Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Curator

Last week I wrote about the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance”. Though it takes many people to create an exhibition, those organized by committee often lose focus. Creating a good exhibition requires a good curator with a vision of what he or she wants to accomplish. The single mind behind the Gossart exhibition was Dr. Maryan Ainsworth.

I met Maryan when she was in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan working with a new scientific technique called infrared reflectography. With an special camera a conservator could record the artist’s initial ideas represented by preparatory drawings lying beneath the layers of paint. Not all artists used under-drawings but it was a common practice in the Northern European Renaissance.

The investigation of a work of art where scientific data is needed is often performed in an independent lab and the results sent to the curator the same way a doctor might receive x-rays. It takes more than just a camera to make infrared reflectography of paintings useful. Meaningful comparisons can only be made after gathering many examples. Further it requires the skills of a trained art historian to put the new visual information into the perspective of the period and place. I was so impressed by Maryan because I quickly saw that she had the art historical background to create and use scientific data to come up with real insights. This dual expertise explains why Maryan made the unusual transition from the conservation side to the curatorial side, becoming a member of the Met’s European Paintings Department.

Her years of travel to national and foreign institutions pursuing reflectography research allowed her to know where many Northern Renaissance paintings were located and their quality. This knowledge allowed her to conceive and put together her exhibitions. Of course, she first looked at the collections in her own museum and in 1998 opened a blockbuster called “From Van Eyck to Bruegel - Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum” I remember so many visitors going through the show saying things like: “That is wonderful! I have never seen that before”. Possibly not, Maryan might have found the work relegated to the Met’s storage and brought it out on view in order to better illustrate the Met's holdings.

An exhibition is not just a bunch of paintings A-Z, at least not a good one. Knowing what is out there is of paramount importance, but the editing decisions need to be made. It is just as important to know what to leave out as what to put in. You also have to able to show context, thereby adding a new dimension to our understanding of the artist, his place and time. Maryan has shown an ability to do this through her selections, installation, explanatory labels and catalogs. Besides holding more that one degree from both Oberlin and Yale, she has taught at Columbia and Barnard and thereby learned to express herself in a clear and concise manner.

The exhibition will come down within a few months but the catalog gives the show immortality. People can refer to it a generation or two later and not have lost all the work that was done to create the current exhibition. In the case of Gossart, Maryan used the opportunity to catalog all the known works by the artist and not just the ones which she was able to show at the Met. When you put together the 63 paintings and all the ancillary material that was brought in for comparison in the show itself you have an almost 500 page catalog printed on fine thick paper between hard covers.

I have not weighed the Gossart catalog but I can tell you lifting it up from the floor to my desk many times in the last couple of weeks I did not need to do any weight lifting at the gym! It reminded me of Philippe de Montebello’s remark about another exhibition catalog which he said two museum curators had worked on for 9 months and given birth to a 7-pound tome. Though there is no substitute for the beautiful book there is much to be said for a CD. Maybe one should be included with the catalogs.

One can go on for chapters about what it takes to pull together a good exhibition and the stories that make up the creation of these shows are incredible and often exciting. Here I just wanted to give the reader a taste of what it takes to be the curator for a world class exhibition.