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)?
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.
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