carrie mae weems

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In nearly all cases, a museum’s collection will be larger than the space it has to display that collection. This is where curating comes in. Decisions regarding what objects to display and what information to include are made in order to tell a larger story about those objects, whether art or archaeology. How the museum defines curatorial departments, and the financial support and wall space they receive, determines a great deal of what a museum goer will see.

Due to restrictions of funding and space, it’s common for museums to rotate their collections in order both to protect fragile work and to get a greater part of their art on view to their audiences. To do so tells a broader story about the history of cultural production than would be possible with a static hanging.

Which brings us to these 10 artists not currently on view and the question of why they’re not included in the art historical narrative presented at the Portland Art Museum. Household names or not, they were or are significant contributors to the American cultural landscape. We should expect to see them now and again, but it isn’t clear that they get their fair share of attention. An employee of the museum pointed out the majority of these artists’ works in the collection are on paper, thus they fall under the domain of the Graphic Arts curatorial department.

Graphic Arts has one small gallery in the basement of the museum to showcase a historically, stylistically, and geographically varied array of work. In most museums, graphic arts and drawing fall lower in the arts hierarchy than painting and sculpture, and because they are considered second-tier art, they’re relegated to tertiary placement within museums. The result: Artists relevant, even central, to American art history aren’t included in American galleries because they are represented by works on paper.

There’s yet another layer to this issue: you might have noticed that all the artists in the slideshow are people of color. This is intentional on my part because it was while searching for works by Jacob Lawrence, Diego Rivera, and Carrie Mae Weems that I started to notice a pattern: Fewer of these artists’ works are on display than you would expect them to be, if you’re familiar with American art history.

Obviously, works by major white American artists are also in the Graphic Arts department and are rarely seen, but if you look at the museum’s holdings of Robert Rauschenberg, for example, you can see how these structures play out. The examples of his work that fall under Graphic Arts aren’t on display, but Patrician Barnacle (Scale), a sculptural assemblage, is on view!

Why is it that the museum doesn’t have holdings of the artists in the slideshow that fit in with their criteria of “high” art? One reason is that there aren’t (m)any works by these artists that fall into that category, and that has a lot to do with the fact that prints, drawings, and photographs are less expensive to create and reproduce than paintings and sculptures. Artists working before the end of WWII were often employed by the WPA, or made work that was socially motivated. They placed a higher value on reproducibility in order to address a wider audience. It’s not that the museum is deliberately hiding works of art by artists of color. Rather it is how art historical hierarchies map onto social hierarchies to create the “ghettoization”* of these artists and works, as a friend and former museum employee put it to me.

Despite what the museum thinks of works on paper, I expect that a wide array of Portland audiences would find these artists’ work interesting and relevant. I know I do. Which is why I’ve started looking closer at the PAM’s holdings and curatorial habits in a new blog. It’s why I’ve written this post and another. I think the question of who is included in the art museum’s historical narrative is a matter of public interest, because a publicly funded museum serves multiple public groups. An inclusive museum should showcase America’s diversity. To do otherwise it to present a false historical narrative and vision of our future, through the erasure of the contributions of artists of color.

This erasure, this lack of representation is additionally significant because it can discourage people from imagining themselves beyond what the dominate culture teaches them about themselves. For example, how can girls know they can be scientists, artists, and business owners if all they’re allowed to play with are kitchen sets and the only time they see themselves valued is when they’re being sexualized?

Now take that logic and expand it to even more marginalized groups in American society, and that’s why the matter of who is shown as an artist at the Portland Art Museum is a matter of who is allowed to see themselves, and be seen, as artists in Portland.


Ghettoization The process by which minority groups are forced out of the mainstream aka structural marginalization, which can include physical structures (housing), economic structures (jobs), and cultural structures (mass media) among others.

Julia Dolan represents the new breed of photography curators

The art museum's first fulltime photography boss is ramping up the activity


Since Julia Dolan began her job as Portland Art Museum’s first full-time photography curator three years ago, she has amped up the museum’s activity in the art form. So far, she has curated about a dozen shows, many with single-word names like “Surface” (landscape photography), “Emerging” (new acquisitions) and the upcoming ”Fierce” (animal life). Her exhibits take full advantage of the exquisitely lit 2,200-square-foot photo gallery in the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art building, opened only eight years ago.

In 2011, her position was endowed, as are five of PAM’s seven curator posts. With that good fortune, she stepped up her profile. She and Blue Sky Gallery’s Todd Tubutis co-hosted 35 photo historians, professors and curators in October 2012 for FOCUS: PDX to discuss the increasingly fertile photography landscape.

The field has changed for photography curators in recent years—and Dolan is part of it. A new crop of super-educated, seasoned professionals has begun to fill museum positions, as Carol Vogel reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago. Their mission? To speak to the next generation of arts-lovers and consumers, and yes, to attract crowds to their museums.

The big issues are no longer about whether photography is an art form or whether photos deserve wall space. “Now there’s a whole generation of curators with advanced degrees, who’ve never even looked at that question,” said Bruce Guenther, PAM chief curator. Photography is ingrained into daily life: 4-year-olds shoot iPhotos, videos stream on iPads and laptops, everyone posts jpegs and youtubes on Facebook.

And curators like Dolan have arrived to light the way through the visual noise.


Carrie Mae Weems, "Mother with Children from Boardwalk, Santa Monica," 1980-82, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Carrie Mae Weems, “Mother with Children from Boardwalk, Santa Monica,” 1980-82, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Dolan’s PAM efforts and position shine most brightly with the current exhibition featuring Carrie Mae Weems, an internationally prominent photographer who grew up in Portland and left in the early ‘70s. Dolan didn’t curate the show—Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., did—but as “coordinating curator” she lobbied hard for it. “My bosses agreed that it was important for us to bring it here.”

She was the curator in charge of the PAM exhibition, calling the shots on how to display Weems’ work and on surrounding events, along with attending luncheons to curry favor with donors. PAM hosted the first Carrie Mae Weems show in the ‘90s, and the one on the walls today is “a very important bookend,” said Guenther, Dolan’s boss.

The exhibition moves after May 19 to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York—a string of prestigious venues.

By some measures, the Weems show has been a PAM success. It drew about 20,000 visitors during its first six weeks in February and March, and 882 enthusiasts piled into Weems’ opening February lecture. Events, including book groups and lectures, attracted more people than museum officials expected, but exhibition attendance has been about average. Blockbuster shows are rarely one-person affairs; Monet or Van Gogh would be exceptions, of course. “Rothko” and “The Allure of the Automobile” brought in more viewers.


julia_dolan small

Julia Dolan

Forty years old with a dossier of East Coast academic and gallery credentials, Dolan is PAM’s second photo curator, though the museum has been collecting images since the late 1940s. Photos by the “Edwards” (Curtis, Weston, Steichen), Robert Adams and Minor White added up. In the mid-80s, Terry Toedtemeier was hired to curate the collection. “In the best sense of the word,” Guenther said, “Terry was a photo geek. He was a photographer himself. He loved its freedom, its technology, its history.”

Dolan, his successor, comes from an academic background of art history and photography along with “a set of philosophical ideas,” Guenther says. “The field has become more formalized. Fewer and fewer photographers are becoming curators.”

Dolan “is bringing the next generation’s attitude about photography and interest in its evolving form to the forefront,” Guenther says. Her charge in part is to move photography from the end of the silver gelatin prints era to the many-splendored digital format that can cross over and integrate with other artforms. Still, her interest in photography’s past runs deep.

She “brings a fresh critical eye and thematic ideas,” Guenther said before Dolan launched into a March lecture on Weems’ “From Portland to Rome and Back Again: Carrie Mae Weems’ World View.”

The Weems exhibit ate up 12 percent of PAM’s yearly $3.4 million curatorial and exhibition budget, which is a quarter of the museum’s entire budget. Weems was one of PAM’s three largest shows this year. (Museum officials do not separately track curatorial departments, so how much money goes to photography is unclear, said PAM’s Beth Heinrich.)

Still, it’s a big deal that the Weems show is among PAM’s top three for 2013. The others include two simultaneous exhibits, “Cyclepedia: Iconic Bicycle Design” from June 8 through Sept. 8, along with “MAN / WOMAN: Gaston Lachaise.” The third is “Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” scheduled for Oct. 5 through Jan 12, 2014.

Until recently, photography has struggled to gain traction among the arts. Even today, despite new opportunities, full-time photo curators are a museum-staff rarity, but there are more than in Toedtemeier’s day. Certainly high-profile American museums have them, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (the pioneer in photo collecting, beginning in 1924 with a collection of two dozen Alfred Stieglitz photos), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Morgan Library Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Guenther guesses that about 20 percent of American museums employ full-time photo curators; Renaissance art has far more, he says. Some museums have five to seven photo curators; others, like Portland, have only one. Add together assistants, associates and full-time photo curators, and Dolan estimates about 100 fill the museum field.

Dolan’s position was not full time before her tenure. In Dec. 2011, a year and a half after her hire, it was endowed with a $2 million anonymous gift and she became the Minor White Curator of Photography.

(Minor White moved to Portland in 1938 and became part of the vibrant Oregon Camera Club. With Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, he taught at the first American fine art photography department at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco in the mid-1940s. PAM has 256 of White’s images in its permanent collection.)

Dolan’s Northwest-focused predecessor, Toedtemeier, who died in 2008, was paid for 28 hours a week. Toedtemeier’s awesome “Wild Beauty” book and exhibition on the Columbia River Gorge was a subject and place close to his heart, and that breathtaking show took Portland’s photo community—and others—by the lapels. During his 20-year tenure, he assembled many of the museum’s 7,000-piece collection; Dolan has added a few hundred images.

Dolan acknowledges he left a big footprint. Aside from his PAM work, he and local photographers founded the Blue Sky Gallery in 1975, which Dolan will feature in a 2014 retrospective show. Colleague Christopher Rauschenberg observed that Toedtemeier “photographed the landscape a lot like the way Eugene Atget photographed Paris.”

Though Toedtemeier’s legacy generated collectors’ photos after his death, Dolan’s East Coast roots and connections are expanding the West-centric vision. Her curatorial gift combines the formal idea of image, its emotional power—and of course, her sharp critical powers.


Minor White, “Arches of the Dodd Building (Southwest Front Avenue and Ankeny Street,” 1938. Gelatin silver print. Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services

Minor White, “Arches of the Dodd Building (Southwest Front Avenue and Ankeny Street,” 1938. Gelatin silver print. Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services

Her photography interest began as a charmed experience. As a grade school kid in Montreal, Dolan dragged pictures through developer and fixer in a darkroom. “I liked that it seemed magical—the image suddenly appearing on the paper.”

Photography’s hands-on aspects inspire her. She enjoys working her way through the museum’s vault. “If I get away from the photographs for too long I can lose sight of the fact that we have all these beautiful objects. It’s great that I have to rotate my galleries every few months, because it forces me to spend time looking at and thinking about the objects. They are rejuvenating, every single time.”

Dolan studied photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, art history at Pennsylvania State University, and earned her doctorate at Boston University, writing her thesis on Lewis Hine’s industrial-era social-reform photography. She landed a Horace W. Goldsmith curatorial fellowship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she worked on Ansel Adams and Lee Miller shows. Her resume includes stints at small prestigious museums: the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. Before that, she worked in airlines customer service.


With each new show, she reinforces her vision for museum photography. The Weems retrospective, in particular, which is primarily black and white photography and video shot over the past 35 years, stirred some media attention in Portland, including an Oregon Public Broadcasting “Art Beat” TV segment, some OPB radio, and a number of print and online pieces, lectures, study groups and visitors. Still shows like 2012’s “Rothko,” which received national press in part because PAM was its only venue, prompted more coverage.

Nevertheless, Dolan was happy with the attention, though as any savvy museum person would say, more is better. In that light, Dolan works away at raising the profile of museum photography, show by show.

Weems is African-American, middle-aged and a skilled artist who uses text—and herself, a onetime dancer—in her work. Her art has gone through numerous “periods,” from Harlem street scenes in the late ‘70s to hauntingly still images of architecture from Rome to Africa by which she defines relationships of power. Guenther adds that Weems’ work is important for its “post-black aesthetic, in which identity is embedded in the work as opposed to the forefront of the work.”

About the exhibition and how it fits her perspective for PAM, Dolan said: “It isn’t the easiest show because of its content, but that’s good for Portland. Not all art is meant to be easy. We live in a complicated world and Weems’ ideas are complex. But that doesn’t mean the photographs and ideas aren’t accessible.

“I love watching people make connections with various parts of the exhibition. Everyone relates to something in this show. I love that it demonstrates important moments of photographic history—something I always want to present—but shows how an established artist continues to work through her ideas and pushes into new areas and concepts.”

Dolan is schooled in 20th century “interwar” photography and Machine Age imagery. (Her dissertation is titled “I Will Take You into the Heart of Modern Industry: Lewis Hine’s Photographic Interpretation of the Machine Age.”) She loves street photography (Weems’ early tableau-like images are among her favorites), and more recently, she has become enamored with 19th=century portraits and landscapes.

Whether with Weems’ or Minor White’s photos, Dolan wants museum visitors “to learn something new, find beauty in images that are meaningful to them in a personal way, and be challenged. Those are consistent goals.”


Her next big project is a Robert Adams exhibition opening in September. The 70 prints capture Oregon’s forests and coastline, and date from 1999 to 2012. Most images in “The Question of Hope: Robert Adams in Oregon” have never been published or exhibited. Dolan is clearly excited.

Still, she shies away from promoting a strictly “Northwest” vision.

“Certainly the region seems to inspire landscape photographers, and there is an ethos of great respect for nature that of course influences our artists that may be a little different from other regions, but I believe that deeming a photographer as `Northwest’ may limit him or her on the world photographic stage. If someone is making still-life scenarios in their kitchen, do we still define them as a Northwest photographer because that tabletop is in Oregon? Can’t that tabletop still life exist anywhere and have nothing to do with its region?

“I want to find the best photography that is being made here and promote it. I’m not sure how adding the term Northwest to something makes it more marketable. Sometimes I think it can be limiting.

“At the same time, I of course believe that we should collect photographers working in the region who are appropriate for the museum. All institutions should do that.”

Carrie Mae Weems challenges power and perception

The Portland Art Museum retrospective exhibition brings Carrie Mae Weems back home with her personal, political work

Carrie Mae Weems, "Listening of the Sounds of Revolution"/Portland Art Museum

Carrie Mae Weems, “Listening of the Sounds of Revolution”/Portland Art Museum


Even without the cocktail-hour, cherry-red dress gently caressing her womanly curves, Carrie Mae Weems stood out in the massive crowd of museum devotees. Born and raised in Portland, she is a tall woman with full-mouthed laughter who fits playfully into her environment, but at the same time, stands out as unquestionably unique.

On Friday night, the Portland Art Museum was holding an opening reception in honor of Weems’ traveling exhibition of three decades of artistry that is intended to test our cultural interpretations. And the award-winning, world-traveling photographer moved her body with gracious intention, allowing her eyes to sieze hold of whatever was interesting in the moment.

“May I sign your book,” Weems asked someone in her periphery, nervously clutching Weems’ hard-cover retrospective, created in recognition of the exhibit, which will be displayed in Portland through May 19. Weems promptly signed her name in rounded letters across the bottom of the page. No other words or names were offered or necessary. Weems, after all, is considered one of the most important photographers of the last 25 years. Earlier this year, she was one of five artists awarded the State Department’s first Medal of Art by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I’m not a great artist, but I am a pretty serious one,” noted Weems, during an hour-and-a-half, sold-out lecture in front of 700 people on Super Bowl Sunday. “I think that the kind of work that I’m doing absolutely needs to be seen because no one else is doing it, and they’re certainly not doing it in this way. That’s not so much to pat myself on the back, but rather to say that I’m beginning to understand, more and more, even in my humility, my role as an artist at this historical moment and what that role might mean.”

Weems’ art is embodied in large and small scale photographs, short videos and impressed onto thin muslin scrim. Some prints are in black and white, others are in pigmented, colorful tones—what Weems calls “candied morsels of color.” The two-floor exhibit predominantly showcases the faces and experiences of black people, but Weems asks that we not “reduce the work to a question of race.” Its underlying themes of gender, sensuality, family and community evoke interpretations that anyone can grasp within the universal language of humanity.

“When we say that all of the work is about race,” Weems notes, “it tends to really diminish what the work really is. And, certainly, for the most part, no one is really interested in dealing in that terrain right now.”

And yet, one cannot escape the challenges Weems offers, through her art, to confront and explore the relationship between power and class, which inevitably, and eventually, touches on issues of race. By unearthing, retelling, and re-framing cultural myths and racial prejudices, Weems assumes authority over the messaging of the power paradigm. Her solemn work also challenges the role that museums, architects, artists and historians have played in marginalizing the black experience.

“I love museums, but I do question them,” Weems said at her Sunday lecture. “The reality is that as far as I know, I can count the black women artists that I know on a hand and a half. And, I can count the ones who have had major exhibitions on one hand. So, I’m aware of the condition and the circumstance under which I live. I understand what’s really going on. I know that museums are changing. I know that museums that are not changing absolutely need to change.”


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