Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Curator Karen Milbourne

The exhibition, “Yinka Shonibare MBE” opened last week.  As the curator of the show, an opening is bittersweet.  On the one hand, I am thrilled to see all our hard work come to fruition…  but, there is also something of a crash.  For months, my brain has been buzzing with ‘to-do’ lists and now I feel a bit at a lost. The art is on view – and looks great in my totally biased point of view, the party was packed, the press has come and gone…  Plus, now it’s time to clean my desk and get other projects in order, which just doesn’t seem as fun.

All that being said, this exhibition was both very challenging and rewarding.  Yinka Shonibare is a remarkable artist, working in paint, sculpture, photography and moving image.  Each of these media required special considerations.  For the films alone, we needed to make sure we got the right kind of projectors, tested the equipment, built rooms for them that were dark enough and sufficiently baffled the sound.  Each of these steps took months of trial and error to sort out.  One of the things I am the most proud of is that we managed to get one of Yinka’s films, “Odile and Odette” free of walls.  For the first time, this work of art is in the open, visibly in relation to his painting and sculpture and one can see the relationships between them all.  For instance, Yinka says that in paint, he layers color, in film he layers time.  And next to the dancers of “Odile and Odette,” two children dance atop the globe.  In the first work of art, the artist tackles racial assumptions, in the second, the perils of global warming.  And yet both are just beautiful, enticing works of art to gaze upon.

Back to the challenges of launching this show: in addition to figuring out HOW to install the works of art – what should go next to what, why, etc., we had to think about the fact that we were the fourth venue to take this exhibition.  This meant that many of the owners of the art works wanted their treasures back and it required us to engage in lengthy negotiations to keep the artworks or find replacements.  At the same time, we wanted our installation to look unique. What if visitors saw it at the Brooklyn museum?  How could we make it different?  So, since the summer of 2008, I have been working with designers to create a vision that both worked with The National Museum of African Art’s unique architecture and honored the artist’s vision.  I also traveled to meet with Yinka, his studio manager and gallery, and the originating curator of the exhibition, Rachel Kent of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, in order to make sure all were satisfied with our proposed design.

So, as an “in-house” curator, my job was to juggle the many pieces that held the installation of this show together.  As mentioned, I worked with technicians to make sure we COULD present the works properly and learned about everything from projectors to water pumps; I collaborated with designers and colleagues on three continents to make sure the content and presentation of the material reached all of our standards; I coordinated the flow of information between our budget office, the registrars who move the artworks and oversee the crates and hotel bookings for the many people who traveled as a part of this show, the Educators who designed such great programs as a book club and original ballet inspired by one of the art works, the Installation department who had to realize the design, the editor and graphic designer to make sure all print materials were just right; and the fund-raiser to make sure we could pay for it all.  In addition, I wrote a gallery brochure, was interviewed by the press, and continue to provide a lot of tours.  I even had to come in one day with my two-year old daughter to make sure we suspended a carriage from our 25-foot carriage at just the right height.  She brought her plastic tools in case she could be of help.

Over time, I hope to contribute more to this blog, telling little stories of how we picked the replacement objects for the show and some of the unique challenges, like getting the right kind of circuitry for Yinka’s first work of art to incorporate moving parts, “The Headless Man Trying to Drink,” or deciding how to address the ‘mature content’ of some of the material, like “Gallantry and Criminal conversation.  This show is made up of many stories and I invite you to ask questions – I will try to answer them.

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