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.
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.
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.
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.”