Katherine Ware is the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. In 2011, she curated the blockbuster landscape photography exhibition, “Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment.” We caught up earlier this Fall, chatting under fluorescent lighting in the museum library in the basement of its 1917 building.
Jonathan Blaustein: How did it all begin? Were you a little girl who aspired to be a curator?
Katherine Ware: I wanted to work in a museum. That was clear.
JB: Always? Growing up in Ohio?
KW: Yes. We would play museum.
JB: You would play museum?
KW: I did. We collected a lot of nature artifacts in my family. Fossils and shells. My dad had this thing called the floating rock. So there was a demo part of the museum that we would set up with a bucket of water, to reveal its extraordinary nature.
JB: You had a demo at your pretend museum?
KW: It wasn’t pretend. (laughing.) Initially we took all our stuff over to the neighbor’s carport. We would set it up there.
JB: With your parents?
KW: No, the kids would set it up. I was very into labeling things. And making labels for the collection. Very into arranging things. I don’t think anyone ever came. I really don’t.
JB: To the carport?
KW: Right. But it was a big production to drag it all over there. And we had to get it shut down by the end of the day so that their dad could park there.
JB: Did you sell concessions? Was there a lemonade cart?
KW: No. We didn’t have a shop. Later, when we moved to a different house, my dad built us some shelves, so we had our own museum in the house. We put our specimens on that. And now I have some of the things on a small bookcase in my laundry room.
JB: So how does one go from the childhood dream to a career? Did you study art history? How does it work?
KW: I was an English major, because I was going to be a features journalist. That seemed like something practical I could do. I feel like I ended up being something like that. As a curator, I identify something of interest, do research on it, study, read, and then write about it, share it with people. And then I move on to something else.
JB: You just cut my next question off at the knees!
KW: What was it going to be?
JB: I was just wondering whether the average photographer really understands the complexity of your job. I was going ask about the nuts and bolts. You were leading into that.
KW: Was I?
JB: Yeah, you condensed it. I was hoping you could expand it.
KW: I don’t remember what I said at all.
JB: For the record, neither of us is rolling with too many brain cells today.
KW: That’s right.
JB: Your average, everyday art viewer pays their money, walks into a beautiful space, and sees art and text on the wall. I don’t think they spend too much time thinking about the years of planning that go into it.
KW: Right. But hold that thought for a moment so I can declare that I like stuff. I like objects. I don’t quite know how the transition got made from fossils to photography in regard to the type of things I work with. I don’t have a great story about that. Maybe it could be anything. Maybe the important part is the power in a one-to-one interaction between a person and an object. With the original, so to speak.
JB: Do you love all art equally, or does photography move you in a way that other media don’t?
KW: I was really involved in art making for a while, but I never considered myself an artist. As to why I connected to photography? I don’t know. I was in Washington DC in the 80′s, and photography was really starting to cook. It was an interesting time, and I think I just kind of latched on to it. What a great ride it’s been!
To come back to your other question of what goes into it, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and we can talk about that if you want to.
JB: Why, is it too boring to talk about?
KW: We can find out.
JB: In all our interviews, beyond being interesting and keeping people engaged, the goal is to give people information that they would not typically have access to.
So beyond questions about your job, I’d also love to talk about the things that you see. You see a lot of work. And among the taste-makers, I think curators have that magic ability to get work on the wall. That’s part of your job.
Almost everybody wants to have work on the wall, and there are only several score of people that can do that themselves. That have the inherent power to take something from the ether and put it on the wall.
KW: There’s a funny split — people think I get to show what I want, or I get to decide what’s shown and it’s true to an extent, but it’s also really, really not true. There’s a funny tension there, well, not so funny. On the one hand, I am in this job, and I’m the most likely person to get to show what she wants to show. But there are lots of other factors that go into it.
JB: Like what?
KW: There are people whose work I like more than anyone else’s in all the world, but in many cases I never have found a way to show or acquire it. We think a lot about balance in an exhibition program. If we’re showing some contemporary work, then often we’ll try to balance that with historic work.
We think about what we’re going to show throughout the building from a variety of angles with the idea of providing a richness of perspectives, not just the experience of one culture or one artistic school or fraternity. Art in New Mexico, especially, has benefited from all the people and cultures that have touched it and we do strive to demonstrate that. But you can only balance so much, and ultimately I believe that if you don’t follow the curator’s eye you end up with something very wishy-washy and santitized.
JB: By committee?
KW: Yeah. There’s a funny level of ego to the job, in that sense. At the same time, we’re always trying to mediate that. Do the checks and balances on that. Probably about as effective as our national system of government, right?
JB: I would guess that you end up getting constrained by politics and money. What tends to stand in the way of you expressing your vision?
KW: There’s only so much gallery space. That’s a big one.
JB: How many exhibitions do you get to mount in a year?
KW: That is unclear at this time. (laughing.) What I could do, if it’s helpful at getting at some of these issues, is talk about how the “Earth Now” project happened. It’s a great example of how something gets generated.
I was new to the museum, I got here at the end of 2008. The idea was to do an exhibition that would showcase my arrival, but the mandate was that it be a landscape show, and primarily from the collection. That was what I started out with, and I was trying to find a way to distinguish it from other projects.
One of the things I found out was that we didn’t have a lot of landscape photography in the collection. So that made it more difficult.
JB: (laughing.) To pull together an exhibition from the collection?
KW: That’s right. And I also found out that there has been a lot of shows and a LOT of writing on landscape photography!
JB: Especially in the Southwest.
KW: I also found out I didn’t know much about it. And that was a real scramble. Turns out, I’d never done a show about landscape issues. That was new to me.
JB: I saw the show, and really enjoyed it. Our readers know I get to see a lot of work, which is a great part of my job. This show was unique in that you clearly incorporated a number of younger, unknown, and lesser-known artists alongside a lot of heavy hitters. Like Misrach and Robert Adams and such.
I don’t see that very often, in the museum context, and I’d love to see more of that. How did that come about? And were you trying to deviate from the norm in expanding the talent pool?
KW: Yes, I’m that deviant. (laughing.) I really like to contextualize things that way. I think that can be a really strong approach. But I have to say, I felt very boxed in regarding what I could do by what has already been done. The quickest out was to concentrate on contemporary work, because it hasn’t been done yet. It hasn’t been beaten to death. No one has written about it 17 times. But to look at it together with what preceded it.
People say this all the time about Ansel Adams and Stieglitz: Does anybody really need to see another show of those guys’ work? We hope there’s always richness to go back to in them, but there’s also so much more out there. It was a really great opportunity to tap into both sides of the equation. And also what motivated me was seeing how many people were doing work that seemed to be about human relationships with the environment. What’s more pressing right now? That’s really one of our top issues, I would say.
JB: I would agree. I turned my personal attention from food to nature. I thought it was a natural (no pun intended) progression.
KW: But the food is intertwined with that too.
JB: Of course. I want the projects to fit together, and to look at core aspects of the human condition. Our life on this planet is so limited.
KW: It’s interesting to think about that strategy. I’m just lumping you and I together, but are we doing something additive when projects overlap over interlock, or we are we just repeating ourselves? That’s always the question for me.
JB: What did you take away from your experience curating “Earth Now?” How did it change your perspective on contemporary environmental issues?
KW: I got a couple of really big things out of it. One is that I really do believe that Art can make a difference. I was very skeptical about that before, as were most of the artists I talked to. But it can be a real catalyst. And the thing that was most powerful to me was that images can reach people in a way that intellectual conversation maybe can’t. Because we put up our barriers to the words.
Most people, we’ve already decided what we believe, and we’re going to defend that. Whereas an image, because it’s not speaking to you on a factual basis, can be more emotional. It can get into you and stimulate contemplation. Of course, it all gets filtered through the brain eventually. But it can be a crack in the armor. A way you can reach people. I found that really powerful.
The other thing that I learned with that show was I’m less interested in telling; in being the expert. This isn’t unique to me, necessarily. But lately, or at this age, I’m less interested in being the person who provides you with the answers, than the person who guides you in the questions.
JB: I know a lot of artists view their job that way. Curation is a creative expression, as is Art-making. I mentioned earlier that you were bold enough to exhibit several artists whose work might not have been seen in a museum context before. How did you go about finding these lesser known artists?
KW: I want to address something you were saying earlier, which is, “What does Art mean?” We’re always pushing on that in the portfolio reviews. I expect an artist statement, and that the artist will know what he or she is doing. What they’re trying to communicate. These are all really hard-line things the reviewers can get very adamant about. But in the end, isn’t a picture always is more than we can say, isn’t that it’s strength? So in the past, I think I’ve seen my job as taking some of what you the artists are making, and draw it together and state the meaning in some kind of definitive way.
KW: I think that’s what I’ve done in the past. And now I feel more aligned with what you guys are doing, which is you give it a title, you say what your intent is, but you know that it really is much more than that. It has this life out in the world that is far beyond you. Beyond your imaginings, even.
JB: We hope. That’s the best case scenario.
KW: Right. So I no longer want to decide on or dictate the meaning. I want to participate in making the meaning. I’m one of the hands it passed through. An interpreter, sure, but not the final answer.
JB: In some sense, you’re a gate-keeper to the audience. In 2012, it’s a little different, because people can run their own shows now. But historically, at least, the audience participated through the institution. But I asked how you found the artists, and then you mentioned portfolio reviews. So I’m guessing that’s the way you’re finding the new work?
KW: That’s right. And referrals from other curators and seeing who pops up in juried shows and online.
JB: I think a lot of photographers are a little resentful that they’re expected to both speak and write about their work at a high level. But most photographers are visual communicators, which is why they’ve gravitated towards this medium. As a talented writer yourself, how do you feel about those expectations for photographers?
KW: That’s a good one to touch on. But I’m going to say one other thing before I forget. I like being the go-between. I like being the conduit between the artist and the public. It’s an amazing role to have. Putting people together with pictures is one of the greatest parts of my job.
But increasingly, if we’re saying that words are not the way things are communicated, or words aren’t the most effective way that things are communicated, then what is my role? That becomes a very interesting question.
I was just talking about that with someone who’s been around the block a little, I think it was Michael Berman. Talking about artist statements, he bluntly said, “The artist can’t do that. They can’t be expected to make the work and to write about it.” I’m someone who’s always pushing on the artist statements, but I really had to laugh. There was just so much truth in it.