Curated With Care
Before the pandemic hit and this exhibition had to close early for safety reasons, SMFA spoke with the curators involved in the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, “SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020”, to discuss their experiences curating works shown at the renowned museum.
As a fellow for the Tufts University Art Galleries, Emily Chun (MA in Art History '20) conducted research, gained hands-on curatorial experience, and wrote wall text for exhibitions. But she didn't have full curatorial freedom.
Now she has that experience, thanks to her involvement in a contemporary art exhibition recently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020, on view from November 2019 through March 2020, featured the work of four recent graduates of the School of Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA at Tufts).* Chun curated the show with Juan Omar Rodriguez (MA in Art History and Museum Studies '19).
"This was my first time making bigger decisions on how to display the works, the direction of the wall labels, and how the pieces relate to each other in the space," said Chun, who studies in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture in the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "The Museum of Fine Arts' Contemporary Art Department gave us a lot of autonomy but also a lot of guidance. It was a pretty rare opportunity for someone who's still in school like me."
Supporting Young Artists and Young Curators
Reto Thüring joined the Museum of Fine Arts in 2018 as chair of the Linde Family Wing of Contemporary Art and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art. As a graduate student in his native Switzerland, he first served as a curator while helping to organize a juried exhibition series showcasing promising graduate students from the country's art schools. He believes the museum has a responsibility to support not only young artists, but also young curators.
"It's important that we help the next generation of curators learn about museum work as a career opportunity," Thüring said. "Also, I know from my experience that having young curators and young artists coming together and having a conversation when they are at a similar stage of their careers is truly magical."
Chun and Rodriguez got involved in the exhibition during the jury process, after Thüring and Dakota DeVos, then a curatorial research fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, helped review submissions from SMFA students and narrow the field to 12 finalists. Following two days of studio visits, the quartet deliberated extensively before choosing the four students for the exhibition.
"We wanted to make sure we had a really good group of artists and a diverse menu of works to look at," said Rodriguez. "We wanted to have some works that were figurative and representational and some that were more abstract and conceptual. And having works that could stimulate various sensory modalities—smells, sounds, touch—offered different opportunities for engagement."
An Intimate Relationship With the Artists
Chun and Rodriguez each met with two of the artists to discuss their work and vision. The curators then wrote the wall labels, an iterative process that required considerable collaboration with the artists.
A few weeks before the show's opening, the artists descended upon the gallery space to install their works, which included textiles, installation, sculptures, and prints. Chun and Rodriguez offered guidance on displaying and establishing proper spacing between the individual pieces. They also tackled countless logistical issues, from bringing in technical and audiovisual professionals to interacting with different departments at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Throughout the lead-up to the exhibition, Chun and Rodriguez worked closely with Thüring and DeVos.
"Reto and Dakota were instrumental in walking us through artist selection, thinking about the possibility of accommodating other pieces, and handling artist contracts with the museum," Rodriguez said. "They made us feel comfortable expressing our opinions and defending the selections we made. They also ensured we were coauthors of the exhibition, not just shadowing them in this process."
Chun sees her curation of this exhibition as an extension of her art history studies at Tufts—a notion that may seem surprising at first.
"Contemporary art is complicated because it moves at such a fast pace that it's hard to know what to historicize," she said. "But when it comes to curating, it does help to have a good grip on everything that led up to contemporary art. If you have that grounding in art history, it can be a bit easier to keep up and see the connections between things."
'A Very Critical and Discerning Eye'
The Tufts artists featured in the exhibition had high praise for the contributions of Chun and Rodriguez.
"Emily was great. She did a lot of writing and reflection on her own at first, then came to Tim [Manolo (MFA '19)] and me with ideas and common themes she saw framing our work," said Kate Wildman (MFA '19). "She has a very critical and discerning eye, and having her assist with the installation was an amazing help."
Louis Meola (MFA '19) was originally slated to have only two prints in the show. After making the effort to visit his shop and lay out the prints, however, Rodriguez advocated for adding a blueprint as well.
"I give Juan big props for coming to the shop. It showed me he was really trying to understand where this work came from," Meola said. "He decided it was important to include the blueprint, and I ended up agreeing with him 100 percent. Having that little bit of extra information goes a long way in capturing the viewer's curiosity."
As for the immediate future, Chun hopes to find employment in a museum—ideally in a curatorial role—following graduation in May. She believes curating the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition will give her an edge.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is in the midst of a one-year curatorial fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston that will wrap up this winter. He said his perfect long-term role would be curator of education at a university art museum.
"Through this exhibition, I learned how much I enjoy sitting down with an artist and talking about their practice or visiting a studio to see works in progress and talk about what the artist wants to achieve," he said. "I wouldn't have this hunger for working with artists and making exhibits if not for this experience. I'd had the idea it would be fun to curate shows, but I didn't know exactly how exciting that could be."
* Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was ended a month early and the museum temporarily closed.
Photos: SMFA at Tufts: Juried Student Exhibition 2019-2020, copyright MFA