Art Term Tuesday: Curator

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

A curator is, typically, an employee of a museum or gallery who manages a collection of artwork or artifacts and can interpret their importance to the world at large. We have a few curators on staff at FWMoA, and we offer the chance to explore the job to any staff member who shows a passion for a select artist, process, or movement! We have hosted exhibitions curated by other institutions and galleries, as well as collaborations with independent curators. These independent curators have emerged only in the last few decades, but their impact is strong as their outside eye can help liven up an exhibition. Curation has developed differently in the digital age – ever heard of StichFix or BlueApron? They curate their items, just in a different way than museums or other cultural institutions.

Three male artists (left to right) Lucien Shapiro, Ben Venom, and Ravi Zupa stand in front of one of Ben Venom's quilts at an exhibition at FWMoA.
Some of the connections Josef Zimmerman, Curator of Contemporary Art, has made is bringing these three dissimilar artists together in one exhibition, “Reclamation: The Art of Lucien Shapiro, Ben Venom, and Ravi Zupa” (left to right). Photo courtesy of Shaun Roberts.

From Latin origins, curators were a bit like civil servants in ancient Rome, as the root word means to watch over, or be a guardian. That developed over time into the role of the Curate of a parish, a priest who took care of the souls of their parish, and then gradually became associated with the profession many think of today. The word is still changing now, as digital media also necessitates curation and organization, interpretation and archiving. There are now even biocurators, who are professional scientists that organize and validate information from Model Organism Databases, but that is getting way beyond the scope of my knowledge! 

The word curation has expanded beyond the confines of museums or historic houses and now is used in many different places. There are advertisements for “specially curated cheeses” or wines, a curated list of books that a famous celebrity recommends, or a curated collection of musical artists performing at an exclusive club. To curate something day-to-day means to organize, to put your stamp of approval on something, to give your collection of objects more merit than someone else’s. It doesn’t mean that you have researched and written scholarly papers on these objects, investigated their history and trauma, or traced the artwork’s life through war and reemergence. More often it means “I like these things and think others will too so here they are all together.” Marketers can take it further (guilty!), claiming this line of clothing is especially chosen for you this spring if only you’ll buy it or this performance by these artists is a once in a lifetime experience as it will never happen again, so buy this festival ticket. “Curator” in layman’s terms has lost quite a bit of its impact, but the work of Curators with a capital “C” is still integral to the museum experience.

Curator Sachi Yanari-Rizzo stands at the head of a large oak table. In front of her are pictures of over 40 prints by Brown County, Indiana artists. She is using her oak tables to sort the photos, or curate them into groups, before hanging the actual works in the exhibition.
Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings, works to curate the pieces to the exhibition “The Ideal Sketching Ground: Prints by the Artists of Brown County” in the Print & Drawing Study Center at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Curators are specialists in an area of focus, or their field. On our staff at FWMoA we have Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, the Curator of Prints & Drawings; Lauren Wolfer, the Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives; and Josef Zimmerman, Curator of Contemporary Art. Sachi has curated numerous exhibits during her time at FWMoA, most recently being the exhibition Margaret Burroughs: Faces of My People in December of 2019. Her office is located in the Print & Drawing Study Center where she is surrounded by more than 20 flat files, or storage cabinets, where a majority of our flat, unframed objects are kept. Sachi happily curates a variety of work to display in the space, a constantly rotating exhibit of pieces from our permanent collection for anyone who stops by or makes an appointment. In larger institutions, there may be several print curators, each focusing on a different time period, technique, or artist. Sachi, and all of our curators, must be well versed on various artists, processes, and time periods in their area of focus!

Josef Zimmerman is one of our strongest links to contemporary artists working today. He has fostered connections with galleries on both coasts, built friendships with individual artists, and networked across the nation to bring art from the here and now to us in the Midwest. As a contemporary art curator, Josef is always working to be aware of what new movements are being made, finding where they start, and getting ahead of the wave. Some of the artists he has helped bring to Fort Wayne left here to have grand solo shows in big city museums or internationally, but our visitors saw them first! Josef also works with independent curators, others like him who are tracking the evolution of art history as it happens, guiding the narrative of who’s who and what’s what as it is made. Ken Harman is the Director and Head Curator at Hashimoto Contemporary, a prestigious gallery with locations in New York and California, and he and Josef have worked together on several exhibitions to bring artists from the gallery scene to the museum level. 

Lauren Wolfer is a special curator for the museum, as she is in charge of our Special Collections & Archives initiative where we work with artists who might not have gotten the recognition they deserved in their time but should be known by future generations for their contributions to art history. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is becoming an archive for these artists’ works, meaning we act as a repository for a large amount of their works that span their entire career, where future scholars can come to explore the breadth and depth of their careers by examining their whole body of work. Scholars can write about Van Gogh and Picasso as many times as they like, but eventually they start to say the same thing, drawing similar conclusions. Finding an archive of work that is just as good, just as impactful and influential, in one place is a scholar’s dream, and we are prepared to answer that dream! 

Elizabeth Kilmer and Lauren Wolfer hold a measuring tape against the wall as they work to hang artworks for a curated exhibition at Indiana Tech.
Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager (left) and Lauren Wolfer work to hang a show at Indiana Tech. This show was curated by Lauren as part of her duties as Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As you can see, being a curator means many things in modern times just as it meant many things over time. It will continue to change as culture changes! As Curators, our team at FWMoA work to preserve important aspects of art history for future generations; and their work is selective and distinctly important to the developing story of humans, in a way that curated cheese boards is not. Our team is focused and yet broad, refined but open to different views, as the story we tell is lasting. Curators do the work to bring it all together and help us interpret the artists and their work!

The next time you are able to visit FWMoA, examine our exhibitions from a curatorial point of view. What story is the curator telling with the objects they’ve chosen? Would you tell it a different way?

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