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In her nine years as Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography on the outskirts of Boston, Paula Tognarelli has changed the face of photography. She has helped launch so many careers that she is rightly regarded as a Patron Saint of this burgeoning field. As yet another of nearly 60 annual exhibits opens at the Griffin galleries, I caught up with Paula to ask her about her own career path, the evolution of her institution in the fast-changing world of photography and her sage advice for those seeking photographic careers.
You had an unconventional path to your current role. Can you describe how you came to be the director of a photography museum?
I spent 25 years in the printing industry climbing the corporate ladder. I never meant to stay that long in printing. I was just out of college and needed a job. I planned to spend 6 months in that job until I found my financial footing. Many years later, taking the trek from craftsman to management, I found myself as VP of Manufacturing for one of the largest printing companies in the U.S.
September 11th came and made me think about my career path and my life in general. I was an art major in college and a good business person so I sought a way to bring the arts back into my life – I wanted no regrets. In my search, I found Boston University’s Art Administration Graduate Program and quit my six-figure job to go back to school. At BU I met Blake Fitch who became the Executive Director of the Griffin Museum of Photography. I ended up doing my internship at the Griffin and have been there ever since. Since I had completed the Applied Program at the New England School of Photography and founded a digital photography studio in the corporation where I worked, the Griffin seemed to be a good fit for me. I’ve gone from Intern to Deputy Director to Director over the course of 12 years at the Griffin and have been the Executive Director there since 2006.
To succeed, every institution must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. The Griffin Museum has changed rather radically since it opened in 1992 “to promote an appreciation of photography” and to showcase the work of its founder, prolific Boston photographer Arthur Griffin. Since you took the reins in 2006, the Griffin has become an internationally recognized photographic museum and a vital educational resource to the Boston community. What did you do to effect such an enormous change and what do you think is the Griffin’s special role in the Boston photographic community today?
While I would like to take credit for where the Griffin is today, Blake Fitch started turning the ship around in 2003 when she arrived at the Griffin as the Director. We were a good team and we learned a great deal from each other. I have continued on the path that Blake initiated with my own personal flare for strategy.
Much that I learned in the corporate world, I have brought to the Griffin. As a digital pioneer in the printing industry, I learned to think forward and anticipate the future, to be innovative and not follow the pack, to cross-train employees in order to be more flexible, to let everyone’s creative juices flow, to not say “no” so quickly, to foster collaboration with others, and to treat employees well and empower them.
During my tenure at the Griffin I went back to school again, this time to get a Masters in Education at Lesley University. I am intrigued by how people learn. When I was very close to finishing, some personal events caused me to reorder my priorities and I chose not to complete my degree. However, you will notice an uptick in educational programming at the Griffin because of it.
I also wanted to make a place where both artists and the general public alike would feel at home – a place that was welcoming, not snobby. I wanted to be a resource for all types of photographers from beginner to master, in all genres. As I saw the tremendous need for exhibitions in the Boston community and across the country, we began to develop satellite galleries. This also was a great marketing opportunity for us. If people didn’t come to the Griffin, then we would go to them. And we figured out a way to do this without renting space. Now, we have four satellite exhibit spaces around Boston, in addition to the four galleries within our own museum.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
What do I do? Everything! I joke with people that I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. I am being funny here but there is a bit of truth to it. In a smaller organization you have to be able to wear many hats. I love this variety in my life. I know this may be hard to believe, but I’m really am an introvert with the role of a leader who can’t be an introvert. So, it follows that two of my favorite things are researching and writing. As I am a visual thinker, I also love putting images together and I teach everyone at the museum that an exhibit isn’t finished until you can feel the magic in the sequence. The other thing I love about my job is that I get to meet such interesting people and that I can help artists realize their goals or sway people to support the museum because of what we have to offer. Believe it or not I also love finance, especially when we meet our forecast.
How have your ideas about curating an exhibit changed from when you first began?
I have a very broad aesthetic that has matured over time. One of the most important things I’ve learned is not to just show work that I like personally, because all that happens then is that the shows begin to look the same. I try to show a broad spectrum of work, exposing the public to the exciting variety in photography. It is my opinion that if we get a visitor to love one show a year, then we are doing our job. No one is going to love everything we do and I don’t even aim for that. I want to help the public look at work so that they can learn to understand and appreciate it. We keep track of the types of photography we exhibit and break it up topically. For instance, if we just exhibited a landscape show we will exhibit some other genres before another landscape show.
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?
As the director of an arts organization and as the curator I have to remember that we have to live within our means or find the means for exhibiting art. We have a variety of earned revenue streams for that purpose. There have been times that board members or funders were not behind certain exhibitions because of the topic. A good example might be a project on kids and guns. Early in my career, I would give in to such protest but today I take a different approach. I petition support from the board and funders by explaining why it is our responsibility not to censor controversy, but face it head on.
I would give an aspiring curator this advice: understand the financial aspects of your organization and the costs associated with putting on a show, refine development skills as you will be expected to help find funders, learn how to apply for grants and hone your writing skills, keep abreast of the international art world and scope emerging talent, nurture your relationships with artists but keep some boundaries in place. And take vacations!
How do you think the proliferation of electronic devices like the iPhone and the accompanying cultural inundation with snapshots like “selfies” is affecting fine art photography? Has it influenced the way you curate?
I am open to iPhone photos. What I like about them is their intimacy and spontaneity. I started on Instagram very early – I enjoy it and find work there! J. Sybylla Smith put together an iPhone exhibit at the Griffin a few years ago that was very successful. The photographers were all from the VII Photography Agency. The output was reasonable in size and an acceptable quality. It is just another tool in my opinion. As I mentioned before, I was a digital pioneer and I say “yes” before I say “no.” Technology and methods change so fast and we have to adapt. Change will happen anyway despite our kicking and shouting. You can’t resist. It will come anyway.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring? To what do you attribute the resurgence of interest in photography books?
I love that the photography community is global and accessible. I also love that photographers nurture each other despite where they live. It is not necessary to make art in a vacuum anymore. As I have always loved art books, I am so pleased that there are more artists producing books whether in a handmade or traditional process.
People have always loved photography books. Look at the coffee table books of yesteryear. Today, technology has made it such that anyone can make a book. The quality of digital printing has made the book form an attractive means of exhibiting work. And companies like Blurb make it affordable as well. I also think the stigma of self-publishing is going away, which is helping artists expand their methods of getting work out to the public. Artwork doesn’t just have to hang on the wall nowadays. Luckily, the model of publishing art books has changed and I think publishers are more aggressive about producing artists’ work in book form.
What advice about landing an exhibition in your museum would you give to an emerging photographer today?
I think the goal for photographers shouldn’t be about having an exhibition. And I I know I am not alone in my thinking. I want to build relationships with artists and help achieve their goals. That takes time. Keep us informed but don’t stalk. It’s scary. Be respectful of boundaries. Don’t solicit curators or gallerists at openings. This is not appropriate behavior. Email occasionally (no sooner than 6 months) to keep us informed of new work. Send postcards when you are in a show. That keeps you in our thoughts. Go to portfolio reviews. Start with local reviews and branch out nationally slowly. It’s a good way to learn how to get the work out. And because time is so valuable these days, reviews may be the one sure way to connect with those who can help your career.
What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
The wide variety of universities, galleries and cultural institutions in Massachusetts alone keeps us stimulated by photography. The resources here are phenomenal if we take advantage of them. I am excited by the sense of community here for photographers.
How do you imagine the Griffin Museum of the future?
I think I will be prudent and just surprise everyone, Elin. You can count on having fun, feeling good about your experience and wanting to come back often. And there will be goody bags! (Smiles)
Feature Image: “Untitled F-374” from the series “Fake Food” by Jerry Takigawa, now on view at the Griffin Museum through June 5, 2015 (courtesy of the artist and Griffin Museum of Photography)