Wednesday, September 1, 2010

International Ask A Curator Day, Continued

More of today's questions answered by John Marciari, Curator of European Art and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art
How often does –should?- a curator walk through the galleries and interact with the public once an exhibition has opened?
John: I try to walk through all of my galleries, both the permanent collection galleries and those of temporary exhibitions for which I am responsible, every day. If something has happened to a work of art, the curator is most likely to spot it, so this is a good practice. It is also instructive (and occasionally amusing, and sometimes humbling) to hear what people say as they move through the galleries, so I sometimes will just sit on a bench and try to blend in. I don't necessarily interact with the visitors every day, but if someone seems to be confused or to have a particular question, I'll try to help out.

Will it be a good idea to create an exhibition of art especially for children?
John: This is a tricky one. On the one hand, the San Diego Museum of Art has since its beginning in 1926 had a biennial Young Art exhibition, in which works by students from grades K-12 are selected for display at the museum: this is an important contribution to local arts education and it introduces many local children to the Museum. So we're committed to programming and education for children. On the other hand, to plan a traditional travelling exhibition solely for children seems to me a bit narrowly focused. I'd say that a show like Heroes (which has been on view through the summer but closes after Labor Day) could be of equal interest to children or adults. That's a better use of resources.

Any curator: If you weren't a curator, what would be your other career choice? 
John: The obvious alternate career for most curators would be university professor. I, for one, have no desire to change.


What made you decide to become a curator?
John: I grew up around paint and paintings, not so much because I went to museums, but in a more unusual way. As a young man, my father had worked for Bocour Artist Colors, one of the main producers in the US of artist paints, and he became great friends with Sam Golden, who was the great creative genius at Bocour: Sam was, for example, essentially the man who invented acrylic paint for artists. When Sam retired (for the first time - this is before he founded Golden Artist Colors a decade later), he moved to a farm in upstate New York where I spent many many weekends as a child. Sam and his wife Adele were like an extra set of grandparents to me. He was always telling stories about paint and painters (Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, et al.) and as a result, I became interested in art. I took painting lessons for years when I was young (although no, I don't paint any longer). Later on, I went to college and became interested in European history (my undergraduate degree is in Classics), and then realized that I could combine that interest with the paintings by getting my doctorate in the history of art. Because I was always interested in paintings as physical objects-and for this I credit Sam and all those years of hearing about paint- I gravitated not to the university professorship that was the most obvious career path, but instead to curatorship, where I would always have the objects themselves as my primary focus. As I said in response to a question earlier today, there is nothing I'd rather be doing.
What piece of art defines your museum?
John: Our “defining piece of art” (if a museum can have one, or only one) is the great Still Life by Sanchez-Cotan. It's a masterpiece of still life painting and the best known work in the collection. It can stand as a symbol of our rich collection of old masters, particularly by Spanish and Italian artists.


Do you show work of up-and-coming artists, ones on the east coast?
The Museum of Art serves as the encyclopedic museum for the San Diego region, and this includes shows by contemporary artists, including younger artists - although in the latter case, we're more inclined to focus on those with San Diego connections. The most recent example was our exhibition of Hugo Crosthwaite - his first museum show. Hugo now lives in New York, but he spent much time in San Diego.


International Ask A Curator Day

Today (Wednesday, September 1) is “Ask a Curator” day, a worldwide “question and answer” session which will enable interested museum visitors to put questions to curators at over 300 museums around the world.
The organizers of this day are using Twitter to host “Ask a Curator”. You can find a list of participating cultural venues in the “who to ask?” section of the website, or simply follow the hashtag #askacurator to follow the questions other people are asking.

At the San Diego Museum of Art, John Marciari, Curator of European Art and Head of Provenance Research, will be fielding questions throughout the day: direct questions to him @SDMA on Twitter. Short answers will be posted on Twitter, with links to the fuller answers here.


From our Facebook page:
@Junvi Ola:
How and where private collectors acquire art pieces. Do they go to estate sales? Private art auctions? What if its a piece from another country? I'm eternally curious about this process!

John: "Private Collectors" is a pretty open-ended term, but I'm going to take it that you mean people who collect museum-quality art (i.e. art of the quality, condition, and importance that would hang on the walls of a museum). While there are a few cases of amazing finds at estate sales, those are the exception rather than the rule. Most collectors work with dealers and advisors, go to auctions (Christie's, Sotheby's, Bonham's, etc.), visit galleries, or occasionally buy directly from other collectors. If collectors buying at this level have a relationship with a museum, the curators will sometimes help advise them as well.

Export rules from other countries vary from country to country. The more important something is, the harder it will be to export it to the US. Major works, that is, would be run past a review board (which could include, for example, curators at a national museum), and they could be blocked from export.


What is the most difficult challenge for a curator? How do new technologies influence the curatorship task?

John:  This isn't a terribly romantic view of curatorship, but to be honest, one of the greatest challenges comes in reconciling ambitions and budgets. It is still relatively easy to find great works of art that we'd like to add to the collection, but harder to put together the funds necessary to acquire them. Likewise, when planning an exhibition, one needs to keep in mind the huge costs involved in bringing works from other cities or other countries together.

As for technology: new technologies (websites, Facebook, iPhone applications, etc.) allow museums to share ever more information about the collection. Wall labels offer a few bits of information, but we know much more about any object than can fit on those labels, and the new technologies can make it available to those who are interested. New technologies in the conservation lab, conversely, are giving us ever more information. See, for example,


What is your favorite piece in your museum's collection? And if I visit, where can I find it?

John: I thought that this would be a question asked today, and it's come in at least twice already. A common game curators play when visiting another museum is to ask two questions: 1. What would you take for your museum? 2. What would you take home?  The first question really boils down to this: What is the most historically significant and/or rare object, one that would be a prized addition to a museum's collection? The second question is about personal taste: what would you like to live with? Usually, these turn out to be two different objects, but in the case of the collection here in San Diego, I'd probably choose the same for both: Giorgione's Portrait of a Man. (The Venetian Renaissance is one of my particularly beloved moments in the history of art.) The panel is in our Italian Renaissance Gallery on the second floor. For an older blog post about the painting, see