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In late 2015, Sarah Kennel came aboard as The Byrne Family Curator of Photography at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. She is co-curator of this summer’s blockbuster Sally Mann exhibit, “A Thousand Crossings”, along with her former boss at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Sarah Greenough. The PEM is no ordinary museum and Kennel brings a special blend of talent and experience to her role at a time of expansion for this North Shore gem, noted for its celebrated collections related to the history of maritime trade. Please join me in discovering Sarah’s photographic passions and exciting curatorial aspirations for PEM’s unique photographic archive.
How did you become interested in curating photography? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that led you into it?
I never set out to be a photography curator. I love art history and followed that path from college to a fellowship at the National Gallery of Art where I had the opportunity to work on projects with different curators. Later, I landed a post-doctoral fellowship that was split between the Departments of Photographs and French Painting. A few months into my fellowship, a job opened up in Photographs and my boss took a chance on me, although there were more highly trained candidates. I started out compiling research files on André Kertész and, although I had a huge learning curve, I was thrilled to work so closely with the artwork. I think photography curators often have a much more intimate relationship to the works we curate; I had full access to our storeroom, where I could rifle through, study and lay out works – it was exciting! Plus, I loved learning a whole alternate history of art through photography.
Are you from the Boston area and, if not, what brought you here?
I am originally from Los Angeles, although I have not lived there since I graduated from high school. Most recently, I lived in Washington, D.C. for nearly 15 years. When the opportunity to lead the Photography Department at the PEM opened up, I jumped at the chance. Moving to this area, so rich in universities and with such a strong community of photographers, has been stimulating.
To succeed, every museum must occupy a unique niche within its local culture. What do you see as the Peabody Essex Museum’s special role in the Boston photographic community?
PEM’s photography collection, like its other holdings, is truly distinctive and reflects the museum’s origins as both a local and global institution, with deep roots in New England history and the larger story of global trade and cultural intersection. Therefore, we don’t try to tell the traditional history of photography as a fine art form. Instead, our rich holdings and our interest in bringing contemporary photographers into dialogue with the museum reflects and expands upon photography as a global practice – that is, a window into historical complexity that draws connections between past and present and between different cultures. This is well demonstrated in an exhibit I curated that was on view in the winter of 2016, Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention.
How did your new Sally Mann exhibit “A Thousand Crossings” come to the PEM and how does it fit with your curatorial mission at the museum? What are you planning next and what types of photography exhibits are you hoping to bring to the PEM when its building expansion opens in 2019?
A Thousand Crossings was officially launched in 2014, when I was a curator at the National Gallery of Art. I had already met Mann and had been aware of the new work she was making relating to the history of the South and in particular the tintypes she was making in and near the Dismal Swamp area in Southhampton County, Virginia. Around the same time, the National Gallery assumed stewardship of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s collection, which held numerous works by Mann. The opportunity to study these works up close, to think about the new work and the awareness that Mann had not yet been the subject of a major traveling exhibition prompted me to propose this exhibition at the NGA. I recall sending my initial thoughts on the five themes around which exhibition would be organized to Mann, who responded that it aligned closely with the structure and themes of her autobiography, Hold Still, which was in the final stages of editing. So it all fell into place fairly quickly. When I made the decision to come to PEM in 2015, the show became a co-curated and co-organized affair between PEM and the NGA, which I think strengthened it and has allowed PEM to work with a number of really wonderful institutions that are partaking in the extensive tour of the show. I hope that other exhibitions we organize will follow suit and bring PEM’s reputation forward as an institution that organizes important photography exhibitions. I’d like to balance major evaluations or re-evaluations of well-known artists like Mann as well as exhibitions that bring lesser-known artists and movements to light.
Our upcoming project suggests the ambitions and focus on the photography program: in summer of 2019, we will present a retrospective exhibition on the work of Olivia Parker, a tremendously talented, North Shore-based photographer who has not yet been the subject of this kind of exhibition. In addition to showing the full range of her work to audiences who may only know a little bit of it, the show and catalogue will offer an expanded view of photography in the Boston area in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, Parker is one of several really important women photographers working in this area in that period who, I think, have not yet received their full due. I am hoping that the programming around this exhibition will also allow us to explore the evolution of photography in the Boston-area and Parker’s influences on many younger artists.
The other two projects on the docket drill down into PEM’s holdings, which are filled with unusual and delightful works. The first, slated for summer 2019, is a small, focused show on one–actually two–of our most prized possessions: John Thomson’s album Foochow and the River Min, of which PEM possesses two copies (fewer than 10 are known worldwide). I am co-curating this exhibition with Assistant Curator Gordon Wilkins, who has been working very closely with me on exploring and refining the photography collections. We will display our bound and unbound copies along with work by a contemporary Chinese photographer, Luo Dan, who has been heavily influenced by Thomson’s work. We are also in the planning stages for a major exhibition on nineteenth-century photography in China, a multi-disciplinary, loan exhibition that will highlight our strong holdings in this area and provide a new lens on Qing dynasty Chinese art and culture. I am so fortunate in that I have been able to bring on board an assistant curator and several really wonderful research assistants for this show who are experts in nineteenth-century photography in China–a small but rapidly growing field.
Finally, in 2020, we will open a dedicated gallery for photography in the Safdie building as part of our museum-wide reinstallation of all the collections. This space will allow us to reveal our photography collections over time, whether through thematic or artist-based displays. It will also be a great space for showing recent acquisitions, multi-disciplinary shows that draw from the museums’ diverse holdings, or presenting small loan-based exhibitions that nevertheless pack a punch.
How do you describe what you do? Is there a particular activity from which you derive the most joy and satisfaction?
I used to joke that being a curator was combining two very different jobs: writing a scholarly book and putting on a Broadway show at the same time! A lot of my work is administrative, trying to coordinate the activities and ambitions of the photography department with other areas in the museum – we are all co-dependent! I also spent the first six months of the job going through boxes and boxes of photographs, trying to get a handle on the collection so I could devise a strategy for growth and display of the collection. The tasks are endless, though: I travel to see works in other collections for upcoming exhibitions, I help write grants to fund conservation, I write acquisition proposals, visit collectors and donors, brainstorm future exhibitions, research and write exhibition catalogs, work interdepartmentally on collaborative projects, and when I can, visit with artists. My favorite part of the job is the privilege of opening a box and discovering an amazing artwork or artist that I previously knew nothing about.
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?
Being too quick to dismiss something as unimportant. Curators are constantly inundated with requests to meet with artists, to consider exhibitions, to accept offers of gifts that may or may not fit our criteria. But once, early on in my career, I got one of those random phone calls from a woman who described some photographs she had from her parents, “pictures of the wild west.” I put it off for a long time, assuming these were not terribly important. In fact, they turned out to be Kasebier platinum prints! So, my advice would be to stay humble, be open, trust your instincts but don’t make assumptions.
What current trends in photography do you find most inspiring? What do you find most exciting about the Boston photography scene?
We are in an interesting moment in photography in which many artists are returning to some form of the origins of the medium, reflecting on the long history of photography as a light-based, chemical process or rethinking the role of photography as an index of the past, or as a peculiar form of memory. As a curator who adores nineteenth-century photography, I’m enjoying the creative mining of the medium’s past. I’m also amazed by how photography is changing, particularly the dramatic shift in modes of circulation. Artists are re-defining photography in our virtual, networked society that lives in a 24/7, global visual culture.
It is particularly exciting to be in Boston after years in Washington, D.C. because of the richness of the photography community here. In addition to a really wonderful network of curators, I have been impressed with how many incredibly talented photographers live, work and teach in the wider Boston region. There are so many museums with robust photography programs – not just the big institutions, but many smaller ones, including all the educational institutions – that are putting up amazing exhibitions and lecture programs with a very thoughtful, intellectual focus. The hardest part is keeping up with it all!
Feature Image: Sarah Kennel, Byrne Family Curator of Photography at Peabody Essex Museum speaks about the Sally Mann exhibit, “A Thousand Crossings” (photo by Elin Spring).