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Behind the museum wall

Mills College Weekly

Everyone has a bad day every once in awhile. To combat these dreary days, people have come up with remedies to chase away the blues. For Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Wexner Museum in Ohio, remedies take place in the vault at the Baltimore Museum in Maryland. All she needs to lift her spirits is to sit there alone with a C‚zanne.

This vault is not a place that just anyone can enter. It holds priceless pieces of art. Molesworth has the privilege to do this-welcome to the world of the museum curator.

“Being a curator is cool and glamorous but people don’t know what I actually do,” said Molesworth.

Mills graduate students brought distinguished scholar, writer and curator, Molesworth to Mills to shed some light on the often-misunderstood career of the curator. She unraveled the mystery using her witty sense of humor. The audience laughed at her anecdotal true-life stories as she articulated her role in the art world.

According to Molesworth, to curate means you have, ” small salaries and high expectations.”

“She was interesting because she wasn’t stiff, she had a sense of humor and spoke to us as students and as peers,” said senior Melinda Sperry. “No high art mumbo-jumbo.”

Art history professor Gail Wight, said, “I loved her transparency. She gave a fantastic gift for students.”

From Queens, New York, Molesworth’s presence hits you with confidence and expertise. Here is a lady who has a Ph.D. yet she is down to earth and has a girl next-door persona. This turned the evening into a performance rather than a lecture.

According to Molesworth, to curate is not an art. She spends most of her time organizing materials.

“There is nothing artistic about running a budget,” she said. “Museums are a somewhat pressured place.”

Wight was relieved to hear Molesworth’s comments on curatorship as a career for those interested in art history and not for the aspiring artist.

“I was relieved to hear her say it,” said Wight. “A curator is a curator and an artist is an artist.”

She began her lecture on the origins of the curator. The curatorial profession began around the time of the French revolution. People from the upper class, privileged families, occupied these positions. It wasn’t until much later that museums opened up to the wider public and became a tourist destination.

She said it was only later that the museum became the destination place for “every 4th grader.” She described how museums can’t fit the needs of everyone. There are conflicting needs from the communities and the board of trustees agendas.

The position of the curator is also in a conflicted, she added. They are forced to wear more than one hat at a time. These include generating exhibits, buying art for the permanent collection, cultivating patrons, and educating the public.

“You must woo, beg for funds from two different communities, of patrons and tourist patrons,” said Molesworth.

But the most important role to Molesworth is one of education. She is not solely interested in the pursuit of knowledge but that one understands the terms of the relationship.

Molesworth is primarily interested in art history when curating an exhibit. She is concerned with projecting the historical narrative and making an argument in her exhibits.

“Museums are a place where you can produce knowledge,” she said. “You want to learn something.”

Molesworth went on to describe the two types of exhibits at a museum, the permanent collection and the temporary exhibit.

She describes the permanent collection of a museum as its soul, its own version of the world.

The temporary exhibit or the “blockbuster” she explained is a new phenomenon. Since the contemporary museum is revenue driven, large audiences determine whether a show is successful.

“Museums today rely more on private money than public money,” said Molesworth.

Molesworth then described the three types of exhibits, monographic, biennial, and art history.

The monographic exhibit is a retrospective of a particular artist. When referencing the retrospective, she uses the example of male artist Mathew Barney, but then swiftly references Louise Bourgeois, a female artist/sculptor, to address her mostly female audience.

The second exhibit is the biennial, which exhibits new and up-coming artists. The third type utilizes art history.

Since Molesworth’s background and interest is in contemporary art, she uses the example of Sherry Levin’s appropriation works. Levin is known for her simple act of making a copy of a pre-existing copy of a photograph making it her own. As a viewer Molesworth wants you to contemplate, “Why is this art?”

Molesworth feels that museums can underestimate their audience as naive, treating them like children.

“Museums are confused between expertise and elites,” said Molesworth, “You want to be didactic but not too much.” She feels that you need to trust the viewers to have their own thoughts, but also provide new insight.

When discussing her career path in art history, her senior year in undergraduate studies at University of San Diego, California, was a profound one.

“It was the first time I was exposed to people my own age making art,” said Molesworth.

After graduating she went onto an independent study program for curators and critics at the Whitney Museum in New York. This helped her define her future goals. After working odd-end jobs in the non-profit sector, she finally went on to receive her doctorate from Cornell University in art history in 1997.

She has been a curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, director and curator of the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery and an assistant professor of art at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

Molesworth is also the founding editor of Documents, a magazine of contemporary visual culture.

Her advice for aspiring curators is to get a Ph.D. in art history.

For Molesworth, getting a Ph.D allows you to see the big picture. She also advises to start with a liberal arts education.

“I really believe in the four year liberal arts degree, it teaches people how to think,” said Molesworth.