Dispatch from the Vault
I spend most of my days in a small, secluded office that used to be a boys’ bathroom. The walls have been painted a pleasant yellow, there are no toilets anymore, and I couldn’t hope for more privacy as I work, but the lack of windows and a lingering hush speak to a former life, before the museum was substantially renovated and expanded. Let me introduce myself: for the past two years I have been the Collection Research Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago (often referred to as the MoCP). On my more waggish, caffeinated mornings, tucked away in my little haven, I feel like I’m in a fallout shelter, engaged in the vital business of transmitting the personal histories, accomplishments, and creative hopes of our century’s artists to the unseen masses of all eternity, one informative, website-bound text at a time. At other moments, tapping away at my computer, I feel more like a cultural bureaucrat. (I owe that line to Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society, who once described the true life of curators in a similar fashion.)
My research into the museum’s permanent collection is largely aimed at providing helpful context for each of the artists and artworks that are represented. (This ongoing effort coincides with a new database that is fully accessible to the public, searchable and browsable online.) While this involves passing on the knowledge I’ve accrued, it has been for me, as much as anything, a process of discovery. On a given week I might have the good fortune to learn about some of the so-called New Color Photographers from the 1970s that people rarely mention – you know, the ones who aren’t William Eggleston or Stephen Shore – or the now largely forgotten Changing Chicago project, launched in 1987, one of the largest documentary photography efforts ever to fan out through an American city. All that and more resides in the museum’s collection, which weighs in at a substantial 9,000- plus photographs and photography-related artworks.
The reason I’m choosing to emphasize this sensation of perpetual discovery is that on some basic level, the MoCP exists as a catalyst for just that sort of thing, in various ways and for a range of audiences. Proximity initially invited me to share my insight into the museum with its readers, to pen a profile of the institution. I’ll admit that I could talk for hours about the place, but I’m going to shirk that role of knowledgeable authority and take a more personal approach. Running with the idea of discovery, I want to look back and trace my own trajectory, from outside observer to daily museum contributor and then – come September, when my fellowship ends – to being back outside thegates again. What I’m writing here isn’t exactly an institutional profile, then, it’s just my own ruminations about the ways the museum has come alive to me over the past two years. The Museum of Contemporary Photography is small as far as museums go, and while it notes on its website that it is the only museum in the Midwest with an exclusive commitment to the medium of photography, its scope is anything but provincial. If it’s any indication, my first encounter occurred while I was working at a commercial gallery in San Francisco. During my tenure at the gallery I served as the liaison to a number of the more active artists on the roster. One whom I worked with closely was Michael Wolf, a photographer then based in Hong Kong. In 2006 he was invited to participate in a group exhibition at the MoCP, entitled Made in China, to which he contributed a largescale photo-centered sculptural installation, Toy Story. Soon enough new stories began to trickle back about the arduoussounding process of affixing tens of thousands of brightly colored plastic toys to the walls of one of the museum’s galleries, where they clamorously surrounded photographic portraits of workers at factories where similar kinds of figurines were manufactured.
While I didn’t envy the formidable task of installing the piece, the whole scenario made me think about what it means to be a contemporary photography museum. As its exhibition programming reflects to this day, the MoCP’s purview isn’t limited to traditional photographs and its ambitions reach well beyond tidy rows of framed prints, whether they’re small or downright mammoth. After all, for decades now photography has overlapped in substantial ways with other artistic mediums and the border between the domains of photography and contemporary art has become increasingly blurry. To that end, it was encouraging to be introduced to a museum like the MoCP that is constantly considering how to push the boundaries of conventional thinking about photography.
Accompanied by these kinds of questions, I left San Francisco for the Midwest, in order to complete a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Studying Art History, I pursued a broader regimen of contemporary art and opted to write a thesis about film and video installations. (I pondered the sometimes permeable boundaries between mediums and between the projected image and the surrounding spectatorial space.) After commencing my fellowship position at the MoCP, following my completion of the MA program, I began to realize the extent to which the museum is invested in exploring the relationship of photography to other mediums. For one thing, it frequently exhibits video works, an art form with a photographic process at its heart. But also, looking back through the archives of recent exhibitions, you’ll find shows that delve into the ways that photography relates, respectively, to sound, painting, text, performance, and sculpture.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The last exhibition I worked on in San Francisco happened to be a Chicago photographer, Brian Ulrich, and the MoCP entered the picture again. As we mounted his first exhibition at the gallery, we turned to Ulrich’s first book, which had recently been published by the MoCP and Aperture, as part of the museum’s Midwest Photographers Publication Project. (Dubbed “MP3,” the project recognizes talented photographers in the region who have not yet been the subject of a monograph. The second volume of the series was just released and is currently the subject of an exhibition at the museum through September.) This was another appealing discovery, that the museum pairs an eye for international artists, hailing from as far away as Hong Kong, with ongoing support for artists working just around the corner in Chicago.
As I later learned, this initiative to publish up-and-coming regional artists is complimented by the museum’s larger Midwest Photographers Project. Inaugurated in 1982, this rotating collection of recent portfolios – all work made in the past 2 years – is an evolving resource that features both well-established and emerging artists. Its greatest benefit, probably, beyond exposing students and museumgoers to a diversity of local photographers, is how it functions as an early vote of confidence for artists on the rise. I won’t presume to argue for cause and effect, but a number of the participants have gone on to further success on a national or international scale, among them Ulrich, Jason Salavon, Alec Soth, and Curtis Mann, a younger artist who has recently exhibited in New York, Antwerp, and Basel.
To me, the existence of a program like MPP at the MoCP – are we still clear on all the acronyms? – suggests a degree of openness at the museum that is somewhat unusual. The institution deals with great artists at the top of their game, but at the same time puts little faith in rituals of institutional gatekeeping. An artist doesn’t necessarily need to have earned his or her stripes through an extensive exhibition history or the shadow of a multi-page bibliography, and in regular monthly portfolio reviews the core staff members generally consider every submission that conforms to the guidelines posted on the museum’s website. (Although I’d guess the MoCP isn’t completely alone in that regard.) Even the architecture of the museum evinces a kind of openness that is outside of the norm: all of the staff offices – except for mine, as it happens – open on to the gallery space. Hopefully we can presume that visitors have the good sense not to interrupt these busy people too often, but it seems notable in any case that the professionals behind the scenes at the MoCP are actually working in clear view. They’re amenable to fielding questions and it’s no coincidence that their doors are open.
In my own experience, I’ve seen what this open mindset and willingness to take a risk – albeit a well-informed, well-considered risk – can mean. I think its safe to say that few other institutions would have given me full license, as a young curator, to organize an exhibition to fill the entire museum, which I did last summer with the collection-based exhibition Beyond the Backyard. I feel confident that I rose to the challenge, but it helped appreciably, I’ll admit, to be able to refer to the curatorial work of Natasha Egan, Karen Irvine, and Rod Slemmons as an ongoing model, and to avail myself of their readiness to act as sounding boards for my ideas.
As my colleagues have done in exhibitions such as Made in China, Loaded Landscapes, and Conversations: Text and Image, I tried to grapple with substantial ideas in a manner that was accessible yet not diluted. The American backyard, the topic of the exhibition I curated, is an entity that is deeply familiar to many people. It’s a suburban fixture and a common urban dream—yet it is fraught with social and spatial complexities that often go unacknowledged. It has its share of accumulated cultural contradictions. My challenge was to gather and coherently present the various ways artists have engaged with this space over the past fifty years, allowing their works to momentarily defamiliarize something that to many of us feels like old hat. (In the process, an exhibition around a central theme like this can also illuminate a range of current approaches to photography.) Following their lead, I featured well-known photographers like Gregory Crewdson, Emmet Gowin, and Larry Sultan alongside lesser-known artists, many represented in the Midwest Photographers Project, such as Colleen Plumb, Deanna Dikeman, and Todd Deutsch.
Like most museums, the MoCP sets out in its exhibitions and educational programs to bring something new to the table every time. Discoveries then, for you and me alike – and I’d like to think they happen with a frequency that is out of proportion with the museum’s modest size – spring from a number of different sources. They arrive via its commitment to focusing not only on the history but the dynamic present and foreseeable future of photography; they emerge through exhibitions that grapple with some of the big issues of our day. Not everything that goes on here may catch you off guard, and no one could claim that every exhibition makes waves, but something, sometime, will grab you as you pass through.
To that end, it’s interesting to consider again how the museum’s architecture seems in on the game; the design doesn’t reflect an architect’s over-arching vision, but gradual expansions and renovations have given shape to a space that at times provides a surprisingly dynamic viewing experience. The galleries are staggered across three levels and to a marked degree vary in size and shape. A couple are in the mold of your standard white cube, but others are more intimate, even quirky, like a narrow mezzanine gallery or a stairwell space that is frequently the site of projected videos. The exhibition space unfolds in sometimes unpredictable ways, the platform for a journey of sorts, and personally I really like that about it. As challenging as the architecture can be from a curator’s standpoint, it’s also a source of possibility, something that can be put to work consciously in determining the layout of exhibitions.
At the end of the day our work here is, as much as anything, about providing for the visitor’s individual engagement, facilitating the potential for you to come to your own conclusions or to continue the discussion out on the street. This outlook informs a lot of the museum’s activities, perhaps most of all the museum’s educational programs under the guidance of Corinne Rose. My own presence as the Collection Research Fellow is in many ways an extension of this logic too. The drive behind the museum’s larger grant-funded collection database project – of which my fellowship comes as one facet – is to make the collection more accessible to the public. That accounts for the numerous texts that I’ve written, which are intended to serve as basic signposts for the reader/web-browser as they encounter different artists and works of art, providing a small measure of historical background and contextual placement within an artist’s oeuvre. But the new database, now accessible 24/7 on the museums website at collections.mocp.org, is set up so that anyone with computer access can browse or search at leisure. It’s there in part so you can explore and make your own associations and connections. To that end, you can create a username and password, then save your own groupings of works, to which you can return repeatedly or share with other users.
As a web-centered project, this initiative in effect opens the museum’s climate-controlled vault to people anywhere, whether their home is Bolingbrook or Bombay. My own hope – and this might sound strange – is that it will continue to build and bolster a feeling of connection for local audiences. Paradoxically, the Museum of Contemporary Photography seems, at times, to have a greater profile outside of Chicago than it does within the city limits. The museum publishes catalogues and monographs with imprints like Aperture and Steidl; artists from all over the world have participated in the museum’s Fine Print Program; the curators have been invited to organize exhibitions at photo-festivals in New York, Houston, and Madrid, and to lecture at museums in the U.S. and Canada – and that’s just a taste of the action since I arrived two years ago. Yet numerous friends and acquaintances of mine, from art critics and professors to intellectually curious pals in other professions, have in one way or another described MoCP as a hidden gem in the South Loop or an undervalued highlight of the Chicago scene. Or most frequently, they simply comment, “I haven’t been there for awhile. I should really visit more often.” And yes, that’s true. (No excuses, right? The museum is always free – though donations are welcome—and it’s open seven days a week.) Rest assured, the MoCP does get its share of traffic, but straight up, the number of visitors could always be greater.
It may seem like I’ve inadvertently slipped into advocate mode, that I’ve strayed in to the realm of promotion rather than detached personal reflection. Perhaps. But I’m okay with that at this point. By the time this makes it to print I’ll no longer be a staff member of the museum, and with that in mind I feel like I should be willing to embrace my instinct to be a lasting friend to the institution, or yes, even a mild-mannered advocate. This place has meant a lot to me: it has given me the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience as a researcher and a curator, to get to know a lot of people whom I genuinely like and admire and from whom I continue to learn, and to further cultivate a sense of curiosity in the midst of continual small-scale revelations. Everyone in Chicago should know this museum. For those who don’t, that’s the first discovery waiting to be made. After that, I’m willing to bet there will be more as time goes by. So I’ll see you at the next opening. The exhibition on view at that point will be new to me too, so we can walk through together, wandering gradually up the stairs and across the mezzanine, and then up the stairs again, to find out what’s waiting around the corner. It could be any number of things.
by Karsen Lund