CURATOR LAURA ADDISON
THE THING THAT I FIND MOST REWARDING ABOUT CURATING IS BEING ABLE TO CONVEY CERTAIN IDEAS TO THE PUBLIC IN A WAY THAT IS ACCESSIBLE, BUT THAT DOESN’T DILUTE THE COMPLEXITY OF THE IDEAS, AND THAT’S VERY CHALLENGING. — LAURA ADDISON
Laura Addison may be the first person to tell you that most museum professionals would balk at the idea that museum curators are unsung heroes, especially now, in a time when celebrity curators are often as esteemed as the artists they work with. But Addison is a curator of another sort, one who is focused on research and work in the field more than on blockbuster exhibits, high-profile biennials, and similar career-defining events. “We’re more behind the scenes than a celebrity curator,” she told Pasatiempo, “but we still have a public face and get more of the kudos for what is essentially a team effort. The real unsung heroes of a museum staff are the conservators, the preparators, and the fabricators, the collections staff. What curators do is help bring attention to important artists, artworks, and traditions.”
Addison is curator of North American and European Folk Art at the Museum of International Folk Art, a position she’s held for the past three years after working for more than a decade as the New Mexico Museum of Art’s curator of contemporary art. As fresh and dynamic as the exhibits she’s planned have been, what visitors to the museum may not realize is that those exhibits are the result of longterm research projects. “What people don’t see are those years of planning,” she said. “They don’t see the amount of research, the time percolating ideas and writing. It’s not simply a matter of applying our own aesthetic preferences to create a list. There’s usually a lot of substance behind the choices we make and the pairings that we make and the messages that we try to convey.”
Before an exhibition gets on the museum’s schedule, it starts as an idea, and there is a lot of consideration about who the audience is and how it fits into the institutional mission. “That sounds very corporate, but if it doesn’t make sense in the larger context of the museum’s reason for being, then you have to think hard about why you’re doing it in the first place,” Addison said. The forthcoming exhibition No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art, which opens at the Museum of International Folk Art in March 2017, was developed along these lines. “Tramp Art was a show waiting to happen, because there’s a large body of work in the collection that came into the collection in 2010,” she said. “Also, there have been smaller exhibitions about tramp art in the country before, but there hasn’t been a really big museum exhibition on this scale and with this degree of scholarship since 1975, when the American Folk Art Museum had a tramp art show that was curated by Helaine Fendelman.” Tramp art is a folk art form practiced in Europe and the United States between the 1870s and 1940s. Works were often made from discarded cigar boxes or crates that were notch-carved along the edges and layered into intricate sculptural forms.
Grant writing is an important part of the process, too, because not much happens without funding. Long before an exhibition sees the light of day, Addison collaborates and meets with artists, collectors, and other institutions to view their holdings. The International Folk Art Foundation funds travel grants for projects so that curators can go out and do the research. “I got one of those grants, and I went and looked at many, many tramp art collections, which was an education for me and also a way of building the checklist, and also of building relationships with museum staff and folk art collectors. There were a lot of different objectives that this show met that dovetailed really nicely. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey! I love tramp art. I think everyone should see this work.’ It fills a lot of the needs in the field, I like to hope, and for this museum.”
Like many museum curators, Addison has more than one project in the works. In addition to the tramp art show, she’s developing an exhibit called Mining Folk with a tentative launch date of 2020 or possibly 2021. “What I noticed when I started at the Folk Art Museum three years ago was that there was a tremendous number of designers and fine artists who tap into folk art. In a way, folk art infiltrates everything. I started looking at all these contemporary practitioners who take folk art forms and really transform them in a way that conveys a completely different message than the original form was about.”
The idea for Mining Folk was inspired by Alexander Girard, a textile designer who worked for home-furnishing manufacturer Herman Miller and whose formidable folk art collection makes up the bulk of the museum’s holdings. Addison’s plan, at this early stage of the exhibit’s development, is to showcase works in fine art and design that were inspired by folk art and borrowed from folk art forms, and to invite contemporary artists and designers to respond to works in the collection and use them as the basis for new pieces.
But the audience is of utmost concern, and questions such as what the take-away would be for the public inform curatorial decisions. Some characteristics of Addison’s exhibits are that they are generally thought-provoking, visually impressive, and edifying. “The thing that I find most rewarding about curating is being able to convey certain ideas to the public in a way that is accessible, but that doesn’t dilute the complexity of the ideas, and that’s very challenging.” — Michael Abatemarco