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Francine Weiss is well-known and loved by the Boston photography community. In her new position as Senior Curator at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island, she is expanding the role of photography as she reshapes the museum’s mission in one of the most popular tourist destinations in New England. As another Newport Jazz Festival approaches, discover how Francine is creating fresh relevance for her jewel of a museum and drawing new audiences with – what else – great photography!
Are you from New England and, if not, what brought you here?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and Ann Arbor, Michigan and, like so many others, came to New England for college. After that I stayed, working and and taking art classes at night. And then I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in American studies at Boston University. As a grad student, I specialized in the history of photography and American art and had a number of curatorial fellowships and jobs in nearby museums, including the MFA Boston, deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, and the Harvard University Art Museum. Dissertation fellowships took me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Research Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico and then to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC., after which I accepted a one-year position in the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art to work on two nineteenth-century photography exhibitions. In 2012, I returned to Boston to become the Curator at the Photographic Resource Center (PRC) and editor of Loupe magazine. Since September 2016, I have been the Senior Curator at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
I didn’t aim to be a curator in photography or even a curator at all, but in retrospect, it was always in the cards. Thanks to my parents—a physician and a scientist who appreciate the arts —I had an early exposure to a broad range of arts and culture. Growing up in the Baltimore/DC area, I visited museums, went to ballet and opera, and listened to concerts with my parents. As a teen in Ann Arbor, I also ventured to Chicago to visit museums.
Although an English major in college, I relished studio art classes and, during my sophomore year, I took the class that changed my life: Photo 1 with Judy Black. It was a B&W darkroom class, and I was hooked on photography from that moment on. But it was not until my third year of graduate school, when I landed a curatorial fellowship at the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, that I learned what curators really do. Working for the very generous curators Rachel Rosenfield Lafo and Nick Capasso, I was entrusted with my own contemporary art exhibitions and publications. I learned to put a show together from start to finish and to write for various audiences. Still enamored with photography, that became the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
Most importantly, I conceptualize and organize temporary exhibitions, as well as the display of permanent collection works throughout our galleries and rooms. I care for our collections of photography, American and contemporary art. I am constantly reading, thinking, and writing (everything from wall texts to essays to labels) and especially enjoy the way that organizing an exhibition is both scholarly and artistic: considering ideas and themes for each show and then designing an experience for the visitor.
I also find it exciting to acquire works of art for the museum, identifying strengths and gaps in the collection. Sometimes I lecture and give tours, working closely with all of the museum’s departments, like Education, Marketing and Community Engagement. I enjoy the collaborative nature of my work, which also includes meeting with donors and collectors and trying to connect with colleagues as much as possible.
However, I have to say that I am happiest when working with artists. Although I enjoy looking at prints or other works of art, I really love it when I can ask the artist who made those objects what they were thinking, what inspired the work, and what they might tackle next. To me, collaborating with artists, thinking about the context of their work and finding a way to present that story to visitors is the heart and soul of art history and curating.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake as a curator and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
I would say, not trusting my instincts. Earlier in my career, I second-guessed myself a lot. With time and experience, I learned to trust my own internal compass.
I have two pieces of advice for someone who aspires to be a curator: (1) Read a lot and (2) work with great teachers and mentors. My first piece of advice comes from my background as an English major. My writing and thinking always seem sharper when I am reading great books and I would wager that some of my best art history writing is informed by the fiction I am reading. As for mentors, when I look back at my career, it is they who most critically shaped and guided me: Frank Goodyear, Sarah Greenough, Sarah Kennel, Diane Waggoner, Kim Sichel, Pat Hills, Anita Patterson, Ted Stebbins, Rachel Rosenfeld Lafo, Lynn Hermann, and Nick Capasso. Nick Capasso in particular modeled the influential and enduring role of a great mentor and, as a result, I have tried to help aspiring curators and artists with training, advice, and opportunities however I can.
To succeed, every institution must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as Newport Art Museum’s special role in the photographic community?
For over a hundred years, the Newport Art Museum has played an integral role in the local and regional arts scene. With a new strategic plan championing a “provocative diversity” of programs and exhibitions, and a commitment to collecting and exhibiting new media, the museum is branching out and broadening its impact. The museum will continue to serve its members and community, but it will also bring exciting programs to Newport, inviting guest curators and hosting traveling shows to encourage visitors from outside the region. We aim to become an important cultural destination.
The museum’s interest in photography and art is collaborative and interdisciplinary. With so many other art museums, historic homes and music festivals in the region, we are creating and nurturing partnerships. This summer is a great example. My music related photography exhibitions, “Larry Fink: Somewhere There’s Music” and “Henry Horenstein: Honky Tonk” were organized in conjunction with the Newport Festivals Foundation (which organizes the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals). Our programming offers free admission to Jazz Festival ticket holders and a special Q & A session with Larry Fink and Jay Sweet TONIGHT, August 2nd, 2017! This event is free but seating is limited. For reservations: http://www.newportartmuseum.org/Programs-Events/Artists-Talks-Demos
Our current baseball photography exhibition—“Jason Evans: Boys of Summer, A Season with the Newport Gulls”—created wonderful opportunities to work with our local collegiate baseball team, “The Gulls,” and the show brought a new audience of visitors to the museum. In July, we hosted a “Teen Talkback” for high school students with photographer Caleb Cole around his mixed media solo exhibition, “Forget Me Not”. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, involving our photography shows. We are also sponsoring live performances and public art on our grounds in conjunction with various exhibits throughout the museum.
I am delighted to report that photography is playing an integral role in the growth of the museum. Because of the strength of photography programs in the area (RISD and others) and the connections of photographs and collectors to the Museum, the Newport Art Museum has amassed a great collection of photographs by Aaron Siskind, Joel Meyerowitz, Salvatore Mancini, Jesse Burke, Lucas Foglia, Ron Cowie, Lindsey Beal, among others.
What do you think are the most striking changes in photography today? How have they influenced the way you curate exhibits?
The omnipresence of photography is the most striking change. Everyone has a cell phone camera and is taking pictures now. Everyone is a “photographer” or even a “photography expert.” These days when I curate photography exhibitions, I find myself making a special case for why particular photographers and photographs are unique or compelling.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring?
I am inspired by new uses of photographic objects and images, such as installations, mixed media works, accumulations of images, and unconventional ways of displaying and sequencing images.
Feature Image: John N.A. Griswold House, Newport Art Museum, Newport Rhode Island (photo courtesy of NAM).
To read my review of the music-related photography shows of Larry Fink and Henry Horenstein currently on view at the Newport Art Museum, go to: http://elinspringphotography.com/blog/larry-fink-and-henry-horenstein-music-photography-at-newport-art-museum-rhode-island/
For a full listing of exhibits, programming and special events at the Newport Art Museum, go to: http://www.newportartmuseum.org/