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By Elin Spring
For some years, I have admired the innovative ways that the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts curates and exhibits their impressive photographic holdings. Whether exclusively photographic or multi-media, drawn from their archives or visiting from other institutions, delving into history or taking a contemporary pulse, the Addison creates lively, engaging exhibits. As a rule, academic institutions do not flaunt their curatorial staff, so it took a bit of digging to identify the creative source of the Addison’s photography exhibits. I am delighted to share my discussion with Allison Kemmerer, Mead Curator of Photography and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Addison Gallery!
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I grew up in New Jersey (exit 8A) and came to Boston to attend college. I graduated from Boston College in 1986 and have been in New England ever since.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
My path to museum work and photography in particular was a bit circuitous. With a BA in English, my initial goal was to pursue a career in advertising. While I imagined myself in a glitzy office on Madison Avenue, I ended up working in Harvard Square in the classified ad department of the molecular biology journal, Cell. I knew nothing about molecular biology and while I enjoyed the work, I knew this was not my calling. Taking a nighttime art history class at the Harvard Extension School led to the epiphany that I wanted to be a curator. I then went to graduate school at Boston University with the idea of studying European painting but instead discovered the history of photography. It seems so naïve now, but I remember taking a seminar on 1930s documentary photography with Kim Sichel and being blown away by the realization of a photograph’s power as both aesthetic object and tool of persuasion.
While at BU, I got an internship at the Addison where I had access to an incredible photo collection as well as two mentors who were passionate about photography—Jock Reynolds and Jim Sheldon. I had the privilege of assisting them with an exhibition that examined the influence of Eadweard Muybridge (the Addison owns the entire set of both Animal Locomotion and Attitudes of Animals in Motion) on contemporary photographers. That experience, which involved not only photography but also connections between past and present, really sealed my interest in becoming a photo curator.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
As the Mead Curator of Photography and Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, I not only have the pleasure of working with the 9,000 plus photographs in the collection but also all contemporary works in other media. While I enjoy creating exhibitions focused solely on photography, I also like projects (such as the current “Body” exhibition) in which I can consider photographs within the context of other media and within the larger art world.
I enjoy research and writing and of course—shopping! We are still actively adding to our collection and I love considering the conversations a potential acquisition will spark with others already in the collection. However, I think my absolute favorite activity occurs during installation. During that time, hours seem like minutes and although I am not an artist, it is in that space – crafting a visual thread and narrative – where I feel most creative. When he approved an installation, Jock Reynolds used to exclaim “Ooh—visual poetry!” While I may not always hit it, that is what I am after for each and every exhibition.
What you think are the greatest strengths of your photographic archives at the Addison Gallery of American Art?
With the purchase of a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White in 1934, the Addison became one of the first museums in the country to seriously collect photography. Over eighty years in the making, the photo collection—which represents more than half of the Addison’s permanent collection—provides a fair overview of the history of American photography, but it is not encyclopedic. Comprised of individual master works as well as multiple prints and complete series by important photographers, the collection’s emphasis has always been on the ways in which photographs speak to each other formally, historically, and thematically.
This is what makes curating a landscape show like “Contemplating the View” so exciting and satisfying. The range of works and the depth of holdings related to a particular theme—in this case landscape–make it possible to create exhibitions that not only acknowledge the complexity of photographic history but the medium’s wide range of uses, the multiplicity of voices, and the ways ideas and approaches cut across time to be revisited, expanded upon, and contested.
How does being on a high school campus influence what and how you curate your photography exhibits?
One of the biggest influences of being on a high school campus comes from the energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity of the students. It is infectious and that youthfulness and sense of adventure is reflected in the Addison’s lively programming that involves re-installing the entire museum several times a year (with the hope that each student sees a very wide range of material in a four-year stint at the school), creating shows that often mix media and time periods in provocative ways, and an artist-in-residence program that brings several artists to campus each year. This has included photographers such as Robert Frank who created photo books with children from Lawrence, Dawoud Bey who came to the Addison several times to make portraits of students, and Abe Morell who turned spaces in mill buildings in Lawrence as well as a room in the Andover Public Library into camera obscuras. Most recently—in conjunction with the current Manship exhibition—Barbara Bosworth was on campus to talk to astronomy students about her photographs of night skies.
How does the Addison Gallery see its role in the greater Boston photographic community?
Although the Addison is a department of Phillips Academy, we see ourselves as serving multiple audiences —including visitors of all ages from the Merrimack Valley and greater Boston areas, as well as national and international audiences via our traveling shows and publications. We always aim for resonance, relevance, and inclusion via shows that visitors of all ages will find challenging and thought-provoking.
As a teaching museum devoted solely to American art we ask the ever evolving question “What is America?” which is not only important for our diverse audiences, but I would say crucial to these times. Last year’s exhibition of Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi’s photographs explored an artist whose work has been shaped by her heritage and migration to the United States. Our acquisition and exhibition of Ansel Adams’s Manzanar Japanese internment camp photographs made during WWII gave us the opportunity to explore a difficult part of American history that resonates with the cultural and political climate of today.
Can you share a photographic exhibit or event in the planning stages that excites you right now?
This spring we will be presenting an exhibition of recently re-discovered and never yet exhibited color photographs by John Goodman. In the winter of 2020, we will be hosting the Gordon Parks exhibition that is just about to open at the National Gallery.
Another extremely exciting but still uncooked project involves a recent acquisition of over 1200 works by John O’Reilly. This extraordinary gift includes sketchbooks, drawings, paintings, artist’s books, and of course the photo-collages for which he is best known, ranging in date from 1938-2014. We are in the midst of sorting through this treasure trove but I look forward to the exhibition—or more likely—exhibitions that will be generated by it.
What do you find most rewarding about the Boston photography scene?
I find the Boston photography scene to be a particularly cohesive community. In working with Barbara Bosworth, Justin Kimball, Billie Mandle, and Abe Morell on our current Manship exhibit I was struck by how generous and supportive they were of each other and how genuinely interested they were in each other’s work. I have experienced that same collegiality as a curator among my New England photo colleagues. We regularly get together as a group to see each other’s shows and share ideas, collaborate on projects and lend photographs to each other’s exhibitions. For example, the Addison lent several photographs to the traveling Sally Mann exhibition that was just at PEM and is lending a group of photographs to Karen Haas’s upcoming Ansel Adams exhibition at the MFA. While I already feel I have a dream job, being able to do it within such a supportive environment with so many talented colleagues makes it even better.
Feature Image: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover MA.
For our review of The Body: Concealing and Revealing, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/the-body-concealing-and-revealing-at-addison-gallery-of-american-art-andover-ma/
For our review of Contemplating the View: American Landscape Photographs, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/contemplating-the-view-at-the-addison-gallery-of-american-art/
For more information about the current exhibits at the Addison Gallery, go to: https://addison.andover.edu/Pages/default.aspx