Behind the Scenes at the WFMA with curator Danny Bills

It has been said exhibition curation could be compared to making a movie. The curator is like a movie director, conceptualizing the exhibition and overseeing all production details, such as selecting artworks and arranging them in space, managing a skilled team, facilitating art shipping, setting dates, planning an opening event, and budgeting, writing, marketing, installing, and problem solving.

Although many curators share a common purpose, there is not one singular process that every curator uses. As we lead up to major exhibitions, I will share with you my process. I hope to give you an insider perspective of art exhibitions and a personal connection to the museum experience.

Danny Bills, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections

Art from the Collectors Circle: Expanding the Legacy

October 14, 2021-February 5, 2022

Curator's Clues: Collecting Art

Why collect art?

As I have talked about in previous posts, the WFMA Collectors Circle purchases art for the museum’s permanent collection. In this post, I want to talk about why this is important by asking some questions: 

  • Why collect art? 
  • What does a collection mean for a community? 
  • What can be learned from a collection? 

I have always felt that human beings, on a personal level, possess an impulse to collect. This may take the form of a collection composed of just one very special object or manifest into a large collection of carefully curated objects that fit a personal interest or aesthetic.

How does this contrast to a museum collection? 

Unlike a private (personal) collection, a museum collection is available to the public. What most people do not know is that museum collections belong to the public! Museums are steadfast protectors and organizers of these valuable items for public benefit. This principle is known as Public Trust. 

According to the American Alliance of Museums, the WFMA’s accrediting body: 

In essence, (public trust) means that the public owns the collections, and they should be kept  available so the public can study them, enjoy them, and learn from them.

So now that we see why a museum would collect art and what benefits that collecting can do for a community, let’s look at what can be learned from a collection, specifically the Collectors Circle Collection within the WFMA Permanent Collection. 

For the past decade, I have curated work for Collectors Circle purchases, paying attention to certain criteria by asking questions. 

Does this potential acquisition

  • Relate in a beneficial way to the rest of the collection by complimenting or connecting to other pieces already within the collection? 
  • Does it represent an important moment or movement in American art history? 
  • Does it help to create a diversified collection that allows all viewers to see themselves represented in the collection? 
  • Is there something unique or interesting about how this piece was created that is not currently  represented in the collection?

When an artwork checks the YES box for any or all of these questions, we see how much impact their purchases have on museum education, representational diversity, and audience development and outreach.

This retrospective exhibit opening on October 14 illustrates 10 years of Collectors Circle contributions to the Permanent Collection that have helped the WFMA grow in community inclusion, educational possibilities, and audience connections.

Starting next month, the Curator’s Clues blog turns to a spring exhibition I’m organizing in partnership with high school students in the Café Con Leche program. Don’t miss the behind-the-scenes journeys to great exhibitions!

Curator’s Clues: Neal Ambrose-Smith and Emmi Whitehorse

In my last Curator’s Clues blog entry, I talked about the art selection process with the Collectors Circle program. In this installment, I look at two Native American artists and their artworks, added to the museum’s permanent collection by Collectors Circle members, and why these additions are important. 

Neal Ambrose-Smith 

Neal Ambrose-Smith, Where are My Heroes, 2016, Color lithograph with watercolor additions; Museum purchase made possible by the 2017 Collectors Circle.

The WFMA Collectors Circle purchased Neal Ambrose-Smith’s print, Where Are My Heroes, in 2017. Currently, Ambrose-Smith is Chair of the Studio Arts Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he heads the printmaking program from 2015-present.

Ambrose-Smith is a descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation of Montana. His works include iconic elements from contemporary native life, both traditional and modern, such as, canoes, trailer homes, and the “Trickster Coyote.” Through technique combinations and use of multiple art media, his artwork stands apart from more traditional Native art in its appearance.  Where Are My Heroes is a successful example of the mark-making seen in contemporary art history combined with the artist’s recurring use of Native imagery.  

Children’s stories are the wonders we grow up with. The mystery, the charm, the fantasy and the illusion. Tribal peoples have known this for thousands of years as All Things Are Connected…Learning about my families’ past and reading Shakespeare’s Tempest or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe make these connections for me. Listening to today’s world news tells of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Some stories and traditions never change. Such stories are found within all tribes, as we are all from tribes at some point from somewhere. Entertaining, teaching and sharing. Rabbit, Coyote, and Raven are tricksters that help narrate my stories of tradition and identity. Storytelling is our first written language. As I listen to the world news, popular culture and my Elders I practice our first language. 
-Neal Ambrose-Smith, quoted on the Bedrock Art Editions  website.

Adding Ambrose-Smith’s work to the WFMA collection expanded possibilities for cultural conversation and educational connection. As a curator, I see Ambrose-Smith as a storyteller. As he tells a story, we can invite museum patrons to think about what story they might want to tell or experiences they might want to share. Over the past two years, this exchange of ideas has impacted museum programming by including diverse voices in the museum and making art from the Permanent Collection relevant to daily life. 

Neal Ambrose-Smith holds an MFA degree in printmaking from the University of New Mexico. His work is in many collections, including the New York Public Library Print Collection; the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.; Flint Institute, Michigan; Hongik University, Seoul, South Korea; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; Monash University, Gippsland, Australia; the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis; Cork Printmakers Collection, Cork, Ireland; Missoula Art Museum, Montana; and the Tia Collection and Salish Kootenai College, Montana. 

Learn more about Neal Ambrose-Smith’s   work

Emmi Whitehorse 

Emmi Whitehorse, Pollination, 2011, Color monotype with collage elements (rice paper and sheets with monotype printing) and extensive hand drawn additions (pencil, color pencil, chalk and oil stick); Museum purchase made possible by the 2019 Collectors Circle.
Emmi Whitehorse, Pollination, 2011, Color monotype with collage elements (rice paper and sheets with monotype printing) and extensive hand drawn additions (pencil, color pencil, chalk and oil stick); Museum purchase made possible by the 2019 Collectors Circle.

In 2019, the WFMA Collectors Circle purchased Emmi Whitehorse’s monotype on paper,  Pollination . For decades, Whitehorse has been among the more prominent and recognizable Native American artists working in the contemporary art scene. Whitehorse’s parents wanted her to pursue a career in law or medicine, but instead she earned a degree in painting from the University of New Mexico.  

Those kinds of things guarantee a future, or a more stable life,” she says. “But when I got to the university, I went straight to the art department and didn’t tell them.” 

-Emmi Whitehorse, quotes here and throughout, from an interview with Michael Abatemarco, in  Pasatiempo, an arts and culture magazine published by The New Mexican, February 4, 2021.

It was there, at UNM, where she also earned a master's degree in printmaking in 1982, that Whitehorse first became interested in her career-long approach to painting on paper instead of canvas.

“We were taught to paint in a formalistic way, where you use an easel and have a palette in front of you and apply paint with a brush, and you’re kind of removed from the work. It’s very clinical, you know? That, to me, was just so impersonal. I just couldn’t work like that. Paper is more durable than most people think, and it’s got a very beautiful surface, almost like a fabric. I think that’s what attracted me. Canvas always has a weave. It’s a texture that you can get rid of if you slather on enough gesso. But, to me, canvas is not as forgiving as paper.” 

While still in college, Whitehorse became the youngest member of The Grey Canyon Group, an influential association of seven contemporary Native American artists that included Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (mother of Neal Ambrose-Smith), Ed Singer, and Felice Lucero-Giaccardo. They were as likely to find inspiration in the work of contemporary artists as in anything that could be considered traditionally Native. Whitehorse’s art is intuitive, and the recurring images of plant forms have developed into a recognizable visual language that she’s continued using since her days of showing work with the Grey Canyon Group. 

“Most artwork done by Native artists at that time was pottery and weavings,” she says. “There was a traveling show that we put together and the people that came to see the show were really mad at us. ‘Why are you guys doing this? Go home and make pottery because that’s what your mothers and grandmothers did.’ We were just shocked that this was this attitude toward Native artists. It didn’t apply to other artists. It was just patronizing. At that point, we were even more determined to show the world that there were people like us making contemporary work.”

Much like Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith and Neal Ambrose-Smith, Emmi Whitehorse walks a non-traditional route of art making using combinations of conventional and unconventional materials. Her approach to printmaking and use of paper bring variety to the WFMA permanent collection while also expanding its cultural connectivity and its ability to reflect upon contemporary life from varied viewpoints.

Learn more about Emmi Whitehorse’s   work.

Curator’s Clues: Expanding the Legacy

This Fall we will be exhibiting a retrospective of artworks acquired by the museum’s Collectors Circle. Normally  retrospective refers to achievement by a single artist over time, highlighting the changes and developments in their body of work.

In this case, we are using the concept of retrospective to show how the Collectors Circle Collection has contributed to the opportunity to see yourself at the WFMA by strategically selecting works that have increased the breadth, depth, and diversity of the permanent collection. 

The Collectors Circle was formed in 2010 to create a vehicle for the museum to continue to collect, in support of the museum’s goal to build an excellent collection of American art on paper. Members of the Collectors Circle not only help the museum collect, but also experience first-hand what is available on the art market, how curators use networking, and what goes into care, conservation, and presentation of artwork. Members know their impact by seeing their acquisitions become exhibitions that serve the cultural life of the region and reflect the human experience. 

Throughout the year Circle members learn about artists and artworks identified to enrich the Permanent Collection. Then, once a year the Collectors Circle gathers at the museum for an elegant and lively event to see prospective acquisitions, hear details from the curator, and vote on selections for purchase. Since 2010 Circle members have purchased over 80 artworks that expand the WFMA’s legacy of collecting.

In my next Curator’s Clues installment, I will discuss some of the artists that will appear in the exhibit (Jacqueline Bishop, Karsten Creightny, Frederick Mershimer, Andrea Rich, Neal Ambrose-Smith, and Emmi Whitehorse) and why the work is important to collect and exhibit. 

I hope this behind-the-scenes look at how exhibitions come about invites you to discover the WFMA Permanent Collection!

Explore other past exhibitions with Curator’s Clues.

Quilt Journeys: Women’s Voices

Take a look at the WFMA quilt collection with Curator Danny Bills as he askes the question: How did they get here?

Color in Art, Color in Life: Prisms, Pigments, and Purpose

Join the process behind creating the exhibition Color in Art, Color in Life as the WFMA curator explores color in art through phycology and artists Scottie Parsons, Roger Shimomura, and Roy Lichtenstein.

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