ASK AN ARTS PROFESSIONAL
Conversation between Baltimore Museum of Art Curatorial Assistant, Sarah Cho and Amy Boone-McCreesh
A: Where do you work? How long have you been there?
S: I work at the Baltimore Museum of Art and I’ve been there since December 2018.
What is your position?
I’m the Curatorial Assistant in American Painting & Sculpture and Decorative Arts which covers pre-1960 American paintings and sculpture, and Decorative Arts and Textiles from America and Europe up to the present.
What is your job description in your own words?
I assist my department curators in acquisitions, exhibitions, curatorial maintenance of collections, and administrative stuff. Much of it ties in a lot of research and writing about art, which is the best part of the job!
What are some projects you’ve worked on outside of an institutional setting and what were the benefits or detriments of self organizing?
Images for Baltimore, for example, was a lot of work for just two people. My co-organizer Mazzy Bell and I were constantly on the phone with each other after work, at least two hours a day for months, talking through ideas. We ran the campaign, website development, marketing, press and writing, and curating a collection of artists that represented Baltimore At the end of the fundraiser, we still had so much to do, including working with the generous folks at Full Circle to print, and mailing out to hundreds of people.
It was a very hands-on project from the inception of the idea to the final days, whereas if you worked at an institution, you’d have a whole team of different departments contributing their expertise and talents. It was nice to have just the two of us so that we could exchange ideas and change direction quickly. We also each had experience doing things on our own outside of institutions, so it was easier for us to imagine what that work would entail. I used to work at the New York Equity Artists Association where I helped the Director run the gallery and the organization, so I was accustomed to being in a position where I had to wear a lot of hats without being siloed to one specific position.
What are some projects you have worked on recently at the BMA that were exciting to you and what type of work would you like to do in the future?
There have been so many fun projects, and most of them revolve around doing deep dives into artworks in the collection. I’m a research and history nut, so being able to conduct archival and historical research into specific objects has been fun. For example, I write gallery labels for some of the objects on view. You’re essentially clueing in readers as to what to think about when looking at a piece of artwork. I take that responsibility very seriously. It’s critical to connect to audiences who may not know the history behind the work, and provide an opportunity for visitors to learn something new or shift their perspectives.
As someone who works on both historical and contemporary American Art, I’ve always been interested in the creation of an American visual identity. There’s so much to learn from how artists have tried to express a national identity, I love researching objects that have weird iconography or something that makes you question what it was saying about American history at the time. What does an object tell us about how artists, and the American public, conceived of themselves as American, and what is “American-ness”?
I recently published an excerpt of a longer research project on this pitcher by Karl Müller who was a Ceramic artist from Brooklyn for Union Porcelain Works.It’s this curious little blue pitcher with a walrus head and a bear handle, which has a whole other thing to talk about in terms of iconography, but one side of it is this legend of this King Gambrinus, this German figure who is supposed to be the father of beer and pouring one out for Brother Johnathon who is supposed to be your everyday American Joe Schmo type of guy. And then on the other side is an image of an Irish immigrant attacking a Chinese immigrant over a game of cards. This image comes from a satirical poem about the way Chinese immigrants were being treated in the 1880s due to them filling jobs. This pitcher was made for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, so they were presenting it as an American piece and what they thought represented America, American race relations, and national identity. So that’s always what I’ve been curious about; how does race and gender come into play when we think about national identity?
In terms of acquisitions, I brought a new work into the collection this past year! During the pandemic, I found myself wondering more about Asian American California craft artists. We know so much about the white California craft artists of the time, but not people of color, so I was excited to learn about an artist named Jade Snow Wong. She grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and she was an enamelist and ceramicist. After some intensive research, I was able to identify a bowl from 1968 that was available on the market and pitched it as an acquisition. It was super fun and not usually the experience of curatorial assistants outside of the BMA. Being able to bring that in, and contribute to the canon, was really cool.
Working on exhibitions has also been really fun. I assisted my supervisor on a lot of exhibitions in 2019 and one of the stand out ones was By Their Creative Force: American Women Modernists. It was really fulfilling because I wrote a lot of labels for that show. Giving space and recognition to artists who have been overlooked and putting local artists in the same room with Georgia O’ Keeffe shows there are other fantastic and ground-breaking artists who had been set back because of gender discrimination. It’s been really wonderful to contribute to correcting the historical canon.
How has the pandemic changed the way you think about work?
For me, it was a little difficult at the beginning because it’s difficult to write about art you can’t see in person. On the flip side, working from home helped me finish and polish some projects I had not had the time to wrap up when we were at the office.
Being able to see the artwork in person again has been regenerative and it just reminds me why I want to work at a museum in the first place: being around artwork all the time.
Are there types of projects you’d like to do more of or maybe independent of the museum?
Something that I’m working on personally is doing my own research projects by writing and digging deeper into the questions I’m interested in that may not have to do with the museum’s collections. I’m hoping to find more time to do academic research and writing in the next year.
Anything else you want to talk about or promote?
I’m currently working on three exhibitions that are opening next year! I’m a co-curatorial assistant on Guarding the Art, an exhibition curated by 17 of our security staff. It has been amazing to learn more about the artwork in our collection from the people who spend the most time with the artwork each day. The other two exhibitions have not been announced yet. I am co-curating one of the exhibitions on a contemporary artist. All three of the shows are expected to open in Spring 2022.
At the BMA, two of my favorite shows that are up right now are She Knew Where She Was Going: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Civil Rights and Tschabalala Self: By My Self!
Something else I wanted to talk about is transparency in the museum world. I wanted to talk about how I entered the field, which I feel is something people aren’t honest about. One of the barriers of the museum world that I noticed while interning and applying to jobs, wasa gatekeeping of entry-level positions by wealth, race, and gender. It’s even relevant when applying for internships. I was a low-income student with immigrant parents, and had no connections in the field. I couldn’t apply to all these unpaid internships at major institutions that other people who have their family’s financial support can. These resume lines are what gets people their foot in their door and furthers their career, which later puts them in the pipeline for leadership positions!
I was a full financial aid student at a private high school and saw early-on the access everyone else there had was so different. I didn’t know how the college application or job application process worked. I didn’t know how any of it worked and a lot of it is so opaque. There is just this informational access that many of us just don’t have. It’s something that bothers me a lot about the museum world in general and something I have been pretty vocal about. I often felt like I was on chapter one and these other people were on chapter fifty. I do need to get my PhD to be able to move up in the museum world. Who can afford to get a Masters or a PhD without funding, or survive on the minimal funding? I’m thinking about my mom’s retirement in a few years. How am I supposed to get my PhD while trying to keep her and I afloat?
There are so many barriers, so it’s rough trying to apply for things and get to the next level. Making space for people who don’t come from traditionally privileged backgrounds is something I’m really passionate about, and I hope to see change in the field.