Q&A: amy galpin
By Jess T. Dugan | December 1, 2016
Amy Galpin is Curator of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Previously Galpin was Associate Curator, Art of the Americas at the San Diego Museum of Art. In San Diego, she curated Behold, America! Art of the United States from Three San Diego Museums, a 2012 collaboration between the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Other projects for the San Diego Museum of Art include the group exhibition Women, War, and Industry and solo exhibitions with Hugo Crosthwaite, scott b. davis, Marianela de la Hoz, Noah Doely, and Rubén Ortiz-Torres. Other exhibitions include Translating Revolution: U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralism (National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, 2010), Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico from California (Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2014), Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage (Cornell Fine Arts Museum, 2014), Women and Abstraction (Cornell Fine Arts Museum, 2015) and Jess T. Dugan: Every breath we drew (Cornell Fine Arts Museum, 2015). She has published articles and reviews in art ltd, Panorama, and American Art Review. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Jess T. Dugan: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you discover your passion for art and what led you to your current position as a curator?
Amy Galpin: I have many fond memories of going to museums as a child; I loved visiting museums with my parents on trips and school field trips to museums. I remember the excitement of seeing Francisco del Goya’s portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga at the Met—and whenever I see it again, it’s like seeing an old friend. My mom took me to see exhibitions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work (middle school) and Frida Kahlo (high school). Both experiences stick in my mind as formative. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I began seriously thinking about museum work as a profession. After taking a class on Mexican modernism with Janet Brody Esser at San Diego State, I was hooked and I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in art history. During the same time, I was an intern at the Museum of Man in San Diego and I volunteered at El Centro Cultural de la Raza. For many years, I wasn’t sure if I would be a professor or a curator. I like both professions very much. The experience of interning and later working on a show at the National Museum of Mexican Art sealed the deal for me to be a curator. I find the process of bringing together objects creative and challenging. I like working with different people from various departments across a museum to realize an exhibition. Moreover, I am very much driven by the mandate to produce exhibitions for broad audiences, not just the scholarly community.
JTD: Prior to pursuing a Ph.D in art history, you earned a M.A. in Latin American Studies. According to the press release of your appointment to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, your “expertise ranges from pre-Columbian to contemporary American and Mexican modernism.” How would you describe your curatorial vision and to what extent is it influenced by your previous work in Latin American Studies? How do your diverse and expansive areas of interest converge in your current work?
AG: I consider myself to be a modern and contemporary specialist and an Americanist in the sense that the term applies to both the United States and Latin America. I am must fluent in artists moving back across the Mexico/U.S. Border. I believe that my degree in Latin American Studies reinforces an interdisciplinary approach in my work, forcing me to think about historical, political, and literary connections to the visual arts. I must admit the press release you speak of was quite generous in terms of my areas of “expertise.” I am knowledgeable about pre-Columbian and colonial art because I took a number of classes with Virginia Miller and Bebe Baird at the University of Illinois-Chicago. For a long time, I tried to be a colonial specialist, so I am interested in the presence of multiple cultures and the rich and varied art produced during the colonial period in Mexico. I think the impact of place, varied notions of performance, and the presence of hybridity are all present in Colonial Mexico and these are concepts that are quite applicable to contemporary art.
JTD: The CFAM recently received a very significant gift of contemporary works, the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art at Rollins College. Tell us about this collection. What are some of the highlights? How is it currently used and accessed? What are your hopes for its expansion?
AG: The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art consists of some 300 works given to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College by Barbara and Ted Alfond, who are 1968 graduates of the College. The formulation of this collection has been completely transformational for our institution, campus, and community. I feel incredibly lucky to work with the collection—to give tours of work by Carrie Mae Weems, Alfredo Jaar, Hank Willis Thomas, Maya Lin, among others, is such a privilege.
Some of the highlights for me are work by artists that expand the narrow canon of art history dominated by few, and often by male artists. For example, a work by Rosalyn Drexler serves as an excellent example of Pop Art, while Rosemarie Castoro’s large-scale painting and Al Loving’s irregularly-shaped canvas exemplify Minimalism. I think there are a number of artists who leverage aesthetics to make political work such as Trevor Paglen, Richard Mosse, Jenny Holzer, and I would add you into that approach as well, although I don’t know whether you will like that! There is also a through line in the collection of text as image. Artists who interrogate language, who question process and the significance of the object, and suggest multiple meanings and modes of communication. Text-based artists in the collection include Lawrence Weiner, Darren Almond, Joseph Kosuth, Tracey Emin, and many others.
There’s a great deal of potential for this collection. I would like to see the Museum continue to collect in the period for which the Alfond Collection covers, 1960s to the present. I think because much of the collection is shown at the Alfond Inn, a hotel owned and operated by Rollins College, that the Museum has a responsibility to collect work that wouldn’t function as well within the hotel space such as fragile objects or 3-D sculpture. More broadly, we have been doing some of this work—acquiring work by Rina Banerjee, Whitfield Lovell, Dawoud Bey, Ramiro Gomez, Sadie Barnette, among others, to augment our contemporary holdings.
I think there’s so much more potential for education programming around this collection. As I mentioned, much of the collection is on view at an operating hotel. This creates lots of unique and non-traditional opportunities for engagement, but it can hinder others. I hope that in the future either the hotel or the museum can have more space to really program the collection through myriad paths.
JTD: You are deeply committed to work that is socially and politically engaged. Do you view the museum space as a catalyst for discussion and social change? If so, in what ways do you enact this within your exhibitions and programming?
AG: Absolutely! I think museums are sites for discussion, debate, and reflection. They can be spaces to challenge our preconceived notions or to feel a sense of community. Although I’ve worked on a lot of political projects, I want people from different political positions to be comfortable in museum spaces and within my exhibitions. It would be a lonely gallery if I curated exhibitions just for people who believe the same things that I do. One show I feel proud of is Women, War, and Industry at the San Diego Museum of Art. It was a broad exhibition of work by American artists that presented images of women in relation to war and industry. Many of the artists in the show were women, but not exclusively. The show began with WWI and WWII posters and ended with contemporary photography by An-My Lê and Catherine Opie and a large-scale drawing by Frohwak Two Feathers. San Diego has a large military community and I wanted them to be as welcome as anti-war activists. At the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, I created an exhibition titled Displacement: Symbols and Journeys. I wanted to put together the show because I was so tired of the hateful rhetoric dominating our airwaves leading up to the presidential election, and I was particularly concerned about conversations about immigration. I knew if I proposed a show that was too literal, it wouldn’t work as it would alienate many people. Of course there are things I would change in retrospect, but I was surprised by the emotional responses I gleaned from simply walking through the galleries and being stopped by visitors who wanted to have a conversation about the exhibition. This feedback was a surprise and it was exciting. You never know who you are reaching. Spending time in the galleries can be really illuminating.
JTD: What is your favorite part of being a curator? What is the most challenging part?
AG: These are the tough questions! Forgive me if I offer multiple responses.
It is incredibly satisfying to work with contemporary artists on an exhibition and to have the artists express approval of the realization of the final project. I love having deep conversations with visitors who are incredibly fluent in the history of art just as much as enjoy talking with visitors who are having their first experience being at a museum. I also still delight in working with objects. When a painting by Stanley Whitney was unpacked not too long ago, I literally applauded its arrival. I was so happy it found a new home and that we can work with and in proximity to this picture every day.
In terms of challenges, there are always challenges. One challenge that might be interesting to share is navigating feedback. Sometimes I feel in our field we are so sensitive to feedback (and certainly in other fields as well). If a visitor has negative feedback, then we have a meeting. If a work of art is viewed as controversial it becomes the talk of the town. I think that positive and negative feedback about the art, within reason, are all interactions with the art on view and ultimately positive. Of course, we must listen if the negative feedback grows in numbers—in those cases we have to check ourselves, create more moments for feedback, and address the feedback (I am thinking about what happened at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis here). However, the other day, I was walking through the galleries and I overheard two women talking about how this painting we have on view—a late post-Impressionist still life—was so ugly! I loved how resolute they were in their opinions and that their negative reaction to the piece sparked conversation between them. It wasn’t what I was going for when we installed that picture on the museum’s walls, but it was a reaction to a visual experience and it delighted me.
JTD: How do you discover new artists and work that interests you?
AG: In many ways—reading, going to museum and gallery exhibitions, attending art fairs, participating in portfolio reviews, talking to colleagues and artists. There are certain galleries, artists, blogs that I like to check in with over long periods of time. I like following artists, seeing how their work evolves over time and creating long term relationships with them. Many people hate art fairs, but it is an extraordinary opportunity to see lots of work and for me, I have nothing at stake, so I can’t get too wrapped up into the economics or the scene—perceived or real. Travel is key—but sometimes resources are limited.
JTD: What projects are currently on the horizon for you, and what are you most excited about at this moment?
AG: I have started working with Patrick Martínez on a solo show. We have four works in our collection by the artist that present people who have been victims of police brutality. I am super excited to bring his work to our community and to also stage the artist’s first solo show at a museum. He’s shown quite a bit, but this will be his first solo exhibition in a museum context. We are facilitating a new durational performance, Pieta, by artist Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz on March 21st. Wanda approached us to be the venue for the premiere. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the project develop.
Here’s some information from Wanda about the work. She states, “as a woman of color and mother to a small, brown boy, I am haunted by the inevitable truth that my son will experience trauma because of the color of his skin. He will be ostracized, questioned, confronted, contested, and presumed incompetent. He will be tested, taunted, harassed—and that is the easy part. What plagues me is much darker, scarier: Sirens, flashing red and blue lights, a knock at my door, somber faces and that somehow he asked for it. With all of the attention placed on the loss of life among young men of color at the hands of bias crimes, I reflect on a mother’s worst nightmare come true. This is not just a performance piece about social (in)justice, but a moment to grieve.”
I am very excited about this performance. It’s at a critical moment of development right now.