40 under 40: The Craft of Assisting a Curator
October 5, 2012
We sat down with Debrah Dunner, curatorial assistant at the museum's Renwick Gallery, to ask her about the experience of helping curator Nicholas Bell put together 40 under 40: Craft Futures. Dunner worked for two years alongside Bell ensuring the exhibition content and catalogue came together.
Eye Level: You have a master's degree in Art and Museum Studies from a combined program at Georgetown University and Sotheby's Institute of Art. You also worked as an intern for a year at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston before being hired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum to help produce 40 under 40: Craft Futures. Do you feel your background prepared you for this job?
Debrah Dunner: Yes! I also earned a dual bachelors in Art History and Art Education from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), a degree that focused heavily on contemporary craft, so I was already pretty familiar with the field. While at MassArt, I became aware of several artists featured in 40 under 40 including Dave Cole, Nick Dong, and Lauren Kalman (who also is a MassArt graduate). In fact, while I was a student there I experienced Dong's Enlightenment Room, which was a part of a group exhibition that also included work by Kalman and Jennifer Crupi.
EL: What was your first impression of curator Nicholas Bell's ideas for the exhibition? Did this change over the course of the planning process?
DD: I thought it was the most exciting exhibition idea I had heard in a long time. The idea of 40 artists under the age of 40 isn't exactly novel, but bringing together a group of artists who are quietly redefining an entire field is quite exhilarating. My perspective on contemporary craft and art shifted from the preconceived notions I had formed in school to considerations of different materials and processes. My personal view of the field expanded to focus on not just the end product, but the process of the hand as well. Artists working in the field today are much more conceptual than past generations, although they are still working within a traditional context. It was interesting to see how these two threads converged together and lent themselves to organically redefining the field.
I also learned to think much more critically about art in a way I had not previously mastered. There were times when Nicholas would say "yes" or "no" to someone's work and I would ask him to explain his reasoning. His explanations were always insightful and intuitive even if we did not agree. It was an invaluable experience for me.
EL: We imagine it was pretty fascinating working with Nicholas to select the 40 artists for the exhibition. Can you share one or two anecdotes from that process with our readers?
DD: One of the few requirements of the exhibition was that every artist had to be born since 1972. There were more than a handful of times where I found myself picking up the phone and asking a complete stranger for his or her birth year. It was a bit awkward at times, trying to convince them that the Smithsonian American Art Museum was calling to find out the year they were born. One woman did not believe me and refused to answer the question. I guess we'll never know if she should have been included!
EL: What was it like trying to corral submissions from 40 artists, and keep everything organized?
DD: Working on this exhibition certainly helped sharpen my project management skills. Organization was a must for a show of this scope. If I wasn't organized, then it would have been nearly impossible to relay all the necessary information to produce the catalogue and exhibition, and it would have made everyone's job--throughout many different departments--very difficult. As for the artists themselves, with such a large group you are always going to have a variety of different personalities. As the planning for the exhibition progressed I was able to learn how they operated, so I knew how best to approach them. I really enjoyed getting to know each artist on a more personal level. That is something I will miss.
EL: We understand that one of the 40 artists, Jeff Garner, dressed you for the exhibition opening in one of his own designs. What was that like?
DD: The entire week of the opening was filled with such anticipation and excitement, so wearing an original Prophetik design for the party was the icing on a delicious cake. I have never felt more beautiful, and Jeff Garner's designs are amazing and refreshing. It was truly a highlight of the entire project.
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