In June, fifteen art history Ph.D. students from around the country gathered in New York for the second iteration of the CCL/Mellon Seminar in Curatorial Practice. Over the course of two weeks, the students met with curators and art world professionals from all over New York and participated in sessions led by Columbia Business School faculty. They also carried out a team-based practicum in which they examined and assessed how a museum adheres to its mission statement.
Exploring the new Whitney Museum of American Art
An enlightening morning at the Whitney’s new digs in the Meatpacking District began with a curatorial walk through of the museum’s inaugural show, America is Hard to See, with Carter Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing. As the group moved through the museum, Foster focused on the art historical considerations, explaining the subtle thought behind the thematic groupings of the show, and also shared his takeaways from his experience participating in the seven-person collaborative curatorial team, led by Donna DeSalvo, Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator.
A conversation with Kathryn Potts, the Whitney’s Associate Director and Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education, followed the gallery visit. Potts spoke movingly of her own career path, which includes 18 years at the Whitney, and explained how engaging the Whitney’s new neighborhood did not begin when the building opened this May. Instead, through a variety of programs and sustained interaction, the education team under Potts’s leadership built relationships with the museum’s diverse constituents within the community, including students and youths, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities, in the five years leading up to the opening to ensure that the new building would serve as a relevant resource for its neighbors.
Training with Columbia Business School
Two Columbia Business School sessions took the seminar participants out of their academic and curatorial comfort zones for lessons in negotiations and building social capital. Professors Daniel Ames and Paul Ingram tailored their respective classes to this cohort of PhD students through a combination of presentations, hands-on exercises, and breakout group discussions.
During Ames’s session, students were given a detailed case and assigned roles to simulate a real-life negotiation. Reflecting on this session, UCLA doctoral candidate Jamin An wrote, “Daniel Ames' insights into negotiation, in particular discovering, analyzing and capitalizing upon motivations underlying multiple actors, were a helpful way to understand the interpersonal and relational dynamics that underlie much of what curators do.”
Ingram’s course on social capital contextualized social networks in terms of performance. Princeton doctoral candidate Phil Taylor wrote, “Many of the ideas Ingram presented were things I knew intuitively already, but it was useful to be given a language for understanding them better and to put that knowledge into action.”
Curating “half the world and all of time” at the Metropolitan Museum
Seminar students took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Met’s exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass with Maxwell Hearn, Douglas Dillon Curator in Charge of the Department of Asian Art, who is also an alumnus of CCL's class of 2009. In the ensuing discussion, Hearn reflected on stewarding the Asian Art department, which is responsible for "half the world and all of time," by expanding its collection through contemporary art acquisitions, collaborating across departments, and not being afraid to take chances. To shed light on the curatorial considerations of caring for a predominantly works-on-paper collection, Hearn concluded the session with the viewing of Fang Congyi's 14th-century handscroll, "Cloudy Mountain," a demonstration that brought to life the narrative of the painting and of the object's own history that documented the scroll for 6 centuries, right up to Hearn’s own professor.
Team-based Practicum and Presentations moderated by Philippe de Montebello
A team-based assignment brought the seminar participants to various museums around the city. The students were divided into four groups in order to assess four New York museums: the Museum of Arts and Design, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Hispanic Society of America, and the New Museum. Throughout the course of the program, students met with leaders from each institution, completed an in-depth visitor survey, spent hours in the museums’ galleries, and analyzed the institutions’ digital presence. Reflecting on the group exercise, Washington University PhD student Orin Zahra wrote, “The assignment helped me to actively engage with the museum environment, consider public interest, and critically think about the mission of the institution. The survey helped me to consider an institution in a way I had never done before, and it opened my eyes to so many factors that go into running a museum successfully.”
On the final day of the seminar, each group presented its findings and actionable recommendations. Philippe de Montebello, Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the recently appointed Chairman of the Hispanic Society of America, moderated the discussion, posing insightful and challenging questions to each of the students.
Congratulations to the 2015 Seminar graduates on the completion of an intense two-week program. We wish you all the best as you take your dissertations to the finish line and look forward to watching you embark on stimulating careers!