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It’s a big deal when a museum appoints a new Curator of Photography, so I was excited to meet Sarah Kennel when she came to head up the Photography Department at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts in September of 2015. The PEM is no ordinary museum and Sarah brings a special blend of talent and experience to her new role at a time of expansion for this North Shore gem, noted for its celebrated collections related to the history of maritime trade. Please join me in welcoming Sarah and learning about her curatorial aspirations for PEM’s unique photographic archive.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
I never set out to be a photography curator. I love art history and followed that path from college to a fellowship at the National Gallery of Art where I had the opportunity to work on projects with different curators. Later, I landed a post-doctoral fellowship that was split between the Departments of Photographs and French Painting. A few months into my fellowship, a job opened up in Photographs and my boss took a chance on me, although there were more highly trained candidates. I started out compiling research files on André Kertész and, although I had a huge learning curve, I was thrilled to work so closely with the artwork. I think photography curators often have a much more intimate relationship to the works we curate; I had full access to our storeroom, where I could rifle through, study and lay out works – it was exciting! Plus, I loved learning a whole alternate history of art through photography.
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I am originally from Los Angeles, although I have not lived there since I graduated from high school. Most recently, I lived in Washington, D.C. for nearly 15 years. When the opportunity to lead the Photography Department at the PEM opened up, I jumped at the chance. Moving to this area, so rich in universities and with such a strong community of photographers, has been stimulating. But I have yet to experience a real Boston winter!
To succeed, every museum must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as the Peabody Essex Museum’s special role in the Boston photographic community?
PEM’s photography collection, like its other holdings, is truly distinctive and reflects the museum’s origins as both a local and global institution, with deep roots in New England history and the larger story of global trade and cultural intersection. Therefore, we don’t try to tell the traditional history of photography as a fine art form. Instead, our rich holdings and our interest in bringing contemporary photographers into dialogue with the museum reflects and expands upon photography as a global practice – that is, a window into historical complexity that draws connections between past and present and between different cultures. This is well demonstrated in an exhibit I curated that is on view now, Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. I think we are also well positioned to showcase mid-career artists or even very well known photographers who, for whatever reasons, have not received proper attention.
How do you hope to integrate or expand the role of photography at the PEM in your new role as its Curator of Photography?
Since starting this position, my focus has been fourfold. First and foremost, I’ve been working closely with other departments to define, organize and evaluate the collection, which is extensive but shows signs of benign neglect and is in need of refinement in order to bring out PEM’s treasures. Secondly, I’m planning for a more robust presence of photography in the form of a dedicated gallery as part of the PEM expansion which will likely open in 2019. Thirdly, I hope to bring exciting exhibitions to PEM on a regular basis that are drawn from the history of the medium and that take different approaches, whether monographic, historical, or thematic. For example, right now we’re developing a major show for the photographer Sally Mann, with a planned opening in 2018! Lastly, I am starting to augment our collection’s slim holdings of high quality, twentieth-century photographs, mostly through the generosity of collectors and donors.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
I used to joke that being a curator was combining two very different jobs: writing a scholarly book and putting on a Broadway show at the same time! A lot of my work is administrative, trying to coordinate the activities and ambitions of the photography department with other areas in the museum – we are all co-dependent! I also spent the first six months of the job going through boxes and boxes of photographs, trying to get a handle on the collection so I could devise a strategy for growth and display of the collection. The tasks are endless, though: I travel to see works in other collections for upcoming exhibitions, I help write grants to fund conservation, I write acquisition proposals, visit collectors and donors, brainstorm future exhibitions, research and write exhibition catalogs, work interdepartmentally on collaborative projects, and when I can, visit with artists. My favorite part of the job is the privilege of opening a box and discovering an amazing artwork or artist that I previously knew nothing about.
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?
Being too quick to dismiss something as unimportant. Curators are constantly inundated with requests to meet with artists, to consider exhibitions, to accept offers of gifts that may or may not fit our criteria. But once, early on in my career, I got one of those random phone calls from a woman who described some photographs she had from her parents, “pictures of the wild west.” I put it off for a long time, assuming these were not terribly important. In fact, they turned out to be Kasebier platinum prints! So, my advice would be to stay humble, be open, trust your instincts but don’t make assumptions.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring? What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
We are in an interesting moment in photography in which many artists are returning to some form of the origins of the medium, reflecting on the long history of photography as a light-based, chemical process or rethinking the role of photography as an index of the past, or as a peculiar form of memory. As a curator who adores nineteenth-century photography, I’m enjoying the creative mining of the medium’s past. I’m also amazed by how photography is changing, particularly the dramatic shift in modes of circulation. Artists are re-defining photography in our virtual, networked society that lives in a 24/7, global visual culture.
It is particularly exciting to be in Boston after years in Washington, D.C. because of the richness of the photography community here. In addition to a really wonderful network of curators, I have been impressed with how many incredibly talented photographers live, work and teach in the wider Boston region. There are so many museums with robust photography programs – not just the big institutions, but many smaller ones, including all the educational institutions – that are putting up amazing exhibitions and lecture programs with a very thoughtful, intellectual focus. The hardest part is keeping up with it all!
Feature Image: Exterior view of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (photographer unknown).