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Every other year, Danforth Art proclaims its commitment to contemporary photography when the Framingham, MA museum hosts its highly anticipated, guest juried New England Photography Biennial. Happily, it is upon us again from September 9 – December 6, 2015. Jessica Roscio, recently promoted to Head Curator at the Danforth, defined this Biennial’s flow and inspiring visual associations in her layout of the photographs selected by Boston’s 555 Gallery Director, Susan Nalband. And it is Jessica’s curatorial leadership in Danforth Art’s photography exhibits throughout the year that has helped build the museum’s reputation as a beacon for outstanding regional photography. With an extensive educational background in 19th century American photography, gender studies, and material culture, she is a natural fit for the Danforth’s focus on American art from early 19th century to present day. But those who know and have worked with Jessica will tell you it is her exceptional visual intuition and sensitivity, combined with a highly collaborative spirit, that make her such a stand-out. If you are not yet familiar with this curatorial rising star, please let me introduce you to Jessica Roscio!
Are you from the Metro Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I am from Virginia—where I grew up, went to college, and lived after college while working in Washington D.C. I relocated to the Boston area ten years ago, after a few years in Buffalo, to start a doctoral program in American Studies at Boston University. We just moved from Boston to Natick (this week!), so I have no plans to leave the area anytime soon!
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
I have always been a geek about art history, and can pinpoint particular experiences that led me on my career path. By my sophomore year of college I knew that I wanted a career in museums, with a vague idea about what curatorial work entailed. Then I had a truly formative internship in the Department of Photographic History at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, the summer before my senior year. I remember working on a cataloguing project in their archives, opening a box and finding Gertrude Käsebier’s Blessed Art Thou Among Women right on top. I almost fell down; I couldn’t believe that I was that close to a work I had only seen in a book—it was like a celebrity sighting! I also worked as an Archives/Curatorial Assistant in my first museum job out of college, and compiled lists of photographers I wanted to learn more about, crafting potential thesis projects. It was at this job that I discovered the work of Alice Austen, a photographer who so consumed my graduate studies that my daughter is named after her! By the time I started graduate school I knew that I wanted to pursue photographic history, and particularly gender and photographic history.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
As curator, I am in charge of the exhibition program at Danforth Art, and am incredibly excited for this opportunity. I find great satisfaction in working with contemporary artists, and drawing connections between contemporary work and the historical work in our permanent collection, which spans the early nineteenth century to the present day. Crafting an exhibition program that highlights how and what the museum collects is particularly gratifying. The opportunity to curate exhibitions and work with artists whose work I admire is wonderful.
What do you regard as your biggest mistake as a curator and what did you learn from it? What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a curator?
I think that every day offers me a new opportunity to make mistakes! There is certainly never a dull moment at a small museum, and one wears many hats, so I am constantly learning from my job. When I first started curating exhibitions, I had difficulty trusting my own instincts, and sometimes I still suffer from second-guessing. I certainly gain much in terms of knowledge and support from those around me, particularly my colleagues at the museum. In terms of advice, I would suggest to anyone looking at the curatorial field that you must remain focused. Take opportunities as they come, no matter how small. Be willing to juggle multiple part-time jobs at once. Listen to those who are willing to give you advice. Do lots and lots of internships. But also value your time, and know when something just isn’t worth it.
To succeed, every museum must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as Danforth Art’s special role in the Metro Boston photographic community?
Danforth Art is known for our commitment to regional contemporary artists, and we consider ourselves a home for these artists. I want us to continue to serve this community and be open and accessible to artists, to celebrate art and art-making. I also feel that we have a great opportunity to serve the photographic community with our New England Photography Biennial. It is such a pleasure to host this exhibition every two years and the submissions are consistently strong and fascinating. This exhibition is hands down one of my favorite aspects of the job.
What advice would you give to an emerging photographer today about finding opportunities to exhibit at Danforth Art?
The best way that I am introduced to artists and their work is through our annual juried exhibitions, held every summer, as well as the New England Photography Biennial. I have met many artists through their applications and participation in these shows. I also find portfolio reviews incredibly beneficial.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring? What do you find most exciting about the Metro Boston photography scene?
I admire the intellect and creativity of the photographers in our region, from the use of processes and materials, to really stretching the definition of how we characterize a photograph or a series or a concept. I am particularly drawn to photographers who are looking at photographic history, but redefining it to make it personal and contemporary. I find iterations of alternative processes fascinating, and I love works that really meditate on the photograph as an object, viewing the work as something tangible and material. This year’s Photo Biennial is extremely visually stimulating, and the ideas behind much of the work being created are fascinating—it’s surreal, clever, poignant, haunting. These selections are thanks to a fabulous juror, Susan Nalband. I feel that each work in this exhibition carries a narrative far beyond the visual. It is an exciting time to be a part of Danforth Art, and I hope everyone takes this opportunity to experience our vibrant photographic community!
For more information about the 2015 New England Photography Biennial upcoming receptions, artist talks and the museum’s free Open House on Sunday, September 20, 2015, go to: http://www.danforthart.org/newenglandphoto2015.html
Feature Image: Installation view of the 2015 New England Photography Biennial at Danforth Art in Framingham, MA, on view through December 6, 2015 (Photo by Elin Spring).