museum. So someone who’s just popping in the door for an hour or two, how do they have a valuable experience as much as someone who’s a member of the museum, or an artist or community member or resident who engages with the museum on a more regular basis?
TF: As a new generation of curators are being educated, what advice would you lend to those aspiring to join the field?
RR: I think something that’s important to know is how multifaceted the work that a curator does, and it depends on where you’re working and under what conditions and in what kind of space. Are you working in a university museum versus working in a city museum, versus working independently as a curator? Sometimes I think about myself as a producer in a way—a producer that’s related to the mission of the museum. You have to wear many hats. So not only am I thinking about putting on exhibitions and working with artists, I’m also a public figure in the community, I give talks and lectures, I think about programming and education and even fundraising and financial support: keeping up with a lot of spreadsheets and answering emails and just keeping all of these pieces in play together and organized is really what’s required of you. I do a lot of emailing! Every day is different, and it’s such interesting work and I think we have to try to remember the core of why you do what you do. For me it’s being able to work with living artists and kind of see what makes them tick and how they’re responding to living in today’s climate and what that means in terms of the objects they’re making and the conversations they want to have, but there’s so much more that goes into it.
TF: While compiling the list of works to be included in Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades and seeing the multitude of works that Jackson has created throughout her life, I couldn’t help but wonder: “How does she know that these artworks are ‘the one’?” Especially when you’re curating a retrospective?
RR: I guess just intuition and by constantly, consistently, and intently looking at Suzanne’s work for a year and a half now thinking about what’s the best representative sample of her output. She’s made hundreds, if not thousands, of things, right? We can’t show all of that, and no one knows that besides a small few. Like I was saying, someone who’s coming to the museum for three hours doesn’t know that she’s made thousands of things, so what story do you want to tell about her through art objects and what are going to be those objects that best tell that story? Museums, like an artist, like their best self and best story to be put forward and told. I’m trying to be authentic to all of the types of work that she’s made but also select what I think is the best of those different types of work and stories. It’s hard, it’s really hard. And then some of it just gets down to logistics and that helps make the decision for you. So if she’s got a large painting that’s fantastic but needs total conservation or framing or the like, I have to ask: does that fit within our budget? Are we actually going to pursue that work? If not, I’m going to find something else. So, it’s tying it all back to those logistical pieces and finding the best possible version of the show given constraints.
TF: Do you have any type of criteria when you determine what makes the final cut?
RR: In general, I think about what work is museum-ready and then navigating those decisions with the artist and bringing them along with why you’re making those decisions about their work. When curating a retrospective, this might be one of the toughest considerations: bringing the artist along in your thought process because the artist has made this work over his/her/their lifetime. It is their life. It’s hard to be objective about something when you’re living it and when you’re so close to it. So to allow someone to come in and say: “I’m going to look at your artwork from sort of a helicopter view and make decisions about your life and what to show about your life, but I also need you as a willing participant in this story that we’re going to create to share with the public” requires a lot of mutual trust and respect, and I respect [Suzanne] immensely. In addition to the dynamic between artist and curator, you also consider the physical exhibition space in the museum, what’s going to fit and what’s not going to fit.
TF: So what is “museum-ready,” museum quality work?
RR: Well I guess you just sort of start to develop a sense of what that means the longer you’re looking at work. The more you’re in studios with artists, and the more you’re talking with artists and seeing where they are in their career helps hone your own values and intuition. If you follow an artist for a while, you can start to see really exciting developments happening. If they’ve been on a path for a while and it just seems like their work is ready to be shown at the next level, that’s “museum-ready”. All those little factors that just come, I think, through experience.
TF: For Five Decades, you’ve been working on the final checklist for the exhibition and you’re currently thinking about a final number of 40-50 works, so how does it feel to possess that responsibility and jurisdiction over so many artworks?
RR: It’s hard! It’s really hard. You can’t think too deeply on that or you’ll freeze. And this is not the final say, no one person has a final say over another person’s career or life. Unless you’re doing a catalogue raisoneé which is a complete academic overview of someone’s total output or a specific output, like all of their prints for example. Suzanne’s show is not that. Being careful of the language you use and the expectations that creates is good to think about – Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades is the largest presentation of Jackson’s work to date and it is a retrospective, but it’s not encyclopedic and it’s certainly not the end. She’s still living and hopefully she will still be living for a while and can continue to exhibit her work and have a life after our show. Not all retrospectives are totally comprehensive. It’s just about taking a pause and taking a look at a life and an output. It’s comprehensive more so than a survey show, but you are correct: a curator has a deep responsibility. When an artist makes objects they go out into the world and things that a curator makes go out into the world in a really public way. It’s a form of public record, so thinking about the responsibility of that—it’s really wild! [laughs]
And, you can make mistakes! Really public mistakes. Curators make mistakes, and they’re written about in art history or they’re talked about in communities for decades. “Remember that horrible flop of a show?” or “Remember this horrible, divisive community argument that happened as a result of that exhibition XYZ?” That really shows the power of art. I was in Montreal recently and we were in this nonprofit space and they were talking about this show a few decades back totally divided their community and so they did a new show to react to and make peace with that show. There was a curator also on a panel at a conference I went to recently that talked about a total mistake she made and how she learned from it and it changed the way she thought and did research, because it was originally incorrect. I mean, we’re human and make mistakes, and also self-aware.
TF: When you talk about “flops”, what to you indicates to you that an exhibition was successful?
RR: You do your work and put it out into the world and measure the response. And the response is through press, media, arts writers, and it’s importantly through the general public. It’s through the metrics of who visits and how many people come through the show. We do final reports of all of our exhibitions here at the museum and piece all of that different data together to analyze the success of a show. There’s other ways to do it too, like anecdotal evidence, and even that’s changed too. Now you have social media which can be helpful but also a lot of noise.
TF: [Jackson] mentioned that you particularly loved her 1976 circular painting, Flash. What drew you to not only this work, but to her work overall?
RR: That painting is really nice, I wish you could’ve seen it [in person]. [Laughs]
I literally told her, “Please take it out of your attic, because your attic is 150 degrees and let’s bring it down to the main floor.” Then she did, and then she immediately sold it! I’m hoping we can get it back for the show [laughs]. But it is a really beautiful painting, there is something enigmatic about it. I hadn’t seen many of her shaped paintings, and still haven’t because they’re in different places. Flash is a tondo, a circular stretcher, and just the composition within the painting does it for me: there is a profile of a spiritual looking figure painted in washy blue with flowing hair and the eye looking back at you. Her hands are raised; Suzanne paints hands really specifically and almost like archetypal hands. I like finding hands in her work.
I first met Suzanne because she came up to me after I gave a lecture about Nick Cave. She introduced herself and someone was telling me I needed to meet her and so I finally met her kind of serendipitously that way! When I first visited her house and saw her new work, I was really blown away because it’s just so wild, right? So wild. Then the more I learned about her, she’s just such a fascinating person. I think, for me, the interest is not only how tactile and hands-on she is but also how interesting her creative story has been throughout her life.
TT: When you talk about that whole tactile element, [and] I learned that you did sculpture, so how did that hands-on artistry enrich your curatorial practice?
RR: I have an MFA in Sculpture. I don’t know if I thought I was going to be an artist but I thought maybe I wanted to teach studio art. I liked making things, or having things made, but I realized in grad school that I liked talking about art more. And so I started organizing critiques and exhibitions with my fellow grad students and considering that part of my art practice was all the conversation surrounding art. It was a slow transition, but a natural transition for me, and what I love about actually having an MFA rather than just a MA in art history is that I can understand where artists are coming from because I made art myself, I had those same studio conversations and critiques. I think that helps a lot, especially if you’re a contemporary art curator. Being able to go in studios and have a fluid conversation with artists, and also understand the materials and the processes because you engaged with them as well is helpful for me.
TF: I noticed that you particularly like studio visits, so do you have a mental checklist when you’re going to studios?
RR: Before I go to a studio visit, I try to see what I can find online about the artist so that I’m not coming in blind. That might be as simple as looking at their website, but also to trying to find press or interviews with the artist, hearing them talk about their work. That way you can kind of be ready to talk with the artists about their work on their terms. I also like to hear them share what they want to share with somebody, so the great thing about being in the studio is not only can you see where they’re working and see how they lay out their space—how they think about the materials and their tools and what their studio practice looks like physically—but also to be in the space that they’re in when they’re having that mental process is a privilege. I like to think it’s helpful for an artist too: when they’re in their studio they can talk a little more fluidly, like “Okay, well over here you can see the things that I’m looking at or you can see that I’m painting on the floor or you can see I’m hanging things up.” It’s a comfortable space for them…usually! You can usually have a more natural conversation, but not always. Generally, being in the studio with an artist is a very authentic experience. And they’re just fun; their spaces are all so different and interesting!
TF: What’s the longest you’ve ever watched an artist for before you’ve decided to work with his/her/them?
RR: I like to work with artists over time and reengage with them. That’s something that I’ve done throughout my (short) career. There’s been a few artists that I keep in touch with and that I’ve worked with them over the years and that’s interesting to me. Then there’s artists I have been in contact with for many years yet we’ve never worked with each other…yet. But you never know. I’ll meet an artist through an opportunity or program, or I’ll go on a studio visit and years later it might come back to something. I’ll keep a list and think “now might be the right time” …it’s all about timing.
TF: In the past you’ve taught a Critical Issues in Contemporary Art course. What ideals and knowledge did your students leave with, and how are you still finding yourself combating those issues in your current work?
RR: In those classes I tried to do a few things. One of them was help artists to feel empowered as business people. I was working in commercial galleries and so I tried to provide as much insight into how the financial aspect of the art world and art market works for artists, so that they feel they can feel like they have a toolbox. How do you create a purchase price for your work? What does a gallery contact look like? How does a gallery keep track of your sales? How do they manage the production of your work if you’re a photographer if you have to print and frame your work? How do they price it then where the framing cost gets subtracted out? All of those kinds of little things that you’re not taught in art school creates a big learning curve, it’s something that should be taught in art school.
The second thing I valued was that we did a lot of non-art reading, more general culturally relevant reading—not only theory, but journalism, social documentary and long form essays, etc. Readings that usually depended on what my main thread was that semester; one semester we valued and discussed social engagement and social justice. We partnered with a class at a different school and we did a lot of projects that were cross disciplinary with this other class, even volunteer work as art practice. They were encouraged to think about how the arts relate to culture and visual culture and how art and artists are very intersectional thought producers.
Third, I was really interested in debate as a form of learning, so we would look at case studies, for example. One example is Richard Serra’s Titled Arc, which was a public sculpture that only existed for a decade in New York (Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan from 1981-1989) as it was eventually, controversially, removed. We would read articles both for the removal of the work and articles that were written to advocate that the work stay in public space. We would watch as much as we could, take in as much information about this one thing and then divide the class up and debate for or against it. Even if they agreed with their assigned position of the argument or not. So critical thinking was a big part of that class, how do you craft an argument and think critically about something. I think those are just reflections of my personal interests. How an artist is really embedded in life and culture today and what that culture is was what I was interested in teaching. The great thing was I made my syllabus new every semester so I could be flexible!
TF: What was your favorite aspect about curating the all-women exhibition You, Me, She, We (Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia, 2012)?
RR: That was a really fun exhibition of all women artists who were thinking about working with communities or groups of people. For me it was sort of a “greatest hits” show of artists that I had been following for a while and a way to bring them all together in one space, which was kind of funny because it was in a commercial space. So, commercial galleries are focused on selling work and don’t (usually) want to present a curated exhibition where some things weren’t for sale. They didn’t like it so much because in incurred expenses without the opportunity to profit from them. But it was a really great show and it got some great reviews. It was sort of my last shebang at that gallery so it was a great project.
TF: You jury a lot of exhibitions and opportunities for artists outside of your role at Telfair Museums. Upcoming in Atlanta soon is Rachel Reese Selects with ACP (Atlanta Celebrates Photography) where you’ll be serving as a juror. What elements are you looking for; being that the selected winner is going to have their work added to a contemporary permanent collection?
RR: I don’t know what to expect! When I accept these kinds of opportunities, it’s a great way for me as a curator to look at a lot of new work. It’s a privilege to be asked because it does a lot of that “looking work” for me; if I was to go out independently and find 100 new photographers would take me a lot of time. So, it’s beneficial to me as well. I’m also one of the curators jurying the next issue of Ain’t-Bad magazine’s Issue No. 13.
Particularly, if you know something is going to be added to someone’s collection, I would think about: how does that one work stand as a document of this moment in time? But, it can also just be a really beautiful object, too! And that’s something I remind myself: things can just be really beautiful.
Treasure Flavors is an Art Major/Art History Minor in her junior year pursuing an undergraduate degree at Spelman College in the Curatorial Studies Program.
Rachel Reese is Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Telfair Museums in Savannah, GA since 2015. At Telfair Museums, she stewards the permanent collection of modern and contemporary art as well as organizes temporary exhibitions in the Jepson Center. Among many, Reese has curated solo exhibitions with Carrie Mae Weems, Paul Stephen Benjamin, Nick Cave, William Wegman, Triple Candie, and a group exhibition titled Generation with Iraqi-Canadian artists Sawsan AlSaraf, Sundus Abdul Hadi and Tamara Abdul Hadi which received a 2017 SEMC exhibition award. Reese also maintains a long-term modern and contemporary permanent collection exhibition titled Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Postwar America, a 2018 Coastal Museums Association Exhibition of Excellence Awardee. Reese is currently organizing a retrospective titled Five Decades with Savannah-based artist Suzanne Jackson (American, b. 1944) that will open in summer 2019. Reese holds an MFA from City College New York and a BFA from the University of Georgia.
Rachel Reese graciously thanks her Summer 2018 curatorial interns for their invaluable contributions to Suzanne Jackson’s forthcoming retrospective:
Treasure Flavors, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
Dana Melaver, Parsons School of Art and Design, New York, NY
Anna Landau-Smith, SCAD, Savannah, GA