The ABCs of Curating

By Melissa Smith

The rumbling of the ‘L’ is a constant soundtrack for visitors as they wander through the DePaul Art Museum, which stands alongside the tracks. Yet, so enthralled are they with the impressive works of art on display that they seldom notice. When a show is done well, this happens time and time again, whether the setting is a museum, a gallery or even on the street.

Exhibitions represent the final product of months—even years—of hard work by a curator. It’s not just about selecting pretty or evocative pieces of art to show—sensitivity and understanding are needed as well. Several DePaul alumni in the profession share their insights into the art of curating.

Always Advocate
Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Maxwell Graham (THE ’04) opened his first art gallery in room 437 of Clifton-Fullerton Hall during his sophomore year. “How I found my social comfort level was through this gallery,” he explains. “People I didn’t know would come by. Basketball players, dramaturgs and professors would all be in this dorm room together. It actually felt like a SoHo gallery from the ’80s.” For an entire year, Graham slept in the room’s shared bathroom to keep his vision alive. Today, Graham owns Essex Street, a New York City gallery not too far from the SoHo galleries he once emulated. “I think art can challenge what we know and understand,” he says. “I try to find art and artists that also take up this challenge and take some real risks for the sake of pushing things forward. Their work brings me so much joy and energy.”

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Be Brave
Photo credit: Eduardo Garcia

Photo credit: Eduardo Garcia

Two months before independent curator Leslie Moody Castro (LAS ’04) was to host an exhibition, Centraltrak, an arts organization housed at the University of Texas at Dallas, couldn’t guarantee they’d be able to pay her or her artists. “A friend asked, ‘What is that saying about your value and the value of the artists’ work?’ It resonated with me,” she remembers. Moody Castro ultimately canceled the show and held an informal town hall about arts in Dallas instead. For six weeks, she invited the community to discuss problems they faced, their demands and potential solutions. Moody Castro wrote responses on adjacent walls, which became the replacement exhibit. “I would never normally cancel an exhibition, but the idea of contributing to a dialogue where the show shouldn’t always go on was really positive in this case,” she says. Moody Castro isn’t afraid to take risks in her curation. “My projects are dependent on the voices of the artists. I’m always throwing caution to the wind and giving up agency. It’s always different. It’s always fun.”

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Carefully Collect
Photo credit: Sandy Rosencrans

Photo credit: Sandy Rosencrans

The Far East always intrigued Elias Martin (LAS ’00). At the time, he’d yet to visit Japan, but that didn’t stop Martin from immersing himself in Japanese language, philosophy and culture at DePaul. His passions finally aligned in a night class with Elizabeth Lillehoj, history of art and architecture professor. “An older gentleman brought in a Japanese print from the 1820s, and something just clicked,” he explains. Martin’s research into Japanese prints led him to Lincoln Park’s Floating World Gallery, where he now serves as director. “We try to be an educational resource because there’s not a lot of scholarship on these artists,” he says. Today, Martin has amassed one of the world’s foremost personal collections of early 20th-century prints from the Sōsaku-hanga period, an art movement that focused on self-expression. “These artists were interested in expressing themselves and reflecting on what was happening in the world,” he says, adding, “I love being an art dealer and a gallery director, but I’m a collector first and foremost.”

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Dutifully Document
Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Ginger Shulick Porcella (LAS ’03), executive director of the San Diego Art Institute, acts as a modern-day historian, documenting contemporary times through the art she shows. In contrast to more traditional forms, Porcella gravitates toward multimedia and multisensory experiences. “We live in a culture where we are staring at screens all the time,” she says. “We go to the movies. We watch TV. We’re on our phones. We’re always in front of a glowing rectangle. People respond to multimedia because they get it. It’s a more active experience for the viewer.” Porcella understands some shows might be jarring, but that’s what she strives for. “Some people might not like it, but at least I’m representing what’s happening in contemporary art,” she stresses. “I’m not interested in art that doesn’t say anything. If it’s just a pretty picture on the wall, and you walk past, what’s the point? For me, it’s all cultural production. I want to document the art that’s being made in our society today.”

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Eagerly Educate
Photo credit: Tom Vangel

Photo credit: Tom Vangel

Launching a pilot program funded by a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a herculean task. Just ask Jill Bugajski (LAS ’00), inaugural Andrew W. Mellon academic curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. “As part of the Chicago Objects Study Initiative, we’re creating new programs designed to bring graduate students in closer contact with the technical study of objects and materials based in the Art Institute,” she explains. Bugajski collaborates with curators and conservators across 16 departments and divisions to create programming. In addition, she will be curating an exhibit as part of the Art Institute’s Modern Series in February 2017. “To be an art curator is to be a steward to our cultural patrimony—to protect, research and uncover truths using works of art as documents,” she says. “It’s essential to put those truths out there in the public eye so that they can see the world in a new way.”

Fredrica Justina Staack. Design for Printed Textile (Paris). 1929-34. Gouache on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Fredrica Justina Staack. Design for Printed Textile (Paris). 1929-34. Gouache on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago.

M is for Modern
Photo caption: Nathan Keay | MCA Chicago

Photo caption: Nathan Keay | MCA Chicago

In August 2015, Julie Rodrigues Widholm joined the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM) as its new director, bringing 16 years of experience from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where she curated more than 50 exhibits, ranging from emerging Chicago visionaries to established international artists. “Chicago is a city with strong international ties, and I want to make DPAM part of a conversation about modern and contemporary art,” she says.

A self-proclaimed Army brat, Rodrigues Widholm lived in 11 different places during her childhood, including Brazil, Germany, Mozambique and Portugal. “I have a very international background, so my interests are wide-ranging,” she explains. “I feel strongly about bringing an international perspective to our program.” In addition, Rodrigues Widholm wants to make contemporary art more accessible to wary visitors.

“It’s ironic that we find ourselves more disconnected from the art of our time than we do from art that’s 300 years old,” she muses. “A lot of people find contemporary art unfamiliar or strange. I would really like to make this a space where everyone feels comfortable asking questions. There are no right answers. It’s really just about how to look critically and how to have a conversation about the visual world around us.”

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