Making Connections

This is an exciting period of change and growth at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. While the UMFA is temporarily closed for remodeling, our talented staff are re-envisioning not just galleries and operations but also their individual approaches to the work they do. For the past year, curator of modern and contemporary art Whitney Tassie has been part of the Association of Art Museum Curators’ Mentorship Program, working with an experienced and dedicated mentor, Beth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. Below is Finch’s reflection on the power of mentoring as a catalyst for change. Read Whitney’s reflection at the Colby Museum digital magazine, The Lantern.
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In early 1992, I took a job at the Drawing Center in New York, a small nonprofit gallery that served in its off hours as the de facto headquarters of the Women’s Action Coalition. By day I was an aspiring curator, by night a newbie activist. That winter and spring, WAC focused its attention on the Guggenheim Museum, which was preparing to open a satellite branch in SoHo. The word about town was that no women artists were to be included in the inaugural exhibition, and the museum responded to criticism of this decision by adding Louise Bourgeois to the roster, a move that only partially dispelled tensions.

At the protest that accompanied the opening, I was surprised to see Wynn Kramarsky, a distinguished collector, philanthropist, and chair of my employer’s Board of Governors, among the chanting crowd I too had joined. What I remember from our encounter was Wynn’s righteous joy and my own curiosity. Who was this individual with whom I shared common ground? Wynn and I became friends, and I have long considered him a mentor, although we never formalized that arrangement, which would not be his way. What is a mentor exactly? “A trusted advisor” is a serviceable definition, but this fails to capture the actions and feelings, the gestures of kindness and understanding, that nourish such relationships.

In the spring of 2015 I met Whitney Tassie, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the annual meeting of Association of Art Museum Curators. We had been paired as mentee (she) and mentor (me) through an innovative, yearlong program run by that professional organization. It was a connection designed to make the most of parallels. Both Whitney and I work for museums under the aegis of educational institutions, and mine, the Colby College Museum of Art, had recently added a new wing, a project comparable to the renovation that the UMFA is currently undergoing. Back at our institutions and separated by more than 2500 miles, Whitney and I spoke regularly by telephone, an arrangement that honored one of the shared goals that the program asked we compile. Another was to visit each other’s institutions. Whitney wrote up a separate set of professional aims and aspirations and we had this list to return to when our conversation faltered and we were reminded, momentarily, of the newness of our connection.

Month by month, call by call, our engineered relationship became an organic one. The intervening of real life was proof of that. By the spring of 2016, the plan for reciprocal visits was retooled to accommodate the birth of Whitney’s daughter Jane and other less wondrous but similarly time absorptive demands on our respective schedules. The alternative itinerary we collaboratively devised took us to the Boston area, where we visited local museums and met with colleagues. Jane, at the edge of toddlerhood, shadowed us in the company of her grandparents. At every stop, the discussions were lively, wide ranging, and generous; mentoring was the common language. Whitney floated the idea of a collection reinstallation that would focus mostly if not entirely on women artists, an approach in keeping with her commitment to tipping the balance toward equity and justified by the particular strengths of the holdings she oversees. Later, as I drove home to Maine reflecting on our Boston meetings and the network they nourished, I remembered with gratitude the street corner protest that had indirectly but inexorably brought us all together.

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