Ask a Curator: What’s Your Motivation?

SophieM asks:

What triggers curators to do an exhibition on an artist? Is it who’s hot in the art market? Or is it popularity (Picasso, impressionism are the usual suspects)?

Dear Sophie,

Popularity and the art market can be motives for selecting a specific exhibition topic. But that is too narrow. When a curator presents something new in contemporary art, he is making a selection, and by doing so is confirming the belief that a specific artist or trend is noteworthy.

Exhibitions have a variety of intentions, but primarily are a means to educate their visitors. This didactic function gives me quite a leeway. Often, my choice of subject matter is related to our permanent collection. I have been inspired by a work of art in LACMA’s holdings to explore a certain theme, as was the case with The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam (1988), one of which we own, and our forthcoming Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, celebrating our recent acquisition of Eakins’s last sporting canvas, Wrestlers.

F. Childe Hassam, "Avenue of the Allies: Brazil, Belgium," 1918, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection

F. Childe Hassam, "Avenue of the Allies: Brazil, Belgium," 1918, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection

Thomas Eakins, "Wrestlers," 1899, Gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation

Thomas Eakins, "Wrestlers," 1899, Gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation


Exhibition catalogue, "A Question of Modernity: The Figure in American Sculpture," 1995

At other times, I have investigated art that is not well represented in our permanent holdings. Such was the circumstance with A Question of Modernity: The Figure in American Sculpture (1995). Then my aim was not only to present works usually unavailable to the Los Angeles community, but also to investigate the concept of “modern” as it was originally conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century and later modified. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue revised the history of American art; I like doing that. The social aspects of American culture seen through its visual material world also fascinate me, and so my next show in 2011 will focus on women Surrealists.

By now you must be realizing that my choices are personal: I love research and learning new things, and so whatever topic I choose, it has to be complex and meaningful enough to keep me occupied for at least five years (the time it takes to organize most art-historic exhibitions). Sounds selfish, perhaps, but it seems to work!

Ilene Susan Fort, The Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art

One Response to Ask a Curator: What’s Your Motivation?

  1. Congratulations LACMA! It looks like you made a good hire, as I see on CultureMonmster you hired a new head of photography and drawing depts. Ms Savesen comes from a program with extremely strong fundmentals, something needed in our new age of responsibility, after our age of excess and meism. There is no freedom without responsibility, and being around archives of those such as Weston and Adams, and an excellent current show of Mapplethorpes shows great knowledge and feel for art of the camera.

    I dont mind a contemporary show now and then but must also have the best of the past to measure the new against, to see if it Feels the same in passion and depth. Nothing comes from nothing and the news generations ahve ignored teh apst in the arrogance of being superior Egged on the the art market always looking for the cool new thing to speculate in, where art became a commodity. And artistes the flavor of the month, that soon melted into a sugary mess of all empty calories, no nutrition..

    f64 is OUR contribution to world culture, as large as the film insdustry which does have the resources to take care of its own, unlike photography. lets not ignore our past, so we can build on it for a evolving and true visioned future. NOT the self absorbed babblings of babes we have been inundated with from the art academies. Smug and pampered and told they were the best all their lives, unable to take reality, and so apart form it, as the glare of life wilts their shallow ideas and egos.

    It is time to put aside childish things
    The stakes are too high for waste and decadence now
    art collegia delenda est

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