How I Became a Curator, Part 2

Last week I told you about my academic background prior to entering the curatorial field. Now that you have a sense of my scholarly origins, this week we'll take a look at my first three museum jobs.

After living in a relatively confined area of western Massachusetts for two years, I needed a change of scenery. I ended up getting that change in a far more dramatic way than I had ever imagined when I was offered a curatorial internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I wasn't familiar with the museum, but they were paying me to go work for them, so I took it.

The spectacular mountain ranges of the Grand Tetons ended up becoming my backyard for the next three months:

The museum itself is also gorgeous. Built into a hillside, it's modeled off of old castles and pueblos, giving it an ancient, weathered appearance.

The collection itself is splendid, focusing primarily on 19th and 20th-century American art.
Paul Bransom, Leaping Cottontail, 1924, gouache and charcoal. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Since I was only there for three months, I didn't get a chance to curate my own shows, though I did do the preliminary work on a couple of exhibits. The main thing I got out of this place, though, was a comfort with art handling and a respect for preparators. Prior to this point I'd only carried a few works on paper, so the idea of handling art made me uncomfortable. Every summer, however, the Museum receives shipments of art for its annual Western Visions auction, and with only one preparator on staff, the intern needs to help out in any way possible.

Over the course of the summer, I became comfortable with handling paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, as I helped unpack these objects and move them into storage. I also became familiar with the registration side of the curatorial field when I had to fill out the paperwork for hundreds of objects. Most of all, I developed a deep respect for preparators, the people who actually install and hang the shows. I spent most of the summer shadowing the Museum's sole preparator, and being with him made me realize that they're the ones who make the magic happen when it comes to exhibits. While I'm not a preparator myself, the experience definitely shaped the way I think about installation schedules, as I always try to budget extra time.

At the end of the summer I moved on to the Dallas Museum of Art, where I had secured a position as a McDermott curatorial intern in the European and American departments. The DMA remains the largest museum I've worked in to date, with its staff numbering in the hundreds. As a result, it was also the most focused of my jobs, concentrating primarily on research and writing. Whereas at Wyoming I handled art on a daily basis, here I rarely touched it because there was an entire preparatory team to do it for me.
Although I was assigned to both European and American art, I found myself concentrating primarily on the American side of it, a focus that has continued to shape my career so far. During my nine months here I gave gallery talks, assisted with late-night tours, composed the German version of the Museum's wikipedia page, helped create the justification for a major sculptural acquisition, contributed entries to the Museum's updated guidebook, and other things.
My main accomplishment though, was the chance to curate my first show from the Museum's works on paper department. It was here that I first became interested in prints and printmaking, as I was able to study them in person and begin to perceive the aesthetic merits of each technique. I ended up doing a show on European and American landscapes, which allowed me to select an eclectic range of objects. Bringing together a diverse range of objects, and particularly seeking out the hidden gems of a collection, continues to shape my approach to curation.

Looking back, I can't help but laugh at the amount of time I had to work on this show. Nine months for one exhibit is quite the luxury; nowadays I'm working on about three or four shows at any given time, all while plotting out the future exhibit schedule.
A lot of the artists I've mentioned on this blog I first encountered during my work on this show, as is the case with Bolton Brown.
Bolton Brown, Zena Mill, 1923, lithograph. Image courtesy of
Shortly arrived I arrived in Dallas, I began looking for my next gig, as I figured it would take me several months to find something. By January, as it turns out, I had secured a two-year curatorial fellowship at Shelburne Museum in Vermont, but I wouldn't actually begin until June. Thankfully they waited for me.

Shelburne has a delightfully eclectic collection of collections. Founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb, the museum is dedicated primarily to American material culture, and includes quilts, mochaware, dolls, fine art, historical buildings, and more. I really felt at home within the museum's wonderfully odd holdings, and being right next to Lake Champlain, my surrounding environment was overwhelmingly beautiful.
It was also during my time here that my interest in printmaking became more hands-on, as I started taking classes at Burlington City Arts. Longtime readers may also remember that I started The Fanciful Lobster here to document these projects, way back in October 2012.

The deadheads series was one of the first to be documented on the blog.
I worked on five different shows during my two years here, but I'll only mention three. The first was Time Machine: Robots, Rockets, and Steampunk. This multi-disciplinary show looked at sci-fi in popular and material culture, which allowed us to exhibit a fantastic selection of midcentury toys, contemporary steampunk fashions, and other objects.

Incidentally enough, I was assigned to work on the rockets section of the show. During my research, I encountered Robert H. Goddard's name for the first time, an eerie foreshadowing of my future position at Roswell.
Here's a shot from the rocket section of the show. Looking back on this show it's a bit cluttered to me now, I really didn't need all this stuff in there, but it was fun to do nonetheless. It was the first time I'd worked with 3D objects in earnest, so I suppose I went a little overboard.
The second show was How Extraordinary! Travel, Novelty, and Time. This show was supposed to be a counterpoint to the sci-fi exhibit, but using the permanent collection. To reconcile the two topics I focused on the idea of real and imaginary travel, and how our preconceptions of the unknown shape our experiences of travel and exploration. It was a good opportunity to bring out a diverse array of objects, many of which hadn't been on view for several years.
Detail of Charles Sidney Raleigh, Seal and Polar Bear, 1877, oil on canvas. This wonderfully weird work had never been on view prior to this exhibit.

The third show I'll mention is Color, Pattern, Whimsy Scale. This was the inaugural exhibit for the Museum's new building, the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. Up to this point in its history, Shelburne had been a seasonal institution, open in the summers and closed in the winters, but this new building would enable the Museum to be open year-round, so it represented a significant transition for the institution. This inaugural show would highlight the salient points of the permanent collection, and would be curated by four different people exploring the four criteria Mrs. Webb used when collecting: color, pattern, whimsy, and scale. My section was Whimsy.

These ninepins are iconic objects within the collection.
Aside from navigating the dynamics of a group show, the primary challenge of this exhibit was to curate a space that did not yet exist. The Art Center was under construction while I was there, so whenever I visited the gallery I had to imagine it complete, a challenging task indeed.

The Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education
Visualization challenges aside, the show was well-received, and even got a write-up in the New York Times, bringing in some much-needed publicity to the new building and the Museum's launch in year-round programming. I never got to see the finished show, however, because by that point I was already in Roswell.

In our final installment of this series, I'll talk about my time at RMAC so far.


  1. Sara Woodbury,

    I dunno if you are familiar with the Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, but this is interesting. He built a selection of American Homes, including one over a waterfall. Well, he suffered a Tragedy. Apparently, his wife was murdered by one of his servants. Tragedy shapes Art. After that, toward the end of his Life, he must have begun futuristic Architecture, because I found a book. I have this Architecture book of sketches where he actually drafted some flying machines.



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