Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Curator: Elizabeth Siegel

Daniel W. Coburn (Half Price Books Cash Award)

Elizabeth Siegel is Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has worked for over ten years. She received her undergraduate degree at Yale and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is currently working on a major exhibition on the history and aesthetics of 3D photography and film.

Among her recent exhibitions are Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door, a retrospective traveling to the J. Paul Getty Museum and High Museum of Art; Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks, which traveled to the de Young Museum, San Francisco, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her books include Playing with Pictures; Taken by Design: Photography at the Institute of Design, 1937–1971; and most recently Galleries of Friendship and Fame: A History of Nineteenth-Century American Photograph Albums.

Siegel juried the Joyce Elaine Grant Exhibition at Texas Woman's University which opens today:
Tuesday February 25, 2014 and will be on view until March 19, 2014.

Far right: Ashley Jones (Imaging Spectrum Award)

Kalee Appleton: Can you describe your journey to becoming a curator at the Chicago Art Institute?

Elizabeth Siegel:
I had always loved art as a kid, and gravitated to photography in high school—I took classes in Boston (they didn’t offer it at my high school), and had a darkroom in the basement that I brought water down to in buckets. I continued making photographs in college and after, but at the same time I was beginning to learn about the history of photography. I realized first, that I wasn’t nearly as good as the many people who had come before me, and second, that the history itself was fascinating. I ended up going back to school to learn more—I got my Ph.D at the University of Chicago, focusing on the history of photography—and knew I wanted a career in a museum: I wanted to work with objects, with the public, and with a variety of skills including research and writing but also project management and connoisseurship. I had interned for several years at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, and was lucky enough to get a job as a research assistant at the Art Institute for the project that became Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design. I was hired as an assistant curator in 2001, and promoted to Associate Curator in 2007. I feel very lucky to have this job, where I am constantly learning!

 Far right: Megan Griffiths 

KA: What is the process of curating a photography exhibition? How does this vary from the jurying process?

The process certainly varies from show to show—an exhibit from the permanent collection vs. a loan show, a monographic exhibition vs. a thematic one, nineteenth century vs. contemporary. In all of them, the common thread is finding the best or most appropriate works from all the possible sources, conducting new research, and determining an installation and interpretive materials that will help bring the works and ideas to the public.

It is different from the jurying process in several ways: with an exhibition, I usually follow a theme, historical moment, idea, or particular artist, whereas with jurying a show I make selections from among the submissions presented to me; a different set of limitations is built in. With an exhibition, I try to present new research, and with a juried show I am presenting new work. With an exhibition I can go back into history to show precedents, and with a juried show the work I am showing is absolutely of the moment. In this particular case, the photographs ended up producing the emerging themes, rather than the other way around.

Ashley McDowell (Coupralux Award)

KA: What do you envision for the future of photography as an art form? Does the Art Institute of Chicago have a plan for future photographic acquisitions?

Photography has from its inception been a varied and variable medium, finding inroads in every aspect of daily life. Although I can’t predict the future of photography as an art form, I am sure that it will continue to engage the issues implicated by photography in its popular and utilitarian forms, including the increasing ubiquity of visual images; ease of use, manipulation, and circulation; and decentralization of image-making from the few to the many.

The Art Institute is an encyclopedic museum, and as such we continue to collect the most significant examples from across photography’s history. We have just completed a comprehensive review of the collection and are in the process of identifying—and filling—key holes in the collection, both historical and contemporary.

Clare Benson (Solo Show Award Winner)

KA: When looking over the 2013 JEG entries, what qualities were you looking for? How did your vision develop and come together during the jurying process? Was a theme created through the selection of work?

I went into the review process with no particular theme in mind, eager to see the submissions. It was certainly a difficult process, with different artists and a lot of strong work! I found that the photographs I gravitated to were in color, not overly manipulated, descriptive and clear. When they came together, it seemed like a few themes had emerged: environmental portraits with a strong narrative component, documentation of a shifting economy, depictions of intimacy, and works with a distinct sense of place. I ended up going deep rather than broad, showing more work from fewer artists so they could be in a more constructive dialogue with each other.

Installation images by Rachael Banks 

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