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The Care and Feeding of American Art: Heather Cox, MFA '98

Heather Cox in her studio

Art won’t last forever. Heather Cox, MFA '98, would argue that artists often make their art intending for it to die one day. In fact, it’s Cox’s job as Executive Coordinator of the Conservation Department of the Whitney Museum of American Art to interpret artists’ wishes when it comes to the care and feeding of their greatest works. 

From her studio in New York City, surrounded by shoeboxes, magnifying glasses, rulers, and a stapler collection, she explained, “I didn’t have to take organic chemistry. I’m not a conservator. I don’t touch the artwork, but am able to be a bridge between the administration of museum departments, other conservators, and artists.” 

Cox and her colleagues at the Whitney weigh ethical issues as they try to answer the same important question over and over again: What was the artist’s intention? 

One example is Alexander Calder’s 1926 Calder’s Circus, “a visitor favorite” at the Museum. The whimsical troupe of figures and animals is fashioned from found materials like fabric, wine corks, wires, and scraps of leather. Calder famously performed his circus in the U.S. and abroad.  

Cox explained, “They started out as performative objects but now they are static. We have them carefully displayed in a light and climate-controlled environment. They were already fairly fragile  to begin with—and the question now is how much do we interfere with that?” 

Another example concerns The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by beloved SMFA alumna, Nan Goldin, ‘77. This seminal work is a diary of the 1970’s East Village punk scene composed of 690 35mm color slides shown in conjunction with a 45-minute loop of club anthems. While slides were the height of new technology forty years ago, Cox said that the medium is dying out and hard to preserve today. 

“The contemporary art space is always changing,” she observed. “The work won’t last forever. We keep a master set of slides in cold storage and are in dialogue with Nan in her studio. She has questions about her originals. We have questions about our set. We are fortunate to be able to talk and get her thoughtful feedback. “

With her own practice, Cox has also examined questions of impermanence. 

She dove into photography as an undergraduate at Mills College, conscious even then of how the printed image fades, blurs, or disintegrates over time. Before graduate school, she managed a photography gallery in San Francisco and a bookstore in Portland. 

“Having had an eight-year break between college and graduate school, I was hungry to start an MFA program,” she said.  

Cox was attracted to SMFA because Goldin had gone there–and for its interdisciplinary focus and relationship to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Having access to the Museum, taking challenging courses in art theory, and acquiring “a whole new language” for describing her work helped Cox find her footing as a mixed media artist. 

After graduation,  she moved to New York City and needed a day job to support her studio practice.  "I dropped my resume off at all the major museums and miraculously got a call from the Whitney letting me know they had a position in their Exhibitions Department. I felt like I’d won the Golden Ticket,” she remembers. 

The Museum has been a part of her life for 25 years because of that one unsolicited resume. 

These days, Cox works at the Whitney three days a week and in her studio the other two. The job not only brings a degree of financial security but also focuses her studio time. There, she’s homed in on repetition, the precision of punching castoff photographs into full moon orbs and stitching them together with steel staples into pointillistic quilts of collaged color. 

The Roundels series has more recently evolved into 3-D sculptures—many of them suspended from Cox’s ceilings, angling off her walls, and resting in half-finished states on her studio tables. Some of the completed works from the series were shown this fall in Paper Cuts, a group exhibition at the Elza Kayal Gallery in New York City. 

During Covid, Cox’s focus fell on examining family genealogy and creating artwork using materials found around her home like spare buttons. While tracing her ancestry, she found that her grandparents had lived in a small town along the Ohio River that housed a button factory in the 1900s, where freshwater mussels from the river were used to manufacture buttons.

“A button today feels like such a utilitarian, throwaway object, but when they were first invented, they were regarded as a very fancy technological advance,” Cox said. "Shell buttons gave way to plastics and the local industry collapsed."

She found herself stitching buttons over children’s faces from old school photos—repeating the ritual with friends’ photos which they dropped off in shoeboxes. The ongoing series of portraits, Vibrant Matter, marked a rediscovery of Cox’s original medium of photography, but in a new form. 

For Cox, the juxtaposition between the Whitney and the studio is exactly what is needed to keep her curious. 

She urges other MFA graduates to realize how valuable their skillset can be in a museum setting. “Institutions are looking for people with creative thinking and problem-solving skills. I believe that these kinds of humanities-based backgrounds that SMFA provides are only going to become more and more needed and necessary,” she predicts. 

Lead image courtesy of Heather Cox.

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