Exploring curation across the pond

Published 3 April 2019

John Heffernan, head of exhibitions at Jupiter Artland, received a Jonathan Ruffer grant to research curatorial approaches within the private museum sector in the US. Here he talks about the experience and what he learnt.

Jupiter Artland was nominated for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016. This led to a whirlwind year for us, opening up the foundation to a variety of new opportunities. One of these was the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants scheme, which offers support to museum curators across the country in developing research to benefit their professional development.

We operate differently to other museums in the UK, in that we have a typically American museum model that relies on non-governmental support to achieve our mission. This comprises donations from our patrons, tickets sales for entry, our membership scheme, and various courses and events we run. This can have advantages – like not being bound to the framework of RFO funding criteria and tight timescales – but there are still challenges.

This led me to consider how privately run museums in the US curate their programmes, and what learnings there might be for UK museums. And so, with the help of a Ruffer grant, I travelled to the States to find out more.

Heading Stateside

My first port of call was Storm King Art Center, one hour north of New York. Founded in 1960, its collection is spread across 500 acres and includes site-specific work, as well as long-term loans from various artists’ estates. Much like Jupiter Artland, the exhibition programme includes temporary sited works in the landscape and a gallery programme in the main museum building.

Following an interesting studio visit with visual and performance-based artist, Liz Magic Laser (we’re delighted to feature Laser in our Spring programme this year) in Brooklyn, and on just a few hours’ sleep, I made my way to Boston to meet with curator Scout Hutchinson at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, who filled me in on their impressive history.

Julian de Cordova (1851-1945), a successful tea broker and merchant, handed over his property to the town of Lincoln in 1930 with the stipulation that his estate would become a public museum after his death. For Julian, the visual arts served as a medium for self-improvement and enlightenment – a philosophy that’s still very much alive today in their programme.

The spirit and philosophy of deCordova reminded me of what lies at the heart of Jupiter Artland where art, nature and philanthropy are combined to enrich and improve appreciation through the unique landscape and collection.

A dip in the ocean

Next on the itinerary was Miami - perhaps the hub for private contemporary art collections in the US, which is made up of the de la Cruz Collection, the Rubell Family Collection, the Marguillies Collection and the ICA Miami, to name but a few.

By far the most comprehensive and innovative was the de la Cruz Collection, which offered a wide-ranging display of works in a thoughtful and relevant presentation across three floors, housed within a purpose-made building designed by John Marquette and opened to the public in 2009.

In many ways, Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz have managed to detach the collection from their personal egos, presenting a space of museum quality; which was something a relief after coming across many spaces that arguably act more as an epitaph to an individual than as a basis for a publicly accessible collection. Ultimately, collections should be about the art and not the personality of the collector.

From Florida to Missouri

Next, I set off for a bitterly cold St. Louis – home to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Having opened in 2001 with a space designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the Pulitzer offers a very different approach. A non-collecting institution, the museum is run by Cara Starke, and I was lucky enough to attend a private tour by her, visiting the stunning gallery spaces and the current works on show by understated Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928).

Cara’s programme involved collaborations with other organisations/individuals, including the St. Louis Symphony and poet Bhanu Kapil, addressing the cultural fabric of the city while retaining an international perspective. This is definitely an unusual approach for a private organisation, but one that creates a hugely positive impact on audiences. They even go as far as consulting their audiences in display methods, and – in the Rosso – visitors are encouraged to choose their own lighting to discover the depths behind curating exhibitions.

Last stop Texas

My last port of call was the great city of Dallas – home to another fantastic selection of private museums and art foundations which have together formed a substantial visual arts scene.

A real highlight was the Nasher Sculpture Centre. I met with chief curator Jed Morse who shared the ins and outs of the collection and exhibition programme, including Kathryn Andrews in their main gallery and Michael Dean within their Sightings programme (aiming to support international artists who haven’t shown widely in the US). Nasher use innovative methods to display their collection of over 3000 works. Each artist who exhibits in the main gallery space is asked to select pieces from the archive to be shown in their large second space, which offers a link between the importance of collecting and the influence it has on contemporary artistic practice.

Southern hospitality stood up to its reputation as Michael Goss of the Goss-Michael Foundation offered me a tour of their vast collection of – the biggest in the US – before whizzing around town to visit some of Dallas’s newer gallery spaces, including And Now and North Park Centre, a large enclosed upscale shopping mall which displays many of the Nasher family’s prized artworks. Here, you can sip Starbucks, shop at Macy’s and experience installations by artists Ivan Navarro, Sarah Braman and Frank Stella. The mall receives over 26 million visitors each year and certainly challenges the role of presenting public art.

Private museums in the US are the cornerstone of the artistic communities they support. Not only do they host collections of national importance, but they generate a career path for artists where collectors and artists work together – a relationship that is often separated by the middle – museums – in the UK.

Bringing it all back home

Coming home reminded me how central Jupiter Artland has become to the Scottish and UK’s art scene in a relatively short period of time (we celebrate our 10th anniversary next year). My experience in the US has proved really valuable in helping to think about how we’ll continue to strengthen and develop our offering.

For example, many of the American institutions produce substantial publications to accompany their exhibitions and projects. I realised that this was especially important for the many emerging artists that we work with and this year we will see our first publication launch by Marco Giordano. The book will strengthen our annual temporary commission to support an emerging artist in the production of outdoor work and provide the kind of critical context that’s so often overlooked during an artist’s early career. While, Pulitzer showed me that you can engage with audiences through other art forms too, which has led to our expanded events programme this year.

I set out to understand the differences in how private institutions curate, but what was more evident was how private museums innovate by establishing unique partnerships, strong relationships with artists and local communities, and how they fundraise through several methods to produce ambitious projects. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but with all this in mind, I hope that Jupiter Artland will continue to develop, as well as help others, and lead open and practical conversations on the subject in the future.

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