Curator Interview 1: David Little — Head of the Department of Photographs for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
(On January 6, 2010 I did an interview with David Little who is the Head of the Department of Photography and New Media for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This interview was originally intended for a publication that went out of business along with about 300 hundred other magazines in 2010. Since the original publication went under this interview sat dormant in the catacombs of my laptop all year. I really enjoyed speaking with David and definitely learned some new things about major museum curators. David curates a few special photo events each year called New Pictures featuring an individual photographer of his choice for a solo show at the MIA. My interview questions were all questions I was personally interested in and were not focused on a single topic or theme so we covered a lot of ground in our conversation.)
Would a museums or gallery ever display a photographic work on a digital screen? I think most people think of fine arts photography as something that stays in a printed form. Do you think this will ever change?
Yes, we could and maybe would display photographs in a digital format. But it would have to be a format that the given artist wanted to show it in. You wouldn’t take works from your collection and present them on digital screens if that is not how the original artists had intended for the work to be viewed. For instance, I guest curated a show for the Minneapolis Photography Society that the wall text said I based my selection on JPEGs. And that I was certain there would be a lot of surprises when I was able to see my final selections in print. The whole idea of looking at something as a JPEG and then as printed matter, or in a book, are very, very different things.
An interesting example we have here are some of our Ansel Adams pieces. If you go upstairs we have a comparison of an early Adams to a late Adams. The late Adams has much more contrast and has a new modern look. The early Adams has a very broad range of grays and much more detail in the texture. For a curator it’s the better print, but I think for a lot of people coming in, or those people who may have seen Ansel Adams’ work in a book, the second print is the right print. And then along side of it there’s that weird other print that has funny grays and it’s even bleached out a bit. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that we wouldn’t purposefully show a piece on a screen unless that was how the artist wanted it to be shown.
Does the MIA have a lot of its permanent photographic collection viewable online?
Yes. The MIA was really out of the game for a while before I started here. When you look at our digital collection, it looked like it was done maybe three years ago, but it was actually created closer to eight years ago. We have about 11,500 photographs in our collection. We had about 3300 online when I started, but now we’ve probably only got about another 500 photographs before we’ll have them all digitally scanned and viewable online. We’re now redoing our website and my goal is that within the next year we’ll have our entire photography collection online. We are here to be a resource and we want people to be able to see everything we have in our department.
I thought it was interesting that the title of your department is the, ‘Department of Photography and New Media.’ The ‘new media’ part is what I’m really interested in, because I think that’s a lot of what’s happening in the world right now. Do you curate for things that are mixed digital media or video pieces? What about things like CGI art or other things along those lines? How do you incorporate that into your collection?
This is a completely new thing for us and is a change that has happened within the last month. We purchased our first video piece, which was a large scale work. It hasn’t been seen yet. It is going to be seen in our exhibition in April. I have a show that is happening in the fall where I’ll have at least three or four video works. I think this type of work is a natural evolution of post 1960’s art, which is an area that I’m trying to develop. Our collection is fairly traditional and isn’t well developed past the late 1960’s. It falls off after that. My role is to really start collecting from the 60’s up to the present day.
What happens from the 60’s to the present is a kind of breakdown. Actually, it’s not a breakdown… A better way to describe it is that it become more of an opening up of other medias or, the whole idea of artists using photographs in new ways as opposed to ‘photographers’ creating images in the traditional sense. Artists have started playing around with a lot of the pre-scripted categories. In any case, an outgrowth of this category is that photographers now make videos. In a museum we have to decide where that type of work should exist. And we decided in makes most sense in our department. ‘Contemporary Art’ is another department that will also collect video. We will work very closely together on video purchases in new media.
So, to answer your question we will expand into all those areas. How we do it is another question, because it’s a huge area. It’s a huge undertaking because we’re already behind in terms of new media. And we also have another great museum here in town that does that kind of new media work. So we will have to find a niche for this type of work within the MIA collection, which we are in the process of doing for new media.
On a side note, I find it interesting that a lot of artists who are creating in film or experimental video are really looking at, or inspired by, photography as much as they are by film. As well as the other fine arts. So this makes the photography department an even better place for video and new media to be located.
One thing I’ve been really curious about thinking from a fine arts standpoint is, do you place a distinction between a photograph that was created in a film format versus one created in a digital format? Or do you feel a digital camera is just the next tool in the timeline of creating photographs?
For me it’s not about the tool, it’s about the image. I will sometimes ask, of course, if it’s a digital image because it might tell me more information about the image itself. But we don’t really make any of those distinctions. I think that there was a tradition within this department, as well as other departments, to make more of those distinctions. But if one were to do that you’d probably miss most of what happened in the last 30 years and particularly what’s happening now; if you really restricted yourself to certain machines or certain traditions.
So I’m more interested in the image than I am in technique. The whole digital question is a fascinating one, because one of the more interesting things I’ve heard said about digital is that digital is sometimes aspiring for film, and I think the digital photographers who are doing the most interesting things now are accepting the attributes of digital and using those in their production and not being caught in the in-between of analog verses digital worlds.
To me digital is digital. It has it’s own qualities and there is generally a noticeable visual difference. Your eyes know the difference. But the important thing is that I don’t place a judgment value on the differences between film and digital images. Again, in the end it all comes back to the image, what is actually in front of you.
It all comes back to the art then?
Art is part of it, but another part of it is the power of the image. The raw power, the historical power, and the importance of the image. Because I think the other part of that is that there are photographs that we could buy in the future or make part of the collection that weren’t made within an art context. Images that weren’t even made by an artist. And I think that you’ll see more and more of that in our collecting in the future. And in some cases we might collect images that were not made by a ‘photographer,’ they could be images created by an artist who is making a picture but photography is not their main medium.
You mentioned already how many pieces you have. How do you determine what ends up in the gallery space at any given time? Do you have a seasonal rotation?
There are two exhibitions a year. But we’re always trying to figure out ways we can showcase our collection because we’ve spent the museum’s resources to own our collection. When we get works from artists and put them in the collection it is a part of our obligation to show that work as much as possible. In terms of what goes up for public view during these exhibitions a lot of time it is based on a theme. But, there are some special images like the Migrant Mother our Dorothy Lang piece, which is one of our signature pieces that will always be in the rotation.
A lot of the works in our Masterpiece book are so well known to the public they are up for public view most of the year. When going through the collection I have to think about what pieces haven’t been on view in two years and figure out ways to get them out into the rotation that makes sense for whatever theme we are working with at the time. It can be a complex thing sometimes.
There was a time when Starry Night was off the wall and it was awful because people would travel from Ireland or come from China for their one visit to the MIA and they’d say, “where is Starry Night?!” They’d come just for that painting. So we have to think a little bit about that as well. We don’t have quite that level of masterpieces in our area, but we have few images that people like to see, so that is a kind of exception in terms of how I choose pieces that will be shown at any given time.
How do you determine new pieces that you’re going to collect? Or rather, how do you add pieces to the collection?
You make a plan. It starts with that.
Like a business plan?
It’s not quite a business plan. It’s more of a shopping plan. Kind of like going into your closet and seeing that you’ve got 5 pairs of black pants and 3 brown jackets and then thinking maybe you need a blue jacket. In terms of art the way that that plays out is like how we just bought this Martin Parr here (he points to a photo on the wall in his office). Martin Parr is an important British photographer, probably one of the leading British photographers, a leading Magnum photographer and a major figure in the 80’s and 90s. But we didn’t have a Martin Parr image here at the MIA. So, it’s like one of those things, we didn’t have a tux…. we needed one, so we went out and got that picture. As a curator you need to look at important figures, figures that you want to support, and you see what you already have in your collection. One buying case might be that we don’t have something that we should so it becomes a no brainer, we need to get a piece by that given artist. Or in another case you might think we’ve got a lot of pieces by Alex Soth, but the best piece he ever did was X, and we don’t have that piece. So maybe you try to figure out a way to get a given artists’ best or most famous piece. There are a lot of ways to think about adding to a collection….
So you might buy a piece to round out a certain aspect of the collection?
Yes, in some cases that’s the idea. We only have work by Jill Perez from the 60’s, but we don’t have any of her work from the 80’s or the 90’s, and we might want to do that. Or you might decide photographer Y or Z he or she was producing strong work in the 80’s, but their 90’s work isn’t very strong so we won’t add anything from that period of time in their career.
Any way you look at it it’s a massive undertaking. It’s always a work in progress because you’re looking at time periods, you’re looking at categories, and you’re looking at individual artists. And at the end of the day you’re also looking at what the collection looks like as a whole. You’re asking yourself, “What does the MIA collection represent?” And then you look at that whole collection in relationship to the other locally based museums and think of the MIA collection in relationship to these other bodies of work. This becomes a complex thing; when you’re thinking in terms of entire museum collections as they relate to each other.
For me, I don’t want to have a collection that looks like everyone else’s collection. Which tends to happen a lot in this arena. But, I guess it happens in all facets of life as well. People tend to buy or do the same things and we have to ask ourselves, “How are we going to distinguish our collection?” But that’s a big question, right? And it is also the fun part. It is like putting together your most ideal sports team. Who wouldn’t like to think about having all their favorite sports heros on the same team at the same time?! Right?!
Along those same lines is it your job as the curator of photography to set this theme in motion and determine the vision you have for the museum?
Yep, that’s exactly it…. to a point. When I came to the MIA it already had a certain identity and a part of my job is to understand the institution and its history and build off of that. I don’t feel it is my job to change the direction the museum was taking in the past, but to take control of where we are headed now. I’m here to refresh our vision.
If you worked at a different museum would you have a totally different mission?
Yes. It would be a different mission and I would almost certainly collect pieces by different artists or different pieces by the same artist. For example, if you give me five works by a given artist if I were working for the Whitney I would choose one, but since I’m now working for the MIA I would likely choose a different piece. The idea is that there may be a best piece by an artist, but then there is also the best for your institution and sometimes that could be the same piece. But, a lot of the time it wouldn’t be the same choice.
When buying new pieces are you actually purchasing them from auction houses like Christy’s or Sotheby’s?
We can do that once and a while.
Are you operating on the same market as anybody else? There’s not a museum discount or anything liked that is there?
Priced the same.
How much work are you purchasing from artists themselves, specifically? Does that happen? Or is it usually through dealers?
It does happen. It happens sometimes. I don’t know the percentage, but sometimes we purchase from artists, sometimes from auctions, and sometimes from dealers. Most of the time we purchase work from dealers because most of the artists that we end up selecting are represented by a dealer. Not all of them but most of them, generally.
And you do get donations to the collection, too?
We get donations, as well.
How does that work? Is that usually coming from private parties?
They do come from private parties, and then those donations are treated almost like purchases. They’re evaluated and sometimes we say no and sometimes we say yes. It’s not a pro forma that if they’re offered that they’re accepted. Because that’s also a part of our collection plan. When someone offers me something I decide whether it fits within our plan and then you go forward from there.
Would you ever say, “That’s a great piece but it doesn’t fit in our plan.” ?
Well, you know what it’s like — How many shirts have you gotten from your grandmother that sit in your closet for years and years, and you feel bad about it, but you still don’t ever wear them. Not to compare fine art to the shirts your grandmother gave you for Christmas, but you get the picture. We don’t want to take an image that doesn’t do anyone any good if we have it in our collection. The other major factor involved in the decision making process for museums is about time and money. We have to mange, maintain, and insure our whole collection. This is really our number one job as a museum — to preserve and protect the work.
How much communication do you have with curators at other museums? Is it fairly open? Or is it competitive? Or do you not communicate with each other?
We do communicate with one another. And just like in any other field it is competitive with some people and not as competitive with others. But generally it’s pretty innocuous. It’s not a super competitive job. We’re not on the front page of the newspaper with a headline like, “David Little got the next ‘big named X’ piece before the Museum of Modern Art.” That type of issues comes up for other areas within the museum, like paintings, there is only one… so whatever museum has it has the only copy. With photography there are usually five to seven prints, so we’ve got a shot at getting a specific piece of work if we want it. We are aware of what our peers or collecting, but again it’s not super competitive.
Do you have a favorite photographer? Or a favorite few photographers or a favorite piece?
You know, it’s funny, I don’t. I like lots of pieces, and I certainly have favorites within certain artists bodies of work or genres. I love Marcel Duchamp’s work. I’ve always been a great admirer of his. I tend to admire artists that I would say are sort of non-photographers in a way, they are sculptures, or have some other fine arts focus, but then also create photographs…. For example, I love Man Ray. He was an artist that didn’t stick to a defined path or artistic discipline.
Do you know of any or hear rumblings of really new voices in the fine arts photo world? Is there like, oh man this guy is being collected by 10 museums?
You know what, I wouldn’t tell you that if I did. That’s the one thing I wouldn’t tell you. If I wanted to tell someone a tip like that I might tell it to a collector who I know will buy a piece and then give it to us!
So that is a guarded thought?
Yeah, you don’t want to talk about it – you can’t spend a lot of time talking about who you’re collecting or who you’re thinking about anyway with all your other responsibilities as a curator. But, there are always young photographers. I wouldn’t say that there’s ever any one person that’s really, really standing out above everyone else. One of the ways you could find who I like or think is new talent is by coming to our New Pictures series. That’s what that series is all about. It was created to highlight young photographer, as well as mid-career artists, who I think are doing important work.
That is my way of letting people know who I think are artists to watch. I’m not claiming that they’re going to be the next superstar, but I’m more or less saying, let’s take a closer look at that person. And hopefully as the series moves forward it will expand to feature multiple photographers each round instead of featuring just one at a time like we are now. So you’ll get to see more of a trend of what’s happening as opposed to viewing a single persons work.
Do you choose the artists for the New Picture series?
Yes. I’ve chosen all the artist so far, but that probably will change at some point moving forward. In a few years we’ll have other curators selecting, maybe even artists selecting new photographers.
And did you start that program?
Yes, I did. We started it here last fall.
Have people been receptive to it?
It’s been great, actually really great. We’ve got another one coming up in February, so it will be interesting to see what kind of response we get as more people know about it.