What are museums without their curators? Who else would dedicate their time and responsibility to the cataloguing, maintenance, and interpretation of an institution’s collections?
For Anastasia James, Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, the role of the curator as storyteller is what has drawn her to this kind of work. This semester, James has worked hard with her team on the curatorial design of not one, but three new exhibitions at the Dorsky. We spoke with her to learn more about her love of history and art, her mission as a curator at a university museum, and what visitors at the Dorsky can expect from the fall exhibitions.
How long have you been working in museums?
I have been working in museums for 10+ years in various curatorial capacities.
What made you want to be a curator?
I knew I wanted to work in museums from a very early age. I have always been curious about history. Fun fact: I began volunteering for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History when I was about 10 so it is never too young to start! Joking aside, the path to being a curator isn’t always easy and I would say that the reason I stayed on the path was due to a number of mentors who have, over the years, provided encouragement and support in ways that have deeply affected me and I am grateful from their support.
What’s your favorite thing about being a curator?
Hands down, my favorite thing about being a curator is that I get to tell and share stories through the display of art and the creation of catalogs. I genuinely believe that it is through the making of art and the sharing of diverse stories that communities become stronger and strangers become allies. Although I have a sophisticated understanding and passion for art and culture, I like to play with the idea of expertise by promoting a variety of voices in order to make the arts accessible to a more diverse audience. A few ways that I do this is through the display of both popular and fine art forms, a prioritization of accessible language in the galleries, and through more playful types of programming that challenge the format of the stuffy lecture.
When did you officially start at the Dorsky?
I began my position as Curator of Exhibitions and Programs about a year ago, Fall 2017.
What’s it like working in a university museum?
Early formative experiences, youth programs in fact, opened the door to a career where, from my position of privilege in cultural institutions, I have been able to provide safe spaces for people through the conduit of exhibitions and programs. One of the main reasons I accepted this position was because I knew that I would be working for and with a diverse student body. At SUNY New Paltz, where the student body is majority minority, I want to say to the students that The Dorsky sees them and that we value diversity and inclusion and that it is important to me that this be reflected in our programming.
Tell me about the exhibitions coming up this semester at the Dorsky.
This semester we are opening three new exciting exhibitions: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: The Trans List, an exhibition by the acclaimed photographer of 40 portraits of transgender individuals curated by me; Alive and Yelling: Trans Zines and Radical Subcultures curated by two SUNY New Paltz students in conversation with and in reaction to The Trans List; and Community and Continuity: Native American Art of New York curated by Gwendolyn Saul and John P. Hart of the New York State Museum. Additionally, on view are works from our permanent collection and Time Travelers: Hudson Valley Artists 2018.
David Bunn Martine, Mandush, Shinnecock Sachem of the 17th Century, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, courtesy the New York State Museum.
What’s your vision for the 2018-2019 school year?
My vision for the upcoming school year is to create exhibitions, programs, and publications that prioritize alternative narratives–projects that aim to not only bring visibility to diverse identities, but empathy, understanding, and acceptance.
What’s the most exciting exhibition and/or program happening this semester?
One exciting program we have on the calendar is a performance by author, actor, gender theorist, recovering Scientologist, and transgender pioneer Kate Bornstein. I polled the students on who, out of the subjects of The Trans List, did they want to visit our campus and unanimously they told me Kate. So, I made it happen. She will be performing a brand-new performance titled, “Trans: Just for the Fun of It.” I expect a lot of buzz around this event as she is currently starring in the Broadway play “Straight White Men.”
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Alok Vaid-Menon, 2016, inkjet print, courtesy the artist; Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Laverne Cox, 2015, inkjet print, courtesy the artist.
Do you have a favorite exhibition you’ve worked on since you started working in museums?
Oh, there are so many! I have been so privileged to work on exhibitions and publications with an incredible group of artists. As I continue to develop my curatorial voice, it has become a priority for me to exhibit artists whose practice turns a critical eye on subjects of identity. Most recently, my retrospective, “Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show” which travelled from the Contemporary Jewish Museum, SF to the ICA Philadelphia and then the CAM Houston featured 30 years of work that seamlessly blended comedy and neurosis in such a way that questions about identity become a commentary on the self/other. In addition to curating, I have also edited a number of books including “Billy Name: The Silver Age, Works from Andy Warhol’s Factory” and “Brigid Berlin: Polaroids.” I see my editorial work as an extension of my curatorial practice and the process of making a book is very similar to curating an exhibition in that it requires prolonged engagement with an artist or their work which is something I find extremely rewarding.
Tell me one fun fact about yourself – museum/art-related or otherwise!
My first job in the art world involved cataloging Andy Warhol’s underwear.Learn more about the Dorsky’s current exhibitions here.