Col­lec­tions man­ager Polina Smutko


HHOW do you care for the largest col­lec­tion of in­ter­na­tional folk art in the world? You might ask Polina Smutko, di­rec­tor of col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art. Smutko, who has worked in the state mu­seum sys­tem in Santa Fe for 30 years, will tell you it’s a team ef­fort. “I be­came di­rec­tor of col­lec­tions when Mar­sha Bol took over [as the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor] in 2009,” said Smutko, who, be­fore tak­ing on the role, was the col­lec­tions man­ager. “I thought it best for every­one to work to­gether un­der a de­part­ment. Now I have a full-time reg­is­trar, a half-time reg­is­trar, and two part-time col­lec­tions man­agers. I also su­per­vise our prepara­tor. We do so much work now. We’re col­lect­ing at a pace of about 1,000 ob­jects a year. If you know any­thing about hav­ing to doc­u­ment and take care of all those ob­jects, it’s a lot of work.”

Smutko was among the first col­lec­tions man­agers work­ing in a mu­seum en­vi­ron­ment in Santa Fe, hav­ing been hired for the po­si­tion in the early 1990s, when col­lec­tions man­age­ment was still an emerg­ing pro­fes­sional field. An as­sem­blage artist who stud­ied land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture at Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­sity and paint­ing and sculp­ture at the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute, Smutko got her first mu­seum job at the San Fran­cisco Mar­itime Mu­seum in the late 1970s, do­ing restora­tion work on sail­ing ves­sels. “I did that for sev­eral years and then got a job on a boat that was sail­ing to Ja­pan,” she said. “That was about a six­month trip. When I got back, I had to change jobs and went to work for the uni­ver­sity mu­seum at Berke­ley as a prepara­tor. I worked there for sev­eral years, un­til Rea­gan was gov­er­nor and passed this prop­erty tax ini­tia­tive that took a lot of money away from the uni­ver­si­ties and mu­se­ums. Then I took a job with a crat­ing com­pany and learned how to make crates to trans­port art. Then my mom got ill, and I moved to Colorado Springs and worked as a con­ser­va­tor.”

Af­ter her mother passed away, Smutko moved to Santa Fe. Her first job was work­ing for the state mu­seum sys­tem’s ex­hibits de­part­ment. She cleaned ob­jects in MOIFA’s Gi­rard wing, which houses a daunt­ing num­ber of ob­jects on pub­lic dis­play. “Claire Mun­zen­rider was chief con­ser­va­tor at that time, and she liked the work I was do­ing. So the con­ser­va­tion de­part­ment hired me to work with pa­per con­ser­va­tor Pa­tri­cia Mor­ris. I mat­ted all of the [Gus­tave] Bau­mann prints at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art. I got to see his to­tal out­put. It was amaz­ing.” Smutko worked an­other stint at MOIFA when the mu­seum re­housed the Gi­rard col­lec­tion. When the grant money ran out, she worked for the es­tate of artist Al­lan Houser af­ter his death in 1994, or­ga­niz­ing and cat­a­logu­ing his work. In the mid-1990s, MOIFA re­ceived a large do­na­tion of ob­jects from Lloyd Cot­sen, then chair­man of Neu­tro­gena. Cot­sen and Neu­tro­gena do­nated ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 ob­jects to the mu­seum, and MOIFA built a new wing — which opened to the pub­lic in 1998 — to house them. “That was a big thing to have hap­pen,” said Smutko, who was hired once again to man­age the col­lec­tion. “We had to ar­range all the pack­ing and ship­ping. We spent a lot of time in L.A. at the Neu­tro­gena head­quar­ters fig­ur­ing it out. Then we had to de­sign the wing and de­sign the col­lec­tions vault. It was re­ally ex­cit­ing to be able to do that kind of work. From there, we just kept grow­ing and grow­ing.”

Smutko has gained for­mi­da­ble ex­per­tise work­ing with folk art col­lec­tions and cul­tural ob­jects, but it wasn’t an easy road. In her youth, a rift de­vel­oped be­tween her and her fa­ther, who was on ac­tive mil­i­tary duty dur­ing the Viet­nam War. “My fa­ther was in the Air Force, and I was on the other side, demon­strat­ing against the war,” she said. Smutko was drafted af­ter hav­ing changed ma­jors in col­lege, but the fact that she is trans­gen­der pre­vented her from be­ing ac­cepted for mil­i­tary ser­vice. “They don’t even want me now, or peo­ple like me,” she said. Be­ing trans­gen­der caused a fur­ther di­vide be­tween her and her fa­ther.

Af­ter Penn State, Smutko was home­less for a while un­til she was ac­cepted at the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute. But that ex­pe­ri­ence didn’t last long. “I couldn’t af­ford it and I had to drop out,” she said. “I moved down to Menlo Park, which is right next door to Palo Alto, where Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity is, and I built a tree­house and lived in that for a cou­ple of years.” She sup­ported her­self at the time by work­ing in graphic de­sign in Palo Alto.

To­day Smutko is an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for trans­gen­der rights, and she leads a de­part­ment that han­dles all the doc­u­men­ta­tion and pre­ven­ta­tive care of the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion. “We have to keep track of the en­vi­ron­ment within the gal­leries and stor­age ar­eas,” she said. “We pho­to­graph ev­ery­thing that comes in, and they’re pho­tographed in such a way that they are pub­lish­able so we don’t have to han­dle the ob­jects too of­ten. Although, for most of our cat­a­logues and books, we hire pho­tog­ra­phers.”

Con­sid­er­ing the rate at which new ob­jects are added, the largest is­sue fac­ing the col­lec­tions staff is stor­age. “It costs money to care for an ob­ject. If it isn’t yours and you’re tak­ing care of it for some­one else, then you’re spend­ing to care for their ma­te­rial. It doesn’t ben­e­fit you very much. The Arch­dio­cese [of Santa Fe] has sev­eral hun­dred ob­jects on loan to us. It’s dif­fi­cult for us be­cause we’re at a space crunch. We’ve ex­panded our stor­age and put in more com­pact stor­age, as much as we could. The state has plans to build a large off-site fa­cil­ity. Be­cause we’re a mu­seum and we hold th­ese ob­jects in trust for the fu­ture, we aren’t like a pri­vate col­lec­tor who goes through his col­lec­tion reg­u­larly and gets rid of things and keeps it to a cer­tain size.” Right now, the mu­seum boasts a col­lec­tion some­where in the vicin­ity of 130,000 ob­jects — mak­ing her team’s task one of vi­tal im­por­tance, even though most of the work they do is out of the pub­lic eye. — Michael Abatemarco

“We’re col­lect­ing at a pace of about 1,000 ob­jects a year. If you know any­thing about hav­ing to doc­u­ment and take care of all those ob­jects, it’s a lot of work.”

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mex­i­can

Polina Smutko in one of the col­lec­tion rooms at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, photo

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