Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -


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

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