Published: November 8, 2022
Elizabeth Siegel comes to the Milwaukee Art Museum as chief curator after 25 years at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she served as curator of photography and media. Her new position as head of the museum’s curatorial and collections departments starts January 9. Siegel received her doctorate and master’s in the history of art from the University of Chicago and her bachelor of arts from Yale University. Antiques and The Arts Weekly reached out to her in advance of her new role to see what she envisions as her contribution to the museum’s senior leadership team when the new year begins.
What traits are necessary to make one a perfect leader for a curatorial team?
Well, first I would just like to say how excited and honored I am to take on this role at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I’m so looking forward to diving in and getting to know the collections, staff and community better.
I think a good leader needs fundamental characteristics of curiosity, passion, empathy and a willingness to listen and learn. A good leader for a curatorial team — and here this includes the conservators, registrars and art preparators as well — will respect the team’s accumulated knowledge and expertise while working to foster collaboration and alignment with the museum’s vision. And I think having a strong sense of one’s curatorial values — for me, supporting art historical scholarship, caring for and preserving of works of art, emphasizing diversity and inclusivity in our stories, and presenting complex ideas in an accessible and engaging manner — is key to setting that tone.
Can you bring us up to date on some of your experience in organizing exhibitions?
Exhibitions are one of the main ways museums communicate new ideas about art and society, whether the work on the wall was made last year or centuries ago. They can be complex, multi-year projects with numerous stakeholders or more nimble and focused rotations, but at their heart they should focus on a narrative told through objects.
My favorite exhibitions that I have organized have been research-intensive projects that have really contributed to the field, such as “Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937–1971” (co-curator, 2002), tracing the impact of Chicago’s Institute of Design on photography, design and pedagogy; “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” (2009), showing aristocratic women manipulating both photography and society through photocollage; and “André Kertész: Postcards from Paris” (2021), highlighting a formative but little-known area of this canonical photographer’s work. But I’ve also loved collaborating with curators in other areas on interdisciplinary exhibitions, where photographs have been placed in dialogue with painting, sculpture, decorative art and more. For example, “Shatter Rupture Break” (2015), which I organized with Sarah Kelly Oehler, brought together works from seven different curatorial departments to explore fragmentation in modern life and art, while “Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s” (2020), organized with Elizabeth McGoey, united vernacular American art from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with documentary photographs from the 1930s to focus on American visual identity.
Organizing exhibitions not only depends on art historical scholarship, but also requires skills in communication, collaborating within and outside of the museum, time and project management and sharing one’s vision — all skills I will be putting to use as chief curator.
Stewarding acquisitions and collections?
As your question rightly notes, there are two parts to stewarding a museum’s collection: taking care of the existing holdings and bringing in new acquisitions. Museums’ holdings are built on generations of collecting activity, and we as curators have an obligation to steward those collections for future generations, working with conservators and collection managers to give them optimal care; we also have an obligation to research and interpret them for our various publics, which we do through exhibitions, publications and making them accessible through digital means. I’ve really enjoyed researching our collections and working with our talented teams to bring that knowledge to the public.
As for bringing in new objects, there’s a huge network of collectors, gallerists, auction professionals and artists that we work with regularly to identity suitable additions to the collection — and, of course, all the supporters who make that activity possible. Then you have to think about what makes the most sense for your institution, whether it’s building on certain strengths or filling in holes in the stories we want to tell. In Milwaukee, I’ll have the chance to look at the program more holistically, moving beyond photography to see how all the pieces fit together.
What facets of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s programming were most enticing to you in coming on board?
I’m excited by so many things: the talented and creative staff, the rich collections, the generous community, the beautiful building. I’m really interested in learning more about how the museum draws upon and serves the city of Milwaukee, which I’m also just getting to know.
MAM has a new strategic direction, placing community front and center, and I’m excited to help connect those goals to the museum’s programming. With a smaller museum than the one I’ve been working at, it also seems there are opportunities for more interdisciplinary collaboration.
Art can entertain and inform. What is its transformative power in your opinion?
I think the power of art is in its effect on the mind and the heart. On an intellectual level, art can inspire critical thinking about our place in society, making connections through a variety of means between the present and the past, the individual and the collective, the visual and the verbal, and much more. On an emotional level, art can have a visceral impact, inspiring empathy, anger, joy and action.
For me, what is paramount — and what I feel strongly is unique to museums — is the personal, physical experience of a work of art. It’s just not the same to see something on the screen as to stand in front of it and sense its scale, texture and impact.
Among the 30 or so exhibitions you have curated or co-curated, which stand out as having presented the most challenging scholarship?
“Playing with Pictures” was one that sent me down some research rabbit-holes. This was about aristocratic British women combining photographs — newly available in mass quantities — with hand-painted, whimsical and sometimes surreal designs to produce entirely new visual and social meanings. These works had not been studied together previously, and my scholarship brought new objects and thinking to light; I’m proud to say that Victorian photocollage is now commonly considered part of the history of Nineteenth Century photography in books and university courses.
What drew you to photography?
It was sort of an accident! When I was 15, I was visiting a friend at her house and she was developing film in a developing tank in her sink. When she pulled the fixed film off the reel, I was stunned: she just made photographs! I asked my parents for a camera for my birthday and started taking evening classes (my high school didn’t offer courses). But as I started to learn more about the history of photography, I started to realize that there were so many incredible artists out there (and simultaneously, that I wasn’t that good!). And when I dove deeper into the history, I was really hooked.
While at the Art Institute, you helped to secure key acquisitions like the 500 Nineteenth Century American photographs, primarily daguerreotypes, from the W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg collection. How did that come about?
The Art Institute has a broad and rich photography collection, but one thing we were not as strong in was daguerreotypes, and I had been pursuing acquisitions in that area in a piecemeal fashion. I had known about Bruce and Dee’s collection for a while, but it wasn’t until we started talking about daguerreotypes with the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust that it seemed like there might be support for a major acquisition. With Matthew S. Witkovsky, the chair of our department, we convinced Bruce and Dee that the museum would be a suitable home for their collection of many decades, and indeed we have been busy cataloging and conserving the work for future display.
You are a 2018 alumna of the Center for Curatorial Leadership, whose graduates are now at the helm of major art institutions. What was your most valuable takeaway from that experience?
The program offers classes with Columbia Business School professors, meetings with cultural leaders and a week shadowing a museum director; it had an enormous impact on my decision to pursue this position and I am sure it will inform my work as chief curator. I think my most valuable takeaway was that contrary to many models we see in the news and popular culture, contemporary leadership is about team-building, listening and emotional intelligence.
At about the same time you’ll be joining the Milwaukee Art Museum, it will be filling another senior leadership position by bringing on a new chief development officer, André Allaire, currently assistant vice president for development at Parsons School of Design. Since he will be responsible for raising the critical dollars that will support the museum’s collection, exhibitions and programming, do you feel the stars were aligned in that he also is a graduate of Yale University with a bachelor of arts in the history of art?
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