How do curators design exhibitions? And how is a permanent collection developed? On the unprecedented installation of 11 galleries of Walker holdings, Curatorial Fellow Doryun Chong and Chief Curator Richard Flood discuss the collecting strategies behind the seven new exhibitions on view and the principles that guide the Walker’s Visual Arts program.
This is the first time in Walker history that curators had to fill 11 galleries with permanent collection works; it’s an incredible luxury and also a daunting task. How do you even begin conceiving such a project?
From the very beginning, the Visual Arts curatorial team wanted it to be “Walker style.” We wanted to reflect the Walker’s mission in a way that makes it clear to visitors that they’re in a place that’s not looking at things in the traditional or canonical way. That was the opening premise. We also spent a lot of time reviewing photos of the last re-opening in 1971 and were inspired by its daring and creative energy. Those displays were unique in American museum practice of the time.
It was clear that we needed a chronological arrangement of the strengths of the collection, which starts with a small but very high-quality group of American Expressionist paintings. In the 1960s the institution started collecting with purpose, which brought to us an incredible body of work by the giants of American Minimalism. In the historical middle of all that was the notion of “alternative modernisms” brought to the institution by [Walker Director] Kathy Halbreich—the idea that you’d make a unique contribution by really looking at the history that was developing to the right and to the left of the accepted history of modern art. Which leads us to significant international movements ranging from Japanese Gutai to Viennese Actionism to Italian Arte Povera to global Fluxus. It’s the art that we believe really allows the 21st century to continue to have the incredible innovation it appears to be carrying with it so far.
Other than pursuing certain areas of modern art that fell outside the main narrative, what are the strategies in considering many works of art, both historical and contemporary, that cross your paths? There must be more general guidelines in determining what makes it into the collection. And what makes the Walker’s holdings unique?
What makes the Walker’s collection unique is that it is in service to this notion of alternative modernisms as well as multidisciplinary art-making. Those two aspects allow us to be very focused in our collecting and how we’re shaping our collection’s growth. We are very interested in paintings and sculptures that have been generated through notions of performance, of collective expression, of temporality—things that don’t complete themselves, but invite the viewer to complete them.
Let’s talk about the curator’s job of putting together certain objects in a gallery. For a lot of people not making those decisions, it may seem mysterious. I know it’s not rocket science and I don’t believe it’s something you can learn through taking classes. Then is it purely aesthetic? If so, what is aesthetics? It’s such a subjective non-science.
I think you’ll see that each of the exhibitions we are presenting has a different answer for that question. In the Quartets (with the exception of Robert Motherwell and Joan Mitchell, the two artists who are no longer with us), most of the artists are actively involved in the installation and five are in fact the author of their own installations. So the curators working on the Quartet shows are simply, in the best sense of the word, enablers.
When it comes to The Shape of Time, the chronological arrangement of the collection, your first responsibility is to the public—to tell the collection’s story to the visitors who come in, but at the same time to create an environment where the visitor actually can become excited and somewhat seduced by the way the story is being told through the ambience of the galleries. I think you do have the privilege of creating relationships as well. Practically, you want to be very careful about what artworks you put next to each other. Because some, by the nature of the materials they’re made with or the chromatics they contain, are very bad neighbors! But there are literally hundreds of stories that could be told by reshuffling the placement of works or the thematic structure that holds an installation together.
I think the third kind of situation we’re working with is best seen in a thematic show such as Shadowland: An Exhibition as a Film, where we wanted to deal with moving-image art and integrate it into a larger understanding of 20th- and 21st-century art. We’ve thrown chronology out the window; we’re combining painting, sculpture, photography, films, and video. We’ve definitely embedded the exhibition with a number of emotional themes and topics that perhaps would be ill-advised if you were working with a chronology or if you were presenting work by four artists in a particular context. Notions of adolescence, loss, abandonment—they’re all in there. We’re really hoping we can provoke an emotional response. That’s what makes that one show very different from the others.