View Finders

By Joel Hoekstra
Art doesn’t grow on walls. Curators, schooled in art history, cultural movements, and current events, select the items that we see in museum exhibits. But more than that, as ve Carleton alumni explain, the work of a curator is storytelling—tales told in painting, sculpture, film, and installations.

The chambers of the Louvre in Paria contain more than 35,000 works of art, and thousands more lie in storage. At last count, the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City included more than 426,911 paintings, sculptures, drawings, costumes, books, and other items. And the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest network of museums and research facilities, houses more than 138 million artifacts, works of art, and scientific specimens.

As museum collections grow, the work of curators is vital to shaping, tracking, preserving, and interpreting the jumble. Visitors expect to see more than a random assortment of objects when they hand over $20 for admission. Some people want dazzle. Other folks want an education. But none of them want to feel like they’ve just paid a visit to a flea market or Granny’s attic.

Curators shape the story—both in their choice of what to acquire for museum collections and in their development of exhibitions. The artwork they spotlight becomes the artwork we learn about and remember. The things they pass over may be forgotten forever.

These five Carleton alumni know firsthand the challenges and celebrations that accompany curatorial work. John Edward Hasse ’71, Eugenie Tsai ’76, Anne Umland ’80, Craig Houser ’87, and Stuart Comer ’90 oversee collections at some of the leading cultural institutions in the United States, potentially shaping the story of art—and, in Hasse’s case, music—forever. How do they make decisions? What factors shape the tales they choose to tell? The answers vary as widely as their jobs and areas of specialization, but they do share one thing: a passion for preserving the creative works of past and contemporary artists.

Eugenie Tsai ’76

Eugenie Tsai ’76Eugenie Tsai ’76 Photo: John Noltner

Located in New York City’s Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum has more than 1.5 million art objects in its collection—everything from Egyptian mummies and medieval triptychs to Edward Hopper paintings and Judy Chicago photographs. Unlike more specialized museums that acquire works from specific periods or places, the 121-year-old institution has built a trove that is global and all-encompassing.

Only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time, of course, but it’s still a lot to take in. It falls to curators like Eugenie Tsai ’76 to help visitors navigate this barrage of visual stimulation. The museum’s curator of contemporary art, Tsai oversees work made after 1945 and evaluates what pieces the museum should add to its permanent collection—including these two recent acquisitions: a skateboard covered with a prayer rug by Mounir Fatmi and a piece of marquetry by Alison Elizabeth Taylor. While Tsai considers the value and importance of the piece, she also asks: How could this create a visual linkage to something else in the collection?

For example, Tsai recently acquired for the museum a black-glass sculpture by the contemporary artist Fred Wilson. “We have a large Venetian glass collection, so I was thinking about how it could connect to that,” she says. Similarly, a decade ago, the museum acquired a Wilson creation called Grey Matter, which includes several plastic casts of Queen Nefertiti’s head in varying shades of skin tones. “One reason we considered that piece in the first place was our strong Egyptian collection,” Tsai says.

Sometimes, of course, the connections are more readily apparent and the exhibit is more timely. Tsai recently helped launch a showcase of work by Kehinde Wiley, a New York artist who paints people—usually African Americans—in classical poses that nod to the old masters. “Wiley may not be as well known in the art world as he is in popular culture,” says Tsai, “so that show crossed over into the contemporary.” What’s more, the show, which is now touring the United States after its Brooklyn Museum debut, tapped into the current dialog on race raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. “We had huge lines of millennials waiting to get in,” Tsai says of the show. In an age when images of artwork are often available online, the show’s popularity also indicated to Tsai that seeing something up close and in real life remains important to people.

The Brooklyn Museum owns several Wiley paintings, but only three of them made it into the exhibition. One of the hardest things about Tsai’s job is making tough calls about what goes into a show. “Editing is sometimes a challenge,” she says, but she believes in keeping a tight focus. “People should leave an exhibition wanting to see more,” she says. If visitors leave the museum with a newfound curiousity about the artist, the subject matter, or almost anything else, the curator has fulfilled her mission.

Stuart Comer ’90

Stuart Comer ’90Stuart Comer ’90 Photo: Daniel Terna

Stuart Comer ’90 spent the summer of 1989 interning at the New Museum in New York City. It was the height of the culture wars: debates raged over political correctness and the definition of art, and politicians threatened to demolish the National Endowment for the Arts. Pressure from Texas congressman Dick Armey forced the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to cancel a show featuring the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Comer was entranced by all of it.

Today, Comer is chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Established in 2007, the department, which encompasses “all time-based art except for cinema and theatrical screenings,” is the youngest at MoMA, and its cutting-edge scope is vast. “Our field raises a lot of questions about what is art, as well as a lot of challenges for presenting and preserving work,” he says. For example, how do you document and preserve an installation? How do you show a video from the 1970s if the technology it was recorded on has become obsolete?

Fascinated by the outer orbit of contemporary art, Comer often visited Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when he was at Carleton. He worked closely with cinema and media studies professor John Schott, who produced, from 1985 to 1990, Alive from Off Center, a Twin Cities Public Television program that featured experimental work by a wide variety of avant-garde and emerging artists, including Laurie Anderson and Ann Magnuson. His association with Schott proved fortuitous: “That work introduced me to a lot of the choreographers and performers whom I work with today,” Comer says.

Although they were considered experimental at the time, many of those artists are now well known. Comer also keeps up on the advances of new artists, a task that has been made significantly easier by Google and YouTube. He no longer has to travel to Europe or Los Angeles to see the work of an up-and-comer. “Today many artists and galleries have websites,” he says. “You can easily access an artist’s CV and investigate images online.”

It also falls to Comer to choose works for MoMA’s permanent collection. Recently, he accessioned a piece by Beryl Korot, Text and Commentary, that blends ideas about computers and video technology with notions about weaving. Last spring Comer met with Korot, a major figure in the 1970s, the early age of video art, to discuss the work. “Basically, she believes that the loom was the first computer,” says Comer, who notes that, unlike modern scholars of Michelangelo or even Picasso, curators of contemporary art often have the opportunity to meet with artists to discuss their work.

Those conversations often veer into other subjects and, when they do, Comer is grateful for his liberal arts education. Carleton prepared him to talk about religion, literature, even physics. “It pains me to see what’s happening in the country as professionalization and specialization erode general education,” he says. “I believe in liberal arts learning, because it pushed me to think outside my intellectual boundaries.”

John Edward Hasse ’71

John Edward Hasse ’71John Edward Hasse ’71 Photo: John Noltner  

John Edward Hasse ’71 and his fellow curators at the Smithsonian Institution like to say they’re in the “forever business”—ensuring that certain cultural objects are preserved for eternity. Deciding what makes the cut is, of course, the hard part.

Hasse has worked at the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum network and research center, for 31 years. As curator of American music, he is responsible for collecting sheet music, recordings, instruments, costumes, playbills, posters, and basically anything else related to popular music. (Another Smithsonian curator handles classical music.)

Among the items in the collection Hasse oversees are John Philip Sousa’s baton, John Coltrane’s sax, Ray Charles’s braille-covered keyboard, Prince’s guitar, Ella Fitzgerald’s red dress, and Patsy Cline’s jumpsuit.

Sometimes the items are presented to the Smithsonian by the artists themselves or by people who recognize their value. In other instances, Hasse has to search them out, bid at auction, or persuade a current owner that the Smithsonian would be a better caretaker of a particular piece of memorabilia. He worries that some artifacts will disappear before he can examine them. In 1985, shortly after he arrived at the Smithsonian, he discovered that the belongings of jazz artist Duke Ellington were deteriorating in a Manhattan warehouse—in danger of being destroyed by fire, water, or vermin. It took three years and congressional action to authorize the acquisition, but Hasse saw it through and eventually used the material to write a book: Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington.

A South Dakota native, Hasse enrolled at Carleton in the late 1960s largely because his parents were alumni. He studied piano with music professor Anne Mayer, completed a special major in black studies, and developed an avid interest in jazz. Today he often gives public talks on the power of jazz and has traveled as an unof cial jazz ambassador at large to Russia, South Africa, and many other places—often at the request of the State Department, which promotes cultural exchange overseas.

Playing jazz and sharing the story of American music is fun, says Hasse, but he takes his curatorial duties seriously, appreciating that the decisions he makes now will shape the Smithsonian collection forever. “I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” he says. “If we don’t do X, Y, or Z, nobody else is going to do it either. It’s hard to go home at the end of the workday. There’s always a lot more to be done.”

Anne Umland ’80

Ann Umland ’80Ann Umland ’80

In November MoMA will unveil an exhibition showcasing the work of 20th-century artist Francis Picabia. Part Cuban, part French, Picabia was a poet, painter, performer, illustrator, and moviemaker who moved uidly among art forms. Perhaps best known for his association with Dada, he rubbed shoulders with legends like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Marcel Duchamp. But Anne Umland ’80, who organized the show, isn’t surprised if you haven’t heard of him. “One reason he remains unfamiliar is that he roved from thing to thing,” she says. “He changed mediums as often as he changed his shirt.”

For Umland, a curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, the Picabia exhibit is the result of nearly five years of planning. She joined the museum’s staff in 1988 and has been thinking about a Picabia exhibit ever since. In 2011 she submitted a formal proposal to the curatorial team, setting down a road familiar to every curator: immerse yourself in the artist’s work and influences; develop a list of pieces to include in the show; write letters to places and people who have those items and ask to borrow them (“If people say no, you go visit them and try to convince them”); collaborate with other staffers to determine sources of funding and a publicity plan; discuss, ad nauseam, insuring, protecting, and hanging the works; and develop a book to be published in tandem with the exhibit. The process is nearly the same for every exhibition, says Umland, but the bumps and hiccups along the way are unique.

A native of Texas, Umland wanted to become a conservator, restoring paintings and preserving artworks, and chose Carleton because it had reputable programs in both art and chemistry. “My first year in chemistry was horrible, though, so I dropped that part of my agenda,” she says. Her classes with legendary art history professor Lauren Soth, however, stoked her passion for visual art and her interest in curatorial work. “I learned a lot from him about thinking and writing, about articulating ideas and putting things in historical context,” she says.

After graduation, Umland returned to Texas and worked briefly as a secretary at a Dallas art museum before she realized she needed to go to graduate school, and “I wanted to be someplace where I could see the best art in the country,” she says. “That was New York City.” Her program at New York University connected her with well-known art historian Kirk Varnedoe, who asked Umland to join him at MoMA when he was appointed head of its painting and sculpture department.

It’s a dream job, Umland says: “I love the art, I love the collection, and my colleagues are incredible. Those three things make it a joy.” A big event like the Picabia show makes it even better.

“On some level, our job is about preserving and presenting in perpetuity objects that are inspiring and meaningful for the larger culture,” Umland says. “You can learn about past cultures in many ways, but sometimes objects speak more than words or facts or numbers on a page. Curators ensure that those objects are around to help us learn.”

Craig Houser ’87

Craig Houser ’87Craig Houser ’87 Photo: John Noltner

Craig Houser ’87 arrived at Carleton with a clear goal in mind: “I knew I wanted to work in modern or contemporary art,” he says.

But after earning a bachelor’s degree in art history and moving to New York City, Houser struggled to find the path that would lead to his goal. He worked briefly at a gallery, but was uninspired. He landed an internship in museum education at MoMA, but wanted something more. He eventually decided to become a curator, yet could find no resources that would help him.

Ultimately, his writing skills opened a door. After several years of editing journals for the College Art Association, an academic society, he fired off a letter to the Guggenheim Museum about an open position—and got an interview. “They liked the idea that I had been an editor, because museums produce catalogs,” he explains. He worked his way up to the position of assistant curator, developing the collection and producing exhibitions for Guggenheim branches in Venice, Berlin, Las Vegas, and Bilbao, Spain, as well as the flagship museum on Fifth Avenue in New York.

The work of a curator is multifaceted, Houser says. “If you think of how a museum functions, the curator is like the center of the wheel. You have to communicate with the person in charge of PR, you have to talk to the person who allocates funds, you have to work with the education staff.”

Calls from the museum registrar, who handled logistics and insurance matters, were particularly worrisome—because they typically brought bad news. Once, for example, Houser was negotiating with another institution to lend him a fragile work layered in encaustic, a wax-based paint. Shipping the artwork to New York would have required a series of flights and a lengthy layover in a very hot location. If the heat melted the encaustic, the registrar noted, Houser and the Guggenheim would be blamed for ruining the art. Plus, there was the not-insignificant cost associated with transporting the artwork to New York. “I had to rethink the plan,” Houser says.

Houser no longer works at the Guggenheim. He currently serves as a lecturer in art history at the City College of New York. But many of the things he learned as a curator are transferable to his work in education. “At the end of the day, as you’re hanging pictures and organizing the presentation, you’re asking if the show tells a story,” he says. “Does it create interesting questions? Does it spark your imagination and move you to look for answers?”

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