Karin Campbell is Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at Joslyn Art Museum.
BS: What was the pathway to your current work?
KC: The road to curating began circa 1994, when the Andy Warhol Museum opened in my hometown, Pittsburgh. I was ten years old. On a particularly hot and humid day that summer, my older brother took me to the Warhol Museum. When we walked into the building, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was excited, angered, saddened, humored, and most of all confused. Fast forward to sophomore year of high school. My AP European History class went on a field trip to Carnegie Museum of Art with the goal of gathering information for our final papers. I snuck away from the group and found my way into the Carnegie International, a major survey of contemporary art that takes places every three to five years. I wanted to see what the hype was all about. If Warhol had confused ten year-old Karin, the International practically broke my brain. I went home and told my parents that I would be a museum curator. They gave me a confused look and said, “Well, that’s nice.”
I went to college at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where I double-majored in Art History and Political Science. My junior year, I studied in Washington, D.C., for a semester while interning in the External Affairs Department at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. During that semester, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on exhibition design, an experience that made me attune to how shows are built from the bottom up. I then went on to become an Education Department intern for the 2004-05 International and, once I graduated from college, accepted a job on the Education staff. Starting my career in museums in non-curatorial departments was formative—it gave me a deep appreciation for how people and art come together. Still, I knew curatorial was the right track for me. In fall 2006, I was hired to be Curatorial Assistant in the Contemporary Art Department. This position afforded me the opportunity to work on Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International, bringing my experience with contemporary art thus far full circle.
My time at Carnegie was invaluable in its own right, but it was also a huge stepping stone. In 2009, I was accepted into Bard College’s competitive Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) program. During my first year, I was invited to be the first American curator of an exhibition series at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona that has been going on since the 1970s. I spent the summer of 2010 living and working (and eating great food) in Barcelona. Upon graduating from the CCS, I spent about a year traveling back and forth between the States and Spain every six weeks to install and open the five exhibitions in my series. During this, I was applying for jobs all over the world. From my first interview with Joslyn, it was apparent that this would be the right thing at the right time. In May 2012, I got off of a plane from Barcelona, hopped into my car in Pittsburgh, and drove the 900+ miles to Omaha.
BS: How does your work environment influence you?
KC: Among my grad school classmates, I was the only person chomping at the bit to go work for a museum. A lot of younger individuals in my field want to wave the independent curator flag, and I certainly did that for a while when I was working for the Miró Foundation essentially as an independent contractor. However, I missed the concert of voices that comes together in a museum setting. This is a vestige on my time working in PR and Education—there are so many factors and perspectives that go into making a museums successful. I like that the work I do here is not simply a reflection of my own beliefs, morals, tastes, etc.
BS: Museum exhibits have a long planning cycle. How do they develop and change from initial concept to opening?
KC: Exhibitions tend to live many lives before they open to the public. In a few rare cases, I’ve curated shows that start off with an idea, see that idea realized in a checklist, and then see that checklist come to fruition in the galleries. However, that generally only happens if the artist is not very involved in the planning process. The dynamism associated with contemporary art is probably the biggest reason that I decided to pursue the path I did. Living artists bring an invaluable perspective to the table that really drives me.
Contemporary art is, by nature, responsive to a current moment. In an ideal world, I would be able to curate shows with just 6 months to a year lead time, but this is not how museums, or even small arts organizations work. Even if a framework is established well in advance of an exhibition’s run, the details within that framework can ebb and flow with the times. Perhaps an artist is making work as an urgent response to some current event—we can swap out something that was supposed to be on the checklist for those newer objects. I think that flexibility is essential to curating, not just in contemporary, but across the field. I am resistance to a curatorial model that says ,“Okay, here’s a box, now I need to figure out how to fit all of the blocks into the box.” Let me see the blocks first, then I’ll figure out the configuration of the box.
I’m currently working on an exhibition that will likely open in 2019. I can’t provide any information yet, but I can say that it’s been a bit of struggle. I had trouble finding the hook—the “why here, why now” that would make the show compelling and relevant. So I wrote in huge black letters on a white board: “What does the WORK tell you?” Going back to the objects (and reading a little deliciously dense critical theory) helped me define the concept of the show, whereas I had been too caught up in the big ideas before. When conceptualizing an exhibition, it can be easy to allow what you think you know or believe take the reins.
Writing is an important part of the curator’s process. Often, I’ll put together what I think is an airtight proposal—one in which all of my thoughts are presented in tidy a fashion. Then, months or even a year later, I’ll sit down to work on the catalogue or brochure essay and realize that my ideas about an artist and his/her work or my understanding of the current moment has shifted. When that happens, I always acknowledge my original thinking about the show in some way, but then I’ll make it clear that the concept has evolved. It’s inevitable, really.
BS: What confuses you?
KC: Donald Trump. Willful blindness. Resistance to gun control. Calculus. Serving chili with a cinnamon roll.
BS: What have you changed about yourself recently?
KC: I wish that I had a deep answer to this, but I don’t! I’ve been working on stability lately, so I’m not trying to adjust much about myself at the moment. So perhaps that’s the change—not changing!
See photos from Joslyn Art Museum.
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