Laura Mart (MAPH '14) is a curator at the Skirball Cultural Center and was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her work, how her MAPH experience has helped her in her career, and her most recent exhibition, El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer (on view October 17, 2019 - March 8, 2020).
Tell us a little about Skirball Cultural Center and the work you do there.
The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is one of the largest Jewish cultural institutions in the United States. Its mission is rooted in American democratic ideals of freedom and equality. The Skirball welcomes people of all communities and generations to participate in cultural experiences that celebrate discovery and hope, foster human connections, and call upon us to help build a more just society.
The Skirball presents museum exhibitions, concert series, films, lectures, and educational programs. The Skirball Museum features two permanent exhibitions: Visions and Values, which focuses on the history of Jewish life from antiquity to the present, and Noah’s Ark, which is geared at children and families and fosters values of stewardship, cooperation, and justice through interactive play. The Skirball also presents approximately six temporary exhibitions per year that focus on themes of justice and the contributions of prominent Jewish Americans to the arts, sciences, and popular culture.
I am responsible for both the permanent and temporary exhibitions. In the past few years, I have curated five original exhibitions, led two permanent gallery re-installations, identified two traveling exhibitions for the Skirball to host, and contributed in some way, large or small, to nearly every exhibition we have presented since I started at the Skirball in 2014.
I know you’ve held several positions at Skirball. How did you think about developing your career within an arts organization?
There is a lot of flexibility with the exhibitions I can propose and curate. I recognized early on that it could be a place with a lot of opportunities to develop my skills. On a practical level, I have developed my career through patience, hard work, and luck, and seeking advice from mentors in senior staff positions here and at other institutions.
Starting as a limited-term grant-funded research assistant, job security was not something I assumed I would have. My main goal was to see the project I had been hired to work on through to completion. I demonstrated to museum leadership that I was dedicated to the project and to the institution, and that my skills were solid, and that paid off. About a year after I was hired, the curator in charge of the project went to work for another institution, leaving me as the person with the most project expertise. Quickly I was promoted, first to project-based assistant curator, and then hired as a staff curator when a permanent position became available. I now propose and curate original exhibitions, which allows me to explore the intersection of art, history, and justice - exactly what I set out to do when I decided to pursue curatorial work.
What is the most rewarding part of the work you do?
The most rewarding part of the work for me is to talk to people who are moved by the exhibitions we present. To know that what I do has real impact on discourse, at both the level of scholarship, art criticism, and press on the one hand, and the experience of individual visitors on the other, makes culture work deeply satisfying.
I know curatorial work involves wearing many different hats. What is your favorite part of curation?
My favorite part of curatorial work is developing relationships with artists, visiting their spaces, and being trusted to present and interpret their work. I also enjoy talking about ideas, and then making those thoughts into something tangible in a physical space for the public to engage with. I am lucky to have many interlocutors in developing curatorial ideas - from artists, fellow curators and scholar-consultants to museum educators, communications professionals, docents, and student interns.
What did you do during your time in MAPH that helped you prepare for the work you do now?
Research! My thesis research did a good job to prepare me for the kind of research I would be doing as a curator: compiling annotated bibliographies and biographies, conducting museum collections research, visiting special collections and prints and photographs study rooms, and interviewing living subjects, among other research modalities. My thesis advisor, Claudia Brittenham, taught me a lot about conducting research, especially the importance of looking at primary sources in person wherever possible, connecting with specialists in the field, and carefully evaluating the arguments, assumptions, and intentions of any written sources.
I also audited a course at the Smart Museum that I did not enroll in because I was already at my course limit: Nineteenth-Century Prints, taught by Anne Leonard. It was a great opportunity to be immersed in the subject matter, study and discuss original artworks close-up, and curate an exhibition as a group project. This course gave me familiarity with museum best practices like conservation standards and object handling, as well as a sense of how to develop a conceptual framework and manage a collaborative project.
Tell us a bit more about the current exhibit, El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer, and how it came to be at Skirball.
El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer is an exhibition that looks at the treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border over the past two decades. It asks us to consider who we are and who we want to be as Americans when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings.
The artist, Tom Kiefer, began working as a part-time janitor at a Customs and Border Protection facility near Ajo, Arizona in 2003, in order to support himself while undertaking a different long-term photographic project that centered on exploring the landscape and infrastructure of the American west. The facility where he worked was the first place that Border Patrol agents would bring migrants who had been arrested crossing the desert, in most cases where they would begin the process of detention and deportation. As part of this intake process, the Border Patrol agents would confiscate from the migrants any belongings they deemed to be “non-essential” or “potentially lethal” - including food, shoelaces, soap, extra clothing, blankets, cell phones, water bottles, personal letters, and religious items. In most cases, these are items most people would consider to be quite important if not absolutely necessary for hygiene, comfort, and survival.
Kiefer, who found these possessions while taking out the trash, was outraged that people in incredibly vulnerable positions were being stripped of their belongings, and that these items that migrants needed for their dangerous journeys were being sent to the landfill. He began salvaging them, hiding them in the bins of food that he had permission to sort out from the garbage and donate to a local food pantry. He feels a great emotional weight to the objects - that because of their history they carry special significance - and he did not initially know how he might respond to that. Ultimately, he returned to his background as a photographer and a graphic designer, and began to photograph the migrants’ belongings in a way that he feels conveys his deep respect for the history of the objects and for the people who carried them.
Many of these items bear hints as to their former owners’ aspirations, experiences, and memories: a bejeweled eyelash curler, flash cards with English words, a love letter, a packing list. Kiefer photographs the belongings on brightly-colored backgrounds with clear lighting. Some of the items are sorted by type and carefully arranged into symmetrical grids, mandala-like patterns, and frame-filling compositions that give a sense of their sheer numbers and, by proxy, of the number of people who carried them. Others, often items whose impact lies not in their numbers but in their individuality, are photographed in smaller, more intimate and portrait-like photographs.
I proposed the exhibition after I saw Kiefer’s photograph of a group of water bottles on Instagram, which is a great curatorial research tool since so many contemporary artists use it to share their work. The work struck me on an emotional level, and I immediately saw its strong resonance with the Skirball’s mission: in order to build a more just society where all are welcome, we need to address our key injustices as a nation. I knew it would be an important exhibition for the Skirball to present. As I planned the exhibition, it became clear that contextualizing the photographs with the real experiences of migrants, and promoting the work of organizations that provide legal and humanitarian aid to migrants, would be key pieces to turn reflection into action and maximize the exhibition’s impact.
Kiefer stopped working for Customs and Border Protection in 2014, well before the implementation of the inhumane and deadly immigration policies of the current administration. Given this, one of the things that often strikes me about the work is how the acceptance of seemingly smaller injustices, such as the confiscation of a bar of soap or a rosary, can pave the way for the acceptance of larger injustices in the future. I hope that the exhibition prompts viewers to consider their own role and their own voice in advocating for the United States to become a more just society for all.
MAPH has started a new curatorial option. What advice would you give students interested in curation?
If you are interested in a curatorial profession, do your research and learn what to expect of the nuts and bolts of the job. Reach out to curators and other museum professionals in your professional networks and request informational interviews. Your professors can be great resources for this. Study job postings to learn what skills museums look for as they are hiring. Also think about independent options: galleries, museums, biennials, fairs, and online platforms work with independent curators to develop exhibitions.
Get involved in a curatorial project, whether as an intern at an institution, as part of a graduate school project, or organize your own exhibition at a DIY space. Do whatever you can do to get hands-on experience. If you have time, try to intern if you can while in graduate school or after you graduate. Institutional experience often carries the most weight for prospective institutional employers.
Do not be afraid to develop a niche specialization, as this can sometimes be your foot in the door for a very competitive field. My MA thesis on early twentieth century Mexican art gave me the Spanish language skills and art-historical research specialization to be hired as a research assistant on a limited-term project. From there, fortitude, hard work, and opportunity have led to a permanent curatorial position and career advancement. I’m now a generalist by necessity - I have led projects on Los Angeles muralism and graffiti art, ancient Near Eastern archaeology, Jewish immigration to America, and the contemporary US-Mexico Border. However, for an entry-level position, having a specialization or skill that other people do not can give you an advantage.
Do you have a favorite exhibition you’ve worked on or a recommendations for an exhibition you think others should see?
El Sueño Americano / The American Dream has been the most professionally and personally rewarding exhibition I have worked on. Connecting with the artist, hearing migrants’ stories, meeting leaders of the humanitarian and immigrants’ rights communities, and bearing witness to memorials for those who have lost their lives while attempting to cross the desert has been profoundly moving and will impact me and the work I do for years to come.
As for a recommendation, everyone should go see Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. It is a truly remarkable exhibition that synthesizes a broad range of Black artistic production and political thought that had a profound impact on 20th-century culture. I loved it so much I saw it at two separate venues. It’s at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until March 15, 2020.