What Does It Take to be a Curator?

September 26th, 2020  |  Published in *, September 2020

What does it take to be a curator?  Aeqai continues its behind-the-scenes stories on how museums work internally.   I talked to several curators from the Cincinnati Art Museum as well as the Taft Museum of Art to get their insight and perspective.

Dr. Julie Aronson – picture by Mikki Schaffner

Dr. Julie Aronson, CAM’s curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings, was always interested in art as a child.  Her parents took her to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  She also liked making art.

Her early childhood experience brought her to Brandeis University where she took a class in art history and fell in love with it.  As a result, she majored in art history and pursued a career as a curator.  One of her first jobs was as a temporary guard at Brandeis’ Rose Art Museum. She pursued her knowledge with a B.A. in art history from Brandeis, an M.A. in art history from Williams College and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Delaware.

She worked in various museum positions which prepared her professionally for the future.  She did a summer internship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a role at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC where she worked on a catalog of the folk painting collection.

Aronson, who joined CAM in 1999, said, “Every curator’s job is different.  We have one of the premier American collections in the US, particularly in the 19th century.  The collection has personality because of its connection with art history in Cincinnati.”

Cythnia Amneus – picture provided

There are several factors that go into mounting an exhibition according to Aronson.  They include community engagement, balance among ongoing projects, collaboration, the museum calendar, diversity, connection to the collection, significant contribution to scholarship, popular appeal, whether the work has been shown before and how long ago, exposure for artists who don’t normally have it, and funding the project.

Part of her job involves research and writing about CAM’s collection, but finding the time to do it is a challenge.  Coming out in conjunction with the Frank Duveneck exhibition December 18, 2020 – March 28, 2021 is Aronson’s book Frank Duveneck:  American Master.  It is published by CAM in association with D. Giles Ltd.

The Duveneck show was four years in the making.  Ninety Duveneck works of art came from Cincinnati; thirty-five are loans from other museums or private collections.  Duveneck (1848 – 1919), an American figure and portrait painter, gave several hundred pieces of art to the permanent collection of CAM, which remains the center for Duveneck studies according to the National Gallery of Art. Duveneck made CAM the major repository for his work in 1915.

Exhibits are mounted using the permanent collection occasionally. Currently, “Women Breaking Boundaries” is an example.  “The Art Academy of Cincinnati at 150:  A Celebration of Drawings and Prints,” which ran from February 1 – April 28, 2019, is another example of a show taken from the permanent collection.

One of her favorite exhibits was “Bessie Potter Vonnoh:  Sculptor of Women” which ran from June 6 – September 6, 2009.  There had not been a monographic exhibition of Vonnoh’s work anywhere since the 1930s.  The show traveled to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.  Aronson wrote her dissertation about this artist (1872-1955) who was a sculptor known for small bronzes mostly of domestic scenes and for her garden fountains.  Vonnnoh’s objective was to “look for beauty in the every-day world to catch the joy and swing of modern American life.”

Kristin Spangenberg – picture by Laura A. Hobson

Another show Aronson curated was “Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures,” an exhibit of portrait miniatures in 2006.   She co-authored a companion book with Marjorie E. Wieseman.  She collaborated with other curators and staff members making the experience more meaningful.  For example, she worked with the graphic designer, the learning and interpretation manager, the publicist and the conservator.  “You learn from other people,” she said of their expertise and experience.  “It’s not a solitary job,” she added.  Cameron Kitchin, CAM director, the museum’s ninth director in the museum’s 139-year history, signs off on all shows.

A favorite acquisition is a painting called “My Back Yard” by noted American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986). Aronson purchased it at auction from Christie’s in 2013.  “Buying at auction is a challenge,” she said.  “There is little time to get your ducks in a row.”  She bid on the telephone and won the work.  Applause erupted among the staff.   Currently, it is in the “Women Breaking Boundaries” show and will return to gallery 211.

Not everything is easy.  There are challenges, according to Aronson, such as COVID-19.  The CAM closed in March and reopened June 18 for members and June 20 for visitors.  The museum is deliberately limiting the numbers who can enter each hour.  She said.  “I hope people come back.”

CAM is not on the East Coast, another hurdle.  “We have to make people think about us,” Aronson said.  She wants people to keep CAM in mind when they have a potential donation.  “They tend to approach us with things we already have,” she said.

“We can’t compete with some of the other museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Their resources are different,” she said.  On the other hand, “We have patrons who do care about the museum,” Aronson added.

Local residents consult Aronson frequently about works of art.  “People come to you who don’t know what they have,” she said.  “They are curious to learn about what they have.”

Aronson said although CAM has a strong mid-19th century American art collection, she would like to fill in the gaps. Some of the art, however, is, expensive.  “Everything doesn’t have to be a well-known name,” she said.  The period of The Harlem Renaissance is a gap as is African-American art except for Robert S. Duncanson (1821 – 1872), well-known landscape painter.  Seven paintings by Duncanson are in CAM’s collection as well as two additional ones from other collections on long-term loan.  She also looks for works by women not from Cincinnati.  In addition, she would like other paintings from the Hudson River School as well as sculpture.

Tamera Lenz Muente – picture provided

The Cincinnati Wing is one of Aronson’s projects created in 2003 in time for the Ohio Bicentennial.  The wing is a multi-gallery presentation of the history of art in Cincinnati through paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from the museum’s permanent collection.

It serves as a model for other museums because of its depth of works. Aronson reinstalled the first two galleries, which present the era before the Civil War, in 2015.   “It makes me very happy to see people take their families and friends to the wing,” she said.

Chief Curator and Curator of Fashion Arts and Textiles Cynthia Amneus sewed as a young person.  Her mother taught her to sew and was always stylish in her dress.  These early influences led to an interest in fashion.

Her work in textiles helped her understand fashion even though there are a few programs in the country specific to fashion. She mentioned colleges and universities are often interested in programs that bring in money and students.  Fashion was not one of them.  But she pursued the field anyway.  She received her B.A. in 1982 from Edgecliff College of Xavier University and her M.A. in textiles and fibers in 1986 from Illinois State University.

Amneus took an unusual path as curator.  She didn’t rotate through other museums to gain experience as most curators do.  She did some freelance work and a few commissions, but ended up at Cincinnati Art Museum in 1991 as a preparator learning from the ground up and has been there ever since.  A native Cincinnatian, she studied the museum field with Otto Thieme, former chief curator, and curator of costumes and textiles at CAM (1985 – 1996).

“Every day is completely different,” Amneus said.  She could be looking at exhibitions, reviewing the permanent collection, researching, writing a major catalog, coordinating essays, labeling copy, working with the marketing department, fundraising, grant writing, reaching out to local and regional patrons and donors, and searching acquisitions at auction houses and dealers.  Now as chief curator, she manages the other curators and conservator in addition to other staff.

“I might get a call from a patron who has a dress to contribute to the museum,” Amneus said.  Since museum standards are high, Amneus estimates that only about 10% of the calls lead to permanent acquisitions.  Curators determine if a gift is a fit for the collection and take it to the director for approval.  The Acquisitions Committee looks at a potential purchase about which a curator makes a presentation.  If an item is declined, Amneus makes recommendations to the donor for other more suitable places.

Amneus has worked on several exhibitions.  She is currently working on a jewelry exhibition drawing from Kimberly Klosterman’s collection of the 1960s and the 1970s.  The show entitled “Simply Brilliant:  Artist-Jewelers of the 1960s and 1970s” will open at the DIVA Museum for Diamonds, Jewellry and Silver in Antwerp, Belgium.  It will also travel to Pforzheim, Germany and appear at the Pforzheim Jewellry Museum, the only museum of its kind worldwide.  The exhibit has been five years in the making.  This has included working with a catalog, essayists, a checklist, venues, colleagues and pitching the show.  It is scheduled to open in October 2021 at CAM.

There are challenges to the role.  Amneus said curators know when they get into the role, they are not going to be working 9 to 5.  They often do it for the love of the job.  When COVID-19 closed CAM on March 13, many staff began working remotely.  The curatorial staff was not essential to the museum, so they were not present daily, but their positions were safe.  “We go in as we need to, pick up books, materials, and talk to colleagues,” Amneus said.

Writing, for instance, is often done at home where there is less distraction.  “You have to get everything to the publisher nine months to a year in advance,” she said.

Getting pieces into the museum can be a challenge.  Sometimes, the museum hires a rigger to fit artwork through the door.

There have been schedule changes, fewer exhibitions and a decrease in the budget.  Fine art shippers have slowed down.  “Wild” by Michael Nichols, a photography show, has been postponed.   “Enduring Lacquer,” curated by Hou-mei Sung, Ph.D., East Asian curator, encompasses a selection of East Asian lacquer wares from the museum’s permanent collection.  The museum has over 200 pieces, according to Amneus, and about ninety percent of them are Japanese.  The majority of this collection entered the museum in the late 19th century; many are rare and unique.  They include inlaid and carved pieces from samurai armor to contemporary screens.  The show has not been rescheduled yet.

“It is always a challenge to put together a diverse schedule,” Amneus said.  “No Spectators:  The Art of Burning Man” (2019) from Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, took a lot of negotiation to make that happen.  Then, museum staff had to determine what space could handle the size of sculptures to make everything fit.  Weight was another consideration.

Amneus said the museum looks for a diversity of shows.  In other words, not a year of all paintings.  She includes fashion, paper, sculpture and other media.  “We look at the year’s shows to see if the exhibits are compatible with other collections.”  She considers what type of audience CAM is reaching.  “We want to make it as diverse as we can,” she said.

Sometimes a traveling show will drop in their laps.  “We are cognizant of that opportunity,” Amneus said, “and take advantage of it because we didn’t think it was available.”  When a traveling exhibit arrives at CAM, the staff often reorganizes the show requiring a lot of work.  For example, a curator may rewrite label copy to fit the audience.  They also take into consideration how the design of the show will fit into the museum space.  “We might add pieces from the collection,” Amneus said.  A change in the contract may require approval from the originator.

“Women Beyond Boundaries” is a show based on CAM’s permanent collection.  Because two-thirds of the works are sensitive to light, the show was reinstalled and opened on September 18 with prints by female artists.  Kristin Spangenberg, curator of prints, supplied the new art.  The show was renamed “Women Beyond Boundaries Version 2.0” and will run to January 10, 2021.

Significant shows that Amneus recalls include “Something Over Something Else:  Romare Bearden’s Profile Series” which ran from February 28, 2020 – June 21, 2020. Bearden was an African-American artist (1911 – 1988) best known for his collages.  He received the National Medal of Arts in 1987 from President Ronald Reagan.

“Treasures of the Spanish World” featured over 200 works of art and historical documents from the Hispanic Society of America in New York City.  It ran from October 25, 2019 – January 19, 2020.  “We don’t have a lot of Spanish works,” Amneus said.

Then, there was the “Terracotta Army:  Legacy of the First Emperor of China” exhibit April 20, 2018 – August 12, 2018, which was only available from China.  The show featured approximately 120 individual objects, which included Terracotta figures of warriors, arms and armor, ritual bronze vessels, works in gold and silver, etc., all drawn from the collections of art museums and archaeological institutes in Shaanxi province, China.  They date from Pre-Qin period 770-221 BC to Qin dynasty 221-206 BC.  “We were thrilled to have it,” Amneus said.

Museum staff consider racial issues.  They talk about diverse audiences for artists of color and women artists.  “We work with the Learning and Interpretation Department on label copy to be more inclusive,” said Amneus.

“We’re working long hours with the exhibitions,” said Amneus.  “We work with every other department in the museum.  We work closely with the conservation department, for example.  There is a lot of collaboration.  There’s always more to do.  We do research and are considered the experts.  The work reflects on us.  The research needs to be correct.”

“I am the living institutional memory of the Cincinnati Art Museum,” said Kristin Spangenberg who celebrated 49 years with CAM this year.  She has a long history with the museum, but it didn’t start out that way.

“I bounced around,” Spangenberg said of her early years.  She attended the University of California at Santa Barbara doing studio work.  She earned extra income by being a slide projectionist.  “I wanted to do more with art,” she said.  A native of Palo Alto, California, she took painting and print making at San Francisco Art Institute.  Later, she studied with Wayne Thiebaud, painter.  She went on to UC at Davis where there was an uncatalogued print collection.  “I said I would catalog it free of charge,” she said. “That got me on the path.”

Other activities followed.  Still trying to find her niche, she did a year’s worth of stage design in the late 1960s.  She volunteered at Stanford University cutting mats.  She went on to attend University of Michigan where there was a museum training program.  She worked at the UM museum and taught an undergraduate section of the history of prints.  She graduated with an M.A. in art history in 1971.

Charles H. Sawyer, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (1957 – 1972), knew Philip Rhys Adams, then director of CAM (1945 – 1973), and mentioned to Spangenberg that there was an opening in the Prints Department.  She came for the interview and was offered the position before she even returned home.  She has been at CAM since September 4, 1971.  “It’s a great collection,” she said.  “Why go anywhere else?”

Spangenberg eventually became curator of prints, drawings and photographs.  CAM Director Millard F. Rogers (1974 – 1994) had attended University of Michigan’s museum program as well so the two were on the same wavelength.  With the advent of Aaron Betsky, CAM director (2006 – 2014), there was a change.  Betsky asked her to become curator of only prints.  Spangenberg declined to comment on this demotion only saying she has strong feelings that last to this day. She is now with her sixth director of the museum, Cameron Kitchin.

The largest portion of works on paper are prints at CAM.  Spangenberg counts more than 22,000 prints in the collection.  “I am always drawn to works on paper more so than painting.  It’s a very fresh expression of one’s thoughts.” she said.

The length of time it takes to mount an exhibition depends on many variables including the size of the show, whether a publication will be issued, publicity, research, conservation, size of the gallery, among others, according to Spangenberg.

Spangenberg is presenting a companion show to “Frank Duveneck:  An American Master” with 18 earlier works by Duveneck including some from the estate of Duveneck student Otto Bacher (1856 – 1909) in gallery 213.  It celebrates a moment in time.

The Prints Department has had several grants which permitted it to photo document the collection for the online database.  Spangenberg is constantly updating the database.

Spangenberg works from home part of the time because of COVID-19.  One project she concentrates on is a collection of 800 Japanese prints from the late 1760s to the late 20th century.  They were photographed.  Joel and Bernice Weisman, now deceased, gave the collection in memory of their son Jay.  Spangenberg is doing online research so she can learn something about the prints and build a file available to the public.  “I enjoy the hunt of a particular piece,” Spangenberg said.  “I am building a resource for the community.”

COVID has affected the library as well as other areas of CAM.  “If I handle a book, they will quarantine it for 72 hours,” Spangenberg said.  The library is now open only by appointment.  She is on the Print Council of America where discussions of how centers can open are taking place.  She noted that chemicals in the sanitizer may be dangerous to the prints.  “It is better to wash your hands,” she said.  “I am hoping things settle down by August 2021,” said Spangenberg.

With budgets cut back, the CAM is using more of the permanent collection.  “I have great depth in my collection,” said Spangenberg.

Gifts have not stopped coming in, however, according to Spangenberg.  Dr. James and Lois Sanitato donated 25 works of George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), an American realist painter known for his bold depictions of urban life in New York City.  The Sanitatos promise more works in the future.  Originally planned for the fall of 2021, Spangenberg indicates the show will be postponed with the agreement of the donors.  Although Spangenberg doesn’t have many shows that travel, the collectors would like the Bellows show to do so.  “That’s very challenging,” she said.  “There’s a whole layer of additional things to do.  I am doing all the leg work.”

“Albrecht Durer:  The Age of Reformation and Renaissance” is a CAM show traveling to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee for a show November 6, 2020 – February 7, 2021.  Spangenberg is involved in doing a condition report, virtual docent training, orientation of the frames, among other things.

Spangenberg receives queries about objects in the collection.  Estates have also come in.  She does the research, gets them photographed, puts them online and makes them accessible to the public.

She doesn’t have a staff.  “I am a one-woman operation.  Every day I make a priority list, meet with other curators and balance external and internal needs.  I don’t get everything done I would like to,” she said.   She lives in a rural area outside of New Richmond which doesn’t have VPN (virtual private network) so she can’t access museum files.  That said, she counts on a good culture of teamwork at the museum.

Her publications always feature a permanent collection.  She feels that they are a contribution to the art world.  She also enjoys working with collectors who have contributed to the museum with their donations.

Asked about retirement, Spangenberg deflects the question.  “I am not bored.  I still have exhibition ideas.  I haven’t run out of things to do,” she said.  “I still enjoy getting up at 6:00 a.m.  I still look forward to coming to work.  I take it one day at a time.”

Down the hill from CAM is the Taft Museum of Art where Tamera Lenz Muente is an associate curator.  She said, “I always had been a writer.  While studying literature and creative writing in college, I discovered I also loved art history and decided that art would be a fascinating subject to study and write about.  After that, it was an evolution of several years before I knew that being a curator could combine my interests.”

Muente has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  After working in the fields of higher education administration, fundraising and arts marketing for several years while broadening her knowledge by taking undergraduate classes in art history, she decided to return to graduate school.  She started her M.A. in art history at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. She finished it at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning mostly working full time at the Taft in public relations.  To finish her degree, she left that job to complete her thesis.  After she graduated in 2006, Muente returned to the Taft as a part-time curatorial assistant.  The staff now has three full-time curators and one part-time curatorial assistant.

Muente has curated over two dozen shows in the Sinton Gallery, ranging from the art of the past to contemporary artists.  She said, “We present a lot of traveling exhibits in the Fifth Third Gallery.”  She has served as the installing curator for fourteen of those.

The Taft staff is small.  That means Muente works on a variety of materials, from daguerreotypes, landscape painting, fashion, quilts to modern photography.  “I am constantly learning something new,” she said.

A show that has taken three years to put together is “A Splendid Century:  Cincinnati Art 1820-1920,” which opens on October 3 and will only appear at the Taft.  Muente said, “It celebrates the bicentennial of the Taft historic house and is the first large exhibition for which I’ve been the organizing curator and have written a catalog.”  It was postponed from June due to COVID-19 and closes January 24, 2021.

For this show, the staff wanted to do a special exhibition of Cincinnati art to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Taft historic house.  “That’s a big anniversary,” Muente said, “and I ended up framing the show around the art that was contemporary with the people who lived in the historic house over its first 100 years.”

She had the pleasure of visiting many private collections to mount this show and working with generous people who wanted to share their works with the public.  “That is a real joy.  The challenge was I looked at literally hundreds of paintings, sculptures and ceramics, but could only choose about 60 of them,” she said.

“My absolute favorite part of curating is imagining how the works will appear in the exhibition space and really thinking about how people will walk through an exhibition and experience the subject matter,” Muente said.

“We seek to balance the shows we offer – different media, different subjects, different eras and diverse artists,” said Muente.  “One way we find interesting traveling exhibitions is to network with curatorial colleagues around the country.  Sometimes exhibition organizers contact the Taft because they know the quality of shows we look for and have a project they think would be a good fit for our museum.  We typically schedule our exhibitions at least three years in advance.  We work even further ahead for self-organized exhibitions, especially if they require loans from far afield.”

Muente said because of the small staff, the Taft self-organizes exhibitions every three to five years or so, and they don’t always travel.  The last touring exhibition was a huge project for the Taft, according to Muente.  Lynne Ambrosini curated “Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh:  Impressions of Landscape” (October 21, 2016 – January 29, 2017). It had many European loans and traveled to exhibition partners the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Lonnie G. Bunch, III, director of the Smithsonian Institute, said “What a curator is, especially a curator of history, is someone who holds people’s culture in their hands.”  Muente said, “That is a big responsibility.  Our role is to treat not only the art and artists we study with respect, but also our audience.  Curators should act as ambassadors between art and people.  As part of the larger museum team, we have the opportunity to educate, to inspire and also to create change and to challenge people to think about things in ways they hadn’t considered before.”

Muente works with all the departments at the Taft.  “We assist with grant applications, marketing initiatives, graphic design, finance, education, facilities, security, etc. Curators are scholars and writers, but they also have to work well with people,” Muente said.

–Laura Hobson

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