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