Q&A: Lisa Sutcliffe, MAM curator of photography
Lisa Sutcliffe started as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new curator of photography at the end of January, and between the museum’s 125th anniversary and its gallery renovation plans, she couldn’t have come at a more exciting time. Sutcliffe brings her extensive expertise and lots of enthusiasm to Milwaukee’s foremost international arts institution. TCD visual art contributor Jessica Sattell took some time to talk with Sutcliffe about her new role, what she loves about photography, and how she became a curator.
Jessica Sattell: Tell us a little about your background. How did your career bring you to the Milwaukee Art Museum?
Lisa Sutcliffe: I’m from Maine originally. My mom is a painter, so I grew up going to a lot of museums and galleries. I studied art history and Italian at Wellesley College, and then after I graduated I moved to New York and worked in a gallery for a while. I took classes at the International Center for Photography and decided that I was interested in the interpreting side of photography, so I went back to graduate school at Boston University and worked on a master’s thesis based on contemporary aerial photography.
To start, I interned at a lot of different museums, and then I interned at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and worked at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, also just outside of Boston. Then I moved to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and studied at the feet of Sandra Phillips, who is the Senior Curator of Photography there. She had learned from John Szarkowski (longtime director of photography at MoMA), so there was this wealth of knowledge there, and working at SFMOMA was a really informative and important experience for me. And now I’m excited to be here!
JS: Contemporary Japanese art is an area that is close to my heart, so I was excited to hear that you took the position at the MAM after reading about your previous research and work with East Asian artists. How did you come to a specialization in Japanese photography?
LS: I had previously studied Japanese photography, but the reason it became my specialty at SFMOMA was because they have one of the premier collections of Japanese photography in the country. I was charged with doing the very first survey of that collection of Japanese pictures, and so I dug into it with that. It was sort of focused on the “Provoke era” — the 1970s — but from there, I became interested in looking at what was happening in contemporary Japan and followed up that first exhibition with Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories (in 2012). When I went to Japan, meeting all of the artists and seeing what a flourishing photography community they have was really exciting.
JS: How and when did you decide that you wanted to become a curator?
LJS: I think I knew that I would study art history, and I always enjoyed talking about the world through pictures. When you’re looking at art, both paintings and photographs, you’re also talking about politics, economics and social history. You can really study the world through personal expression. In college, I used to give these “talks” to my friends about all of the photographs that I had on my walls, and I finally just realized that, in class, when we were assigned to talk about the art in museums, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I love communicating to people about art.
JS: What do you consider to be the most important part of your work as a museum curator?
LJS: It’s hard to choose just one thing, so I would say that it’s part research and part community engagement. I think those two aspects are tied together since museums are meant for the public, so as a curator, you need to make sure that you’re effectively reaching the public and that they are understanding what you’re doing. But, you also have to make sure that you’re doing the research to bring together an exhibition that adds something to your institution’s history.
JS: How did you come to focus on photography?
LJS: At first, I think it was because of photography’s powerful connection to social engagement. From the inception of the medium, there was this interest in wanting to change the world—artists wanted to either create a whole new visual language or instigate social reform in some way through their work. Also, photographs are deeply linked to what we see. There’s always history within the context of photographs, and yet they also change the way that we see the world.
JS: What interests you most about your medium?
LJS: I love working with artists because I love trying to understand what they’re investigating. I love finding out, firstly, why they use photography as a model, and secondly, what it is that they’re seeing. Their close observation is often so unique, and understanding how they translate that viewpoint to us is really interesting to me.
JS: Is there a specific movement or art historical period that you really enjoy working with?
LJS: There are so many! Well, in general, I’m really into the school of art as a mix of intuitive and personal expressions mixed with documentary — like (photographer) Robert Frank, for example. I’m also fascinated by the fate of documentary photography, and how artists are pushing and pulling at the definition of what that means. The relationship between text and photography is interesting, too.
JS: What are you enjoying about working at the MAM?
LJS: I love the staff here, to start, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know the community. Everyone has been so nice so far. I think that each museum has its own unique history and collection, and it’s exciting for me to get to know the collection here and what stories that I can shape from it, as well as get a better sense of what exhibitions are going to resonate most strongly here.
JS: Do you have a favorite piece or two in the MAM collection?
LJS: I love the Josiah McElheny sculpture downstairs (called Modernity circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely). It’s a still life of silver mirrored receptacles in a glass case that creates all these optical illusions. And I really love the little group of these great Larry Sultan pictures that we have. They’re “Untitled Film Stills” from Pictures From Home and they’ll be on view from May 16 to June 16.
JS: How do you like Milwaukee so far?
LJS: I love the community. Everyone is really engaged and excited about what’s happening here, and I’m just looking forward to getting to know it even better.