Alum discusses future of museums and curatorship

Darsie Alexander M.A. ’91, curator, spoke on the future of museums and the curatorial practice. Photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of
Darsie Alexander M.A. ’91, curator, spoke on the future of museums and the curatorial practice. Photo courtesy of

This Wednesday, Darsie Alexander M.A. ’91, former Chief Curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, addressed approximately 30 students, faculty and community members in Lawrence Hall. Alexander was frank and funny in her astute and compelling evaluation of modern, evolving curatorial practice. The presentation combined autobiography and analysis of Alexander’s professional experiences. The curator opened her talk with an anecdote from her time at the College, where she “poured [her] heart and soul” into a paper on Donatello’s Mary Magdalene. Alexander was shocked when her professor immediately returned the paper, unmarked save two large, red words written across its top: “Who Cares?” Alexander stated this was “the most important question I’ve ever had in my career and maybe my life.” She encouraged student listeners to consider the viewer’s relationship to a piece, as well as what makes and keeps it relevant. She acknowledged the unfortunate yet widespread perception that art is a “luxury,” and demanded curators “explain why it is important to this day and age.” Alexander highlighted the rise of a “drive toward live experience, live events as part of an artistic program.” Exhibitions that work to engage viewers more wholly through interactive and personal experiences are trending, and Alexander sees “a generation of artists [that]…continues to make work that is deeply invested in social issues of the time.” These pieces are often intensely intimate and psychological; visitors stared into the eyes of Marina Abramović in “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art and covered blank walls and floor with their own drawings and paintings in Pawel Althamer’s “The Neighbors” at the New Museum. Alexander did, however admit her own intermittent skepticism when describing these new, more open and interactive forms of art, addressing the difficulty in distinguishing “important, lasting and significant work” from “the rest.” However, she concluded, “whether this is serious art [or not] is a secondary consideration when you see the powerful impact on people.” Alexander also identifies mobility and malleability as important qualities of modern art: “Artists are always ahead of where we are.” The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s tour of the country in a white minibus and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s “Homeless Vehicle Project” serve as examples of these compact and flexible art forms. Alexander traced her own evolution as a curator from a singular to collective method of working and from a “controlled” to “improvisational approach” to her subject matter. While before, curators learned everything about a topic, determined what they had to say, and “argue[d] the hell out of that position,” they must increasingly “adapt [their] process to what is happening in the field,” often giving over a certain amount of authority in the process. Alexander advocates recognizing designers as artists and giving their opinions more weight, as well as opening decision-making to the public. For Benches and Binoculars, an exhibition curated by Alexander, the Walker established a website voting system that allowed patrons to choose the works to be included in the show. Although many curators criticize Alexander’s thinking, reluctant to forgo authority in selection, suggesting that to do so fails to respect the works, Alexander advocates against the tendency for curators to become entrenched in narrow areas in curating and asserts, “holding on to expertise and territory can really hold a place back.” She says her “most interesting projects have been the ones where I’ve given away my authority.” Alexander also noted the institutional shifts that have occurred during her time in the field, such as a “shared authorship” subsuming an individual voice. Museums are evolving to be more complete experiences, considering the impact of spaces as seemingly mundane as restaurants, elevators and bathrooms. She also mentioned the growing importance of other “non-exhibition” platforms like websites, programs, lectures and items for museum shops. Alexander began her career as a photography curator for the Museum of Modern Art. Before her stint at Walker, Alexander was Senior Curator and Department Head of Contemporary Art at The Baltimore Museum of Art. Her exhibitions at the Walker include Benches and Binoculars and 2015’s coming International Pop. For “International Pop,” Alexander has collaborated with an intergenerational and global forum to discuss the definition of pop art. On March 1 she left the Walker in order to be executive director of the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.

One comment

  1. You know it is the same with everything in life.
    You’d think experience teaches us anything, but that’s so rare.
    Disagree if you will but the world changes, and none of us have no control over it.
    E.g., imagine Obama had any balls to put Putin to his place, but it seems like it’s not happening, welcome third world war.
    A profound post, thanks!

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