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Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is at the reins of this eminent institution’s newly independent Department of Photography, directing a full range of exhibitions, acquisitions, programs, and activities. As a nearly 30-year veteran of the MFA, Anne has been the curatorial compass behind over 35 exhibitions, including the current “Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America.” I thought this momentous occasion at the MFA would be the perfect chance to ask Anne about the experiences and inspirations that are helping her shape the museum’s direction in photography.
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
My parents lived outside of Boston when I was born, and I grew up in southern New Hampshire. On visits back to the Boston area, we came to the MFA from time to time. I fell in love with museums at a young age, and have always thought of the MFA as a home institution for me.
One of my grandfathers was an artist, and the other a historian, and so in a way I feel like I have channeled each of them in my choice of combining art and history. After several early jobs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and at the Smith College Museum of Art, I joined the MFA. It was in 1989, over twenty-five years ago now!
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
When starting out, I specialized in Dutch art. My parents were from Holland and I love Dutch paintings and printmaking, so I thought that made the most sense. I also, for a time, thought about paper conservation, for I had had a wonderful experience as an intern in the Williamstown Conservation Laboratory while in graduate school.
While studying History of Art as a graduate student at Williams College, I worked closely with Mrs. Eugenie Prendergast, wife of the artist Charles Prendergast, and sister-in-law of the celebrated American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast. I helped her organize her collection and archive, which she eventually gave to the Museum. It was great fun to get to know her, and rewarding to work with the rich collection of paintings, watercolors, monotypes, and wood carvings that she had preserved in her home in Connecticut.
My first real museum job was as an intern at the Philadelphia Museum. There, I continued to focus on old master prints, but I was also growing increasingly curious about what my photography curator friends were doing. I came to love photography because of the way that museum visitors respond to photographs. Everyone knows how a camera works and therefore understands the medium’s basic principles. I was also excited by the fact the study of the history of the medium was relatively young and largely unexplored. There was still so much research to do!
Next, I worked as assistant curator at the Smith College Museum, in Northampton. The photography collection there had been established in the 1930s, and was remarkably strong. I took it upon myself to start researching and cataloguing the newly acquired 19th century collection of Carolyn Sturgis Tappan, a friend of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry James whose Lenox estate later became Tanglewood. I made a few thrilling discoveries and got particularly interested in a group of landscapes marked “A.C.,” which I determined were by Adalbert Cuvelier, the early Barbizon photographer. I am still captivated by Adalbert Cuvelier and his son Eugène, and in the relationship between photography and painting in mid 19th century France.
When I came to the MFA, in 1989, I was to work with prints, drawings, and photographs in equal measure. Over time, however, as we did more and more photography shows, I gradually became the point person for those projects. By 1999, I became assistant curator of photography alone, and by 2001, I was full curator in charge of the Museum’s photography program.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
I am now the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs. It is my responsibility to envision and direct our overall program of exhibitions, acquisitions, programs, and activities. I work with three wonderful colleagues: Karen Haas, Kristen Gresh, and James Leighton. Together, I think we make a great team.
Since spring 2016, I have acted as the Interim Chair of Photography and also of Prints & Drawings. The two sections were divided into separate curatorial departments a few months ago, which led us to the idea of exhibits focusing on Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, the two artists who form the foundations of the MFA and Lane Collections in Photography.
What do you regard as one of your greatest successes as a curator, what did you learn from it and how does it affect the way in which you approach an exhibit today?
I am most proud of how much we have elevated the profile of photography at the MFA since I became curator 2001. We raised our first dedicated funds for acquisitions, funds for a photography gallery, and for the digitization of the collection (allowing our works to be imaged online). We increased our staff to four with Karen Haas, Kristen Gresh, and James Leighton. And we have established a dynamic Friends of Photography program.
We continue to build the collection in significant ways. One of my areas of particular focus is 19th century French and British photography, and over the past fifteen years we have substantially enhanced our collection in this area. We received the inestimable Lane Collection of American Modernist photography, thanks in large part to the efforts of Karen Haas. We are proud to have purchased the Pictorialist landmark, the Seven Last Words, by the turn-of-the-century Bostonian F. Holland Day. We have acquired key works by Nadar, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, George Seeley, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Constantin Brancusi, Josef Sudek (the Sonja Bullaty Collection), Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama, Kikuji Kawada, Stephen Shore, Bruce Davidson (original set of East 100th Street Series), Nicholas Nixon (the entire Brown Sisters series), Naoya Hatakeyama, Anne Collier, and others.
What were some of your favorite photography shows to curate for the MFA?
Since joining the Museum in 1989, I have curated or co-curated more than 35 exhibitions. Some of my favorites include:
Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America (2017)
In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 (2015)
Photo Eye: Avant-Garde Photography in Europe (2014)
Silver, Salt, and Sunlight: Early Photography in Britain and France, (2012)
Violet Isle: A Photographic Portrait of Cuba by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb (2011)
Nicholas Nixon: Family Album (2010)
Fashion Photography (2006)
Josef Sudek: Poet with a Camera (2004)
Czech Modernism, a companion exhibition to Josef Sudek (2004)
Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day (2000)
Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Photographer (1998)
and the MFA venues of the traveling shows Abelardo Morell and the Camera Eye (1999) and Robert Cumming: Cone of Vision (1993)
What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
I think being a curator is one of the greatest jobs in the world. Working with artists, donors, and colleagues who are invested in what we do is truly invigorating. And every exhibition is an opportunity to discover something new. I never imagined that I would learn so much about the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan! But that exhibition was especially fascinating because I had the wonderful opportunity to work with our curator of Japanese art, Anne Nishimura Morse (who brought a history of Japanese art perspective to the project), and with Assistant Curator Tomoko Nagakura (who is Japanese, and had previously worked as a curator of contemporary art in Tokyo). The different points of view that we brought to the exhibition really enhanced its meaning and impact.
For those starting out in the field, I recommend reading as much as possible and looking at as many photographs as you can. This way, you build a sense of connoisseurship for judging the best prints of an image, important for acquisitions and exhibitions. You should also view many shows, observing how to sequence works on a wall, and how to write texts and labels, etc.
How does your exhibit “Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America” advance the overall mission of the MFA’s newly independent Department of Photography? As one of the originators and champions of modern photography, how does Stieglitz retain his relevance to audiences today’?
Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America is a celebration of the beginning of our photography collection, as Boston possesses one of the most important archives of Stieglitz’s photographs. This is thanks to two major gifts. It started in 1923, with Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was our Curator of Indian Art and a friend of Stieglitz. Together they came up with the idea of an acquisition, and Coomaraswamy had to persuade the Museum’s trustees to accept a major gift. Twenty-seven photographs arrived in 1924, the same year that Stieglitz married his second wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. The acquisition was the first group of works by a leading photographer to enter a major American museum, so the acquisition is historic. It was a triumph for Stieglitz, who had long campaigned for the acceptance of the medium as fine art!
After Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe provided an additional forty-two works, making our collection a truly important archive. O’Keeffe took great pains and the group was very carefully selected to be complementary to the photographs that we already had. As the Stieglitz scholar Doris Bry wrote, it is “the finest, most highly distilled small collection that can ever be assembled to show the full extent of his work in concentrated form.” The Stieglitz gifts are the foundation of the MFA’s photography collection, and we have been embroidering on the themes that they present ever since.
We are thrilled to have this exhibition alongside Karen Haas’ Charles Sheeler: From Doyleston to Detroit, which explores the foundation works in The Lane Collection.
What guides your acquisition of contemporary photography into the MFA’s collection? What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring?
Our collection of contemporary photography is excellent in many ways, but it is also uneven. This is largely because our acquisition funds are often slated for historic works. So, we often depend on donors to help the Museum acquire contemporary photography. Some donors have provided funds to be spent out over time, and some have provided money for single acquisitions. We are grateful for both!
There are so many interesting directions in contemporary art that we would love to explore. One area is digital images, including cell-phone snapshots, such as “selfies,” and “Instagram” images. These kinds of photographic images help us look to the future, and are expanding the boundaries of the field. By contrast, there is another group of photographers who are looking back in time, and creating works based on the materiality of traditional photographic processes. These include Marco Breuer, Matthew Brandt, Chris McKaw, John Chiara, Alison Rossiter, Christiane Feser, Takashi Arai, and Clea McKenna, for example. I am very interested in the full spectrum!
What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
The Boston area has many first-rate museum collections: Harvard, the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Peabody Essex, the Boston Public Library, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Atheneum, the MFA, and so on. Many years ago Joanne Lukitsh (professor at MassArt) and I started a group of photography curators and academics, which we named the “Photo Group,” the goal being to better get to know each other and to share knowledge. Karen Haas runs this group nowadays. We love working with our colleagues around the city!
Boston also has wonderful smaller institutions dedicated to photography, such as the Photographic Resource Center and the Griffin Museum of Photography. These organizations stimulate a great deal of interest through dynamic shows. So do the local commercial galleries. The gallery scene is extremely lively, especially in the South End, where the openings are always mobbed!
We have many notable photographers in our city, and terrific studio programs at MassArt, the SMFA/Tufts, Lesley, NESOP, and elsewhere. I am enormously energized by the degree of local interest in photography, by the number of exhibitions spaces and galleries that are around, and by our many artists and engaged collectors!
To read my review of the exhibit “Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America”, go to: https://whatwillyouremember.com/alfred-stieglitz-and-modern-america-at-mfa-boston/
Feature Image: Anne Havinga leads a Curator Talk in the Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America exhibit at MFA, Boston, on view through November 5th, 2017 (photo by Elin Spring).