Chances are you have visited one of our exhibitions, but have you ever wondered what goes into creating it? It’s a multiyear, multipronged effort with lots of paperwork, travel—and thumbtacks—involved.
Since 2014, I have been working on a big project, and I am now in the home stretch. In one month we open Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West, a major exhibition that brings artists of the New York School together with Asian and Asian American Abstract Expressionists to take a fresh look at the first native movement of American Modernism. The show includes more than 50 works from the collections of museums throughout the United States—including SFMOMA; the de Young Museum; the Noguchi Museum; Fort Worth Modern; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Cleveland Museum of Art—from private collections both local and national, and from our museum’s own storage vaults. What follows are some of the steps in the curatorial process.
Every exhibition begins with an idea, and the idea for Abstract Expressionism aligns closely with the museum’s exhibition programming in American art. As an encyclopedic art museum isolated geographically from the nearest land mass, one of our goals is to make the art of the Western world relevant in a community focused on Asia and the Pacific. Given this reality, we have found that our most successful shows either feature well-known artists who spent time in Hawai‘i (Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai‘i Pictures), situate Hawai‘i’s art history into the context of a major national movement (Art Deco Hawai‘i), or revive a little-known aspect of the museum’s collection (From Whistler to Warhol: Modernism on Paper). Abstract Expressionism operates on all three of these fronts: work by well-known members of the New York School (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and others) will hang alongside work by artists active in Hawai‘i (Tadashi Sato, Isami Doi, Bumpei Akaji, and Satoru Abe, to name a few), many of whom are represented in the museum’s collection.
With its main idea in place, the exhibition enters its research and checklist development phase, and depending on its complexity and scope, this can be a years-long process. Planning for this show took about three years. I started by reading everything I could get my hands on about Abstract Expressionism, from monographs and exhibition catalogues to primary sources like artists’ papers and critical accounts of the movement as it unfolded. Along the way I looked at a lot of pictures, virtually and in person, and gradually I developed a list of artists to consider for the show. That list got refined and then refined some more, and finally I had an A-list of artists with which to work.
Once I had my list, I reached out to colleagues in museums that have strong holdings in the artists I was considering to tell them about the exhibition and explain why I was interested specifically in their collections. I also travelled to meet with these potential lenders in person, as well as with private collectors and artists’ descendants. Each of my queries and visits was followed by a letter from our director, who articulated the subject and significance of the exhibition, officially requested the loan, and supplied the necessary paperwork and information about our facility. This bureaucratic process descended into absurdity when we requested three paintings from the University of Iowa Museum of Art—where HoMA’s current director, Sean O’Harrow, previously worked. Sean was in his last days at UIMA when our letter of request crossed his desk, so it was he who signed off on the loan; then, as director here, he countersigned the same loan on our behalf.
Anyway, as I gathered images, information, and leads on potential loans, I embarked on the low-tech method of planning that I use for every exhibition, which basically involves pinning thumbnail images of artworks to a bulletin board in my office (pictured at top), moving them around, at times swapping them out and replacing them with alternatives, sometimes even removing them altogether, and in the process allowing the exhibition to take shape visually. Meanwhile, responses to our loan requests flooded in, requiring even more rearranging of my bulletin-board pictures until the final slate of artworks—its checklist—emerged.
At this point the planning of the show—which we museum staffers affectionately call “AbX”—expanded to touch virtually all of the departments in the museum, because, after all, every exhibition and especially this one is way more than the scholarship and aesthetic choices of its curator. Exhibitions require registrars to make arrangements for shipping, installation designers to plan the look and logistics of the layout, preparators to hang and place the artwork in the gallery, communications professionals to generate interest in the show and determine its graphic identity, educators to dream up creative opportunities for learning, a frontline staff to handle ticketing and admission, and a development team to ensure that we have the material resources to pull the whole thing off. The work of all of these teams is essential to the success of our exhibitions, so this fall when you stop by the museum to see “AbX,” take a moment to appreciate not only how it was curated, but the skill and dedication of our professional staff.
Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West will be on view at the museum from September 7, 2017 until January 21, 2018.
Theresa Papanikolas, Ph.D.
Deputy Director of Art and Programs