Michelle Millar Fisher
The Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts within the Contemporary Art Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Conducted by Erin Dowding on April 2, 2023 at Providence, Rhode Island
Michelle Millar Fisher speaks about her education, background, and career. She gives an account of her approach to curation and the roles that mentorship and collaboration have played in her work. She comments upon her experiences working within and outside of museums, including the realities and compromises of doing so when considering supporting a family. Millar Fisher also discusses the project she is working at the time of this interview, which focuses on craft schools within the forty-eight United States that she has visited, as well as issues and future projects that intrigue her.
Interview duration: 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Michelle Millar Fisher (MMF): Thank you for having me. [laughs.]
ED: I thought we could start with how do you define your work?
MMF: That's a really good question. It depends on any given day what the work is that I'm doing. The job that I have at the Museum of Fine Arts, I often say I'm working with living people who make things. That gives me a really broad brush to be able to work within, both because I want it to be broad, but also that's the nature of the work in the department, and I think in most museums, in the contemporary department. As you can tell from my title, the job that I do there is with contemporary decorative arts. I was told when I was offered the job, when they put the job description out into the public realm for people to apply to it, they had the opportunity to refashion the job title and thought, should it be “contemporary craft”? Should it be “contemporary decorative arts”? Should it be “artisanry”? What would the best thing be? It had historically been “contemporary decorative arts” for the seven or eight years before, when it was inaugurated with a wonderful curator, Emily Zilber. They continued with “contemporary decorative arts” when they hired me because they thought to keep it broad. They needed a material culture person, somebody who could look after and steward the studio craft collection at the museum. But I define my job as working with living people making things because although some of the time I'm working with what might be defined as contemporary craft, the last exhibition that I've organized at the museum was a very small jewel box show of film. It looked at the work of Maria Lassnig, a late Austrian painter. Then I also work across the collection. I'm currently working on a contemporary collection exhibition that draws in painting and sculpture and installation; no time-based media work actually in this one, but plenty of what might be termed contemporary craft. So “living people making things” allows me to describe broadly what I do. It also has the term “making” in it because I think it allows me to make the case that the bread and butter of what I'm doing, craft and contemporary decorative arts, is just the same as other artists, other living people, who might be making other things in other media. And so while that phrase doesn’t include the terms craft or decorative arts or a medium specific term, it doesn’t lose them, I hope, because they're very important. And then, outside the museum, I do other things. Most of the time it really is working with living people making things–and by living people, not always living artists, sometimes other living writers and historians. However, with Designing Motherhood, I've worked a lot with maternity care specialists, public policy makers, you name it.
ED: Thank you. Tell me about the path that brought you to where you are now.
MMF: Where I am now. That's a really good question, sort of an existential question. Where am I now? [laughs.] I work as a curator in a museum. My first job in a museum was as a security officer at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. It was because it was the only [entry-level museum] job that paid and I needed to have a paying job. I did that in my last year of undergraduate work. I was a cook up until that point in time. And that's what got me through university in Scotland, in Glasgow. I ended up in design [history] and came to understand that I really liked material culture through [University of Glasgow professor] Juliet Kinchin. I walked into a class of hers pretty early on in my undergraduate days in Glasgow. I didn't know her. I didn't know design history existed. I had not grown up going to museums, but I was really interested in the materiality of things. I grew up in Scotland in a fairly rural area. I thought I wanted to be a vet, so I had sheep and ducks and chickens and geese and many other animals when I was younger. And I also lived in an area of the world that was very well known for textile making. So I lived next to people who had what I might now term a craft practice, but certainly that was not the way in which it was formulated, at least in our everyday parlance. And so when I thought about university, I thought I was going to study veterinary science, but I got a C in high school physics. And so I went to uni to do literature, which I loved, but I realized quickly that I wanted to keep it for myself and didn't really want it to be part of something I dissected in an academic setting. Juliet's class on the domestic landscape was the first class I ever took with her and I thought, yes, this is it. This is the politics of the everyday. This is how I can make sense of the world. Juliet did so many things for me. She taught me that graduate school existed. She was my recommender. She was my thesis advisor as an undergraduate and for my first MPhil. There was another significant tutor I had as an undergraduate, Tina Fisk. I needed some relevant work experience and she said her husband needed some help on the farm. He was an artist and she said that if I could get up early and come down to Dumfries with her on weekends, I could have a job. And I didn't know, but it turned out her husband was a very well known sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy. And so I ended up working with him and Tina and others on his team. That introduced me to what it was to work with living artists, which was magical. It was on a farm. It was outside. He was kind, so was Tina. It was a really interesting environment to be in, he was having ideas as you were watching, and then you participated in helping make those ideas happen. That, combined with a deep love of reading and writing in Juliet's area of design, is what precipitated everything I do now. I applied for internships on the East Coast of the US. I applied to many, many, many of them, probably about fifteen, and put together some money that could keep me over a summer. I didn't get any of them and then the Guggenheim wrote back with about three or four weeks to spare before the summer. They said somebody dropped out, and would I like to intern in the museum education department? I said yes immediately. I went to an internet cafe and booked a room in the YMCA on 92nd and Lexington on the Upper East side. As soon as I got to New York, I thought, I love this place. I'd never been before. I didn't know anyone there but I had just the best summer, summer 2005. At the end of the internship I said, you know, if there's a job that comes up, I'd really love to take it and they actually created one for me, which was amazing. It would not happen, I think, now but I applied, I got the job, and I moved to the States. And so the path that got me here really was Juliet and Tina, two amazing teachers, opening up a whole world that I didn't know existed until I got to university. And then very circuitously pursuing that. Juliet moved to New York, about three years later, she came to MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, as a curator of design] and she invited me to apply for a curatorial assistant job. I was very kindly given an interview and, at that time, I was absolutely not qualified for it at all. And so between 2008 and 2014, over six years, I did everything I could to get experience in that curatorial realm. It was often very adjacent. I worked as communications and publications manager at Independent Curators International. I was not doing any curatorial work but I was looking at how exhibitions function. I worked for a year, like one or two days a week, in the Met’s Arms and Armor Department. Again, not my area of specialty, but it was a way of seeing how a museum curatorial department worked. And I just kept applying every time there was a curatorial position open [at MoMA] and I kept getting rejected [laughs] until finally they needed a six-month maternity cover for Paola Antonelli [MoMA curator of contemporary design]. I didn't really know Paola's work at all, although now I'm ashamed that I didn't know that, because what an amazing career she's had. I just knew Juliet and I was so admiring of her. And so I applied, got the six month maternity cover at MoMA, which then turned into four years of being a curatorial assistant under Paola and Juliet and then I ended up in Philly and then now in Boston. So I've come to this point, I think, mostly through Juliet and a lot of luck. And those jobs were buttressed right until halfway through MoMA–so until 2015, 2016–with nannying, bartending, all of the things that allow you to have an arts career in New York. So I am equally good at shepherding small children from an Upper East Side school to their playdate as I am putting together a curatorial checklist. And indeed those are transferable skills. I ended up here really through a love of objects and through a really inspirational teacher too. So, yes. Yeah. [laughs.]
ED: You've talked about this a little bit, but who has been a mentor to you? How did you develop your own sensibility as a curator and historian?
MMF: That's a really good question. So yeah, Juliet was definitely a mentor, and Paola was, and they imparted a lot. It was wonderful to watch how Juliet just has such–she's an amazing scholar–what a command of design history and larger history that she has. And she creates these rich environments in her exhibitions that are filled with ephemera and comparative objects and just each sort of–it's like, you know, it's a way of storytelling that is so joined up and connected. Paola is incredibly good at marshalling information and making it deeply accessible to a wide range of publics, and also about keeping her finger on the pulse of what is happening now and thinking expansively about what design can be. So I learned everything I know from both of those folks and I think they've left a deep imprint on me. I think I developed my own sensibility very, very quickly at MoMA–I was thirty-one when I started there and I wanted to have a child. I wanted to have some kind of family and I looked around and that was absolutely not the environment there. Either people just didn't have children and so that wasn't a conversation in the office or, you know, for most of my four years there, fourteen-hour days were a good short day. And sometimes it was much longer than that. I could leave there at 11:00 PM, midnight, 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM and then be back in the office at 9:00 AM the next day. And so I developed a curatorial and research sensibility that inflected every question I have around art labor, around how you come to research, who gets to access the research, how the research is done. Which is where Designing Motherhood came from but also where union organizing and other types of labor questions come from. I was really interested, therefore, in areas of the design history canon, collecting methods, the ways in which work was done, that I didn't see happening in that department. I mean the curatorial work, the research methodologies–I mean Paola and Juliet were amazing–but the structures in which it all happens. I still think about that a lot now at the MFA too. I felt like I wasn't really satisfied by what was happening in the museum. A lot of the time I looked for subjects or methods that had been historically shut out, and a lot of that was informed by gender, histories of gender, and I was particularly interested in the workplace and how their histories do or do not work for women. So a lot of the reading that I was particularly interested in was in gender studies, feminist studies, that kind of area rather than maybe in a kind of pure design history. Juliet certainly was very interested in that too.
MMF: And [Juliet] was a good model. I ended up reading folks like Adrienne Rich, for example, when I was thinking about Designing Motherhood. And that just wasn't a conversation that was latent in the objects and ideas that we were looking at from MoMA's collection in the contemporary design area at least. Juliet certainly was because there was the project that she did at MoMA, and I'm now going to forget the exact title of, but it was the large compendium that they did of women in the arts [Modern Women Initiative]. And so that was there. But in the projects in which I was involved, there was not always a deep connection to a research methodology grounded in feminist study or gender-based understandings of the world. And that's really what I sought out. Throughout my time at MoMA, I was also doing doctoral work at the CUNY [City University of New York] Graduate Center. I came into MoMA with a dissertation on Le Corbusier and his acolytes. I thought it was going to be very easy to do that [laughs] alongside work and it was not. So I changed topics and now I'm just about finished with a thesis looking at craft education. I've been able to meld what I do at the MFA with my dissertation work, which is the only way I could get it done. CUNY gave me an environment in which I could, I guess, I don't want to say think more deeply because I was thinking deeply all of the time and the museum was a very rich place, but made me think differently than I was able to in the museum and think critically about the research methodologies of the museum from a different vantage point. I felt like I could have one foot out of the museum and one in an academic setting. So yeah, to answer your question, I think I was developing my own interests, languages, approaches, because I was looking at the machine that was MoMA and thinking about the parts of it that rolled over or completely missed areas of history, design, or otherwise that I was interested in. And that I felt would help me answer the question of like, how do I have a life, a family life, and also a good life, a good career? Like how can those two things meld, I'm not finding that within this particular space. That was the very question that began in Juliet's domestic landscapes class, thinking, you know, how do people's actual lives and their designed lives meld and when they don't, what's the friction? What's the tension? And that, yeah, that was the question that I was really energized by and that probably gave me the leverage that I feel is at least personal to me in my practice. [laughs.]
ED: So maybe we should go from here into Designing Motherhood. Can you tell me a little bit, you started already, about how the project came to be?
The 1956 Einar Egnell breast pump on display in Designing Motherhood. Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
Jimena Acosta Romero and Michelle Millar Fisher, I Will What I Want: Women, Design, and Empowerment, 2017. Image courtesy of Michelle Millar Fisher.
Designing Motherhood at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center in February 2023. Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
ED: Since it's been touring, even maybe since the Instagram page started, but then with the exhibit and the book, what conversations have popped up and have begun since then?
MMF: In terms of with audiences or with our curatorial team or both?
ED: Maybe both.
MMF: Well, one of the things that comes up fairly often is the Dobbs decision last year that came down about ten days after we opened the exhibition in Boston. And someone would say, oh, the exhibition is so timely now that we're thinking about some of the issues in the real world. We have a couple of technologies that relate to abortion in the exhibition amongst many other designs. In response, we said, you know, well, misogyny has always been around. It's not like it has a special moment now that this decision has come down from the Supreme Court. It's just indicative of the ways in which these conversations and these actions and these realities are pervasive socially. Although they are experienced differently at different historical moments and for everybody depending on their social location, the conversation has– in many ways it hasn't changed. Ours is a fundamental impulse to investigate the taboo nature of these designs that buttress the arc of human reproduction. I guess what has changed is that we have–in each space there has been a localization of these conversations through working with the local team–really thinking about how the checklist can respond to its location and then working with a local set of advisors. In Philly, we were looking at the Medical Museum, the Mütter Museum. That was a very specific set of design histories and a lens that I don't think–the amazing curators, they truly are fantastic there–they had not really applied a design history lens to their objects. And so it was really a wonderful conversation to have with them to think about the social history of the IUD. In a sense that included conversations around medical racism, for example, or wider histories of maternal and infant health that looked at midwifery-led models of care rather than OB-GYNs, who were the members of their organization. In Boston, we were at the MassArt Art Museum that is connected to MassArt [Massachusetts College of Art and Design], which is the nation’s first and only public college of art and design. They have courses across all media. We wanted to make sure that there was contemporary art and designers within the exhibition that responded so when students or faculty came to use the exhibition, they could see their own materials and methods reflected somehow in at least one of the works. And then when it went to Seattle, we localized it through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where it is just now. They have a particular interest in global health and so more objects on the checklist spoke to that. The conversation in the exhibition itself has changed based on locality and those have always been conversations informed by a local set of advisors.
Yona Speculum prototype (designed by Fran Wang and Rachel Hobart) on display in Designing Motherhood, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, Seattle, Washington. Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
The Designing Motherhood curatorial team (left to right): Zoë Greggs, Amber Winick (with Jules), Gabriella Nelson, Dr. Juliana Rowen Barton, and Michelle Millar Fisher. Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
MMF: Yeah. I love it. So I always talk about this team as one that we got to build ourselves because no museum would take this project on or no museum at which I'd worked in my day job would take this project on. We had to do it in our evenings and weekends and so it was hard definitely because, you know, Amber has three kids, I have a full-time job, Juliana has a full–everybody has a full-time job, whether it's in the home or outside of the home, everybody has a full-time job. And building a team from the ground up is a hard proposition sometimes because you really have to be very clear and transparent about your needs and your bandwidth and that was a learning curve. We weren't always clear about that at the beginning and I think that's probably the curse of anyone who's ever worked in a non-profit where you're like, yes, sure I will bleed myself dry for this thing I love, absolutely. So I think we got much better at sort of saying concretely what we could or couldn't do at specific moments in time which is really necessary. But I will say it's the only curatorial team I've ever worked on that has been majority women of color. It is the only curatorial team that I've worked on that everyone gets paid the same as the–everyone gets the same curatorial fee. So everybody, no matter what time they came into the project, everyone gets the same amount. If somebody is administering it in a specific way, they get more for doing that because that's extra labor on top, but everybody's idea counts, it is like the same in terms of getting the IP for it, and then the credit for it. Everybody's in the room when a reporter comes to talk about it. So when the New York Times came we insisted everybody in the curatorial team had to be able to say what they did as part of their project, which made it, I mean, it was beautifully written by the reporter. She did a great job, but I think it made it just much richer as a story because she was able to understand why people, some of whom who'd never done curatorial work before but had done much more interesting work in other walks of life, had come together to do a project like this. So it in many ways–yeah, doing this project gives me hope that that kind of collaborative model can actually happen inside institutions too, where it's often a lot more hierarchical, competitive, territorial–things that don't really end up giving you the best end product or leaving people with a sense of joy at the end of their work. So, yeah. Although, I will say I've had lovely collaborative work in museums too that hasn't–that has been fantastic but I think with this team, we were able to really build the culture from the ground up ourselves, which I loved. I know I'm hopping around, so–
ED: No, it's–it's wonderful. I think maybe from looking at Designing Motherhood and the other exhibitions you've worked at, thinking about what criteria you use to assess an object of design and whether or not it should be a part of a project or–
ED: In the collection of a museum. What criteria do you use?
MMF: That's a really good question. [laughs.] Thinking about the criteria to assess design of any kind, and whether it should be in an exhibition or coming into our collection or in other ways connected and engaged with? I really learned a lot from Paola, because she often would say, and I am paraphrasing her, she likes things to be both economic and elegant. And it was a really good, very simple, very deliberately broad criteria. She really liked to make sure that she did not have to be hemmed in. I learned a lot from watching her because she also pushed institutional criteria all the time. She was the person that said that we should have digital fonts in an exhibition, video games at MoMA, or thought about bio-design for the first time there. She often pushed it, the accepted criteria of what design was, and I think drove people a little mad sometimes because people like rules. People like a set of criteria. I think for me, when I'm thinking about what design or craft is, I like to inhabit that sense of broadness, and I don't mind so much if it makes people antsy. I think sometimes it is mistaken for a lack of rigor or robustness, which I also like too, because I think if somebody underestimates you, that's sometimes better. [laughs.] I was just speaking with an artist [Jennifer Ling Datchuck] earlier this morning and she was saying she was at a conference and somebody was asking why nobody was talking about Bob Arneson [Robert Arneson] and the greats of ceramics. They asked, do we have amnesia that we don't understand that there were these wonderful artists, you know, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago? And she said, well, no, I know that history, but do you know any of these people that I can talk about? And of course, he did not. The criteria that we use to engage design or craft is a school of thought that has been handed down. We measure everything against the canons that we have been taught. And I guess I'm often looking not for a specific set of criteria, but thinking about is how does it relate to the canon? And I'm particularly excited if it doesn't necessarily in some way or if it feels like you have to take a more circuitous path to connect it to the canons of thought that you have been, or I have been, taught. Because if it's something that I'm engaging with and it moves me in a certain sense, then I'm already excited about it, and I don't necessarily need it to align perfectly with the histories that I have received. That being said, I mean, it's hard. It's entirely subjective in terms of thinking about a criteria–why acquire one thing and not another into a museum if they might be of equal, you know, merit in terms of skill and technique, they both are equally persuasive in terms of their aesthetic punch, they both come from artists who are able to articulate strong reasons for having made them and the kind of conceptual rationale behind them? I'm only one set of eyes, too. So that's another narrowing. I guess the criteria one is encouraged to adopt in the museum in the end is often–is it something that I can in some way connect to histories of the museum, even if it is, we lack this or it is a gap, or we haven't collected in this area, and think we should. Will it connect with our collections if only to augment them by exposing something that isn't there? Will it surprise and delight visitors? Will it connect with them in some sense? –people come in and they think, oh, I know this, or I understand this, or I can relate to it somehow. So will it extend that surprise and delight, but also augment their own understandings of their preconceptions that they're bringing to the table in that particular exchange. Criteria can come from specific projects. Right now I'm looking at craft schools, I’m going across the United States and thinking a lot about craft education. So criteria might be along the lines of can I connect it to a lineage of teaching, like a sort of a family tree, or can I connect it somehow to ideas of teaching, the places that people might be gathering in or the reasons that they might be gathering, or with Designing Motherhood, that sort of thematic approach, the same as it was for Designs for Different Futures or Items: Is Fashion Modern? or anything along those lines, that might offer another set of criteria. This is a really vague and abstract answer to criteria. I think most of the time a set of criteria for a museum acquisition or for exhibition inclusion masquerades as something that has certain objective elements to it. I just don't think it does at all. It's something that moves me in the end and I think might move other people and might be a catalyst for conversation. And that's really it. [laughs.]
ED: Can you talk about one of those acquisitions that–
ED: That you're proud of or that fulfilled this sort of approach?
Venetia Dale, Keep From Falling, 2021. Molded and cast pewter (collected orange peels, RITZ crackers, snap peas, raisins, popcorn, and gum from my children's eating), 6 x 6 x 5-1/4 in. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image courtesy the artist.
ED: Let's talk about the craft project.
MMF: Yeah. Yeah.
ED: It's what you're working on now.
ED: It's informing your dissertation.
ED: And you're doing it through the Museum of Fine Arts.
MMF: Yes. Yes. Thank God. [laughs.] Finally something. It's my day job. Although the rest of my day job is also lovely too, I cannot complain, but yes, it is through the MFA.
ED: Okay. Tell me about the project.
MMF: Okay. Yes. So I got to the MFA in 2019. I was finishing up at the PMA. I was finishing up Designs for Different Futures. I was hired in the middle of 2019, but I really got to work in an everyday sense in November 2019 and one of the first things I was asked to do by my chief curator, Reto Thüring, who's a wonderful person, was to create a collection strategy, to say, over the next three years, this is what I intend to collect and this is how it will connect to the wider collection that I'm meant to steward. Those are always really hard documents to write anyway, but almost impossible when you don't know a museum's collection and you haven't been working with it at all. And so I looked at the TMS, the collection database, as closely as I could and over the next two or three months, I put together what ended up being about a thirty-page document. I looked at the collecting strategy. I looked at past acquisition strategy documents that my wonderful predecessor, Emily Zilber, had put in place. I also wrote about a series of exhibitions and ways to use the spaces in the contemporary galleries that I could imagine for contemporary craft. And I handed that in, in February 2020, and I may as well have shredded it because of course, the pandemic started. [laughs.] And so Craft Schools was really born from that moment where I was like, okay, so none of the ideas I had are really practicable because all of them require actually being able to enter the museum and use the galleries and look at the work in storage, neither of which I could do at that point in time and who knew how the pandemic was going to pan out. So Reto had forwarded me an email from the Center for Craft, which was for research grants, and he said, why don't you apply for one of these? And I was like, with which project? [laughs.] I thought, you know, okay, I'll retool the collection strategy. What would it look like if I was able to figure out a way that I could really gain in depth knowledge about this collection through a research project? I did not come to the MFA as a craft historian. I'm absolutely still not a craft historian. But–and I often joke with Reto, why did you hire me?–I think he was looking for interdisciplinarity across all of his hires. Early that summer [of 2021] before I handed in the grant application [to the Center for Craft], I interviewed everybody who'd had my job before me for the last fifty years. I wanted to know how they built the collection and in some ways for them to tell me what is in the collection that I can't see through just looking online at the database. So I interviewed Jonathan Fairbanks, who's a really legendary curator of craft, who then went on to direct the Fuller Art Museum, who is probably in his eighties now. Ned [Edward] Cooke who had my job before me and then went on to teach at Yale where he still is, and where he taught Glenn Adamson and Ethan Lasser and a whole slew of people who have really changed and contributed to the decorative arts and crafts field in the US. The list went on. And so I interviewed all of them and there was a common theme around education–either the canons that they had received from the teachers that they had had, or the programs, educational programs, that were latent and live in Boston when they were at the museum. And so sometimes they had worked with the Program in Artistry [at Boston University] every year, which was short lived but brilliant between '75 and '85, or they had worked with North Bennet Street School, or they then talked about studio craft, which I was still learning about, I'm not ashamed to say. They talked about studio craft as a product of access to education through the GI Bill but the complexities of that, which are really only very recently being assessed and I credit going to a lecture on elements of craft education by Jenni Sorkin for really piquing my interest in the idea that the GI Bill allowed many people to gain higher education, although it was unevenly accessed as Jenni points out. And some of these people gained access in subjects that they would not have necessarily pursued without the freedom of tuition being paid for them, which took them into the arts and crafts. And so there was an efflorescence of craft programs in the immediate post-war period that then allowed this, you know, several generations of studio craft artists to be born. Aileen Osborne Webb also underwrote a number of different support structures, including the American Craft Council as a member organization, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, which became MAD [Museum of Arts and Design] in New York, all of these mechanisms to show and support these artists still make it work. Then a whole bunch of craft collectors were born from that and galleries as well, like Helen Drutt's gallery in Philadelphia, and that then begat collections, which ended up being given to museums, which is why I now steward the works that I do. So there's this long arc from education at its base and so I thought, okay, what would it look like then for me to ask people about their access to education? I come from a country where I was able to, as the child of a single parent and the first person in my family to go past high school, gain an education for free. That is absolutely not the case in the US. And so what does it look like to look at craft through the politics of education to honor the collection that I have, but also to think about how we could expand it beyond just thinking about studio craft as the only method of, or movement of, or moment in, post-war craft history. I was also looking at OBJECTS: USA, the exhibition from 1969 where the curators really put in a large amount of mileage, two men in a car, going across the United States to visit craft artists. I also thought about my friend, Chad Alligood, who as a young curator had been at Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art] when they did State of the Art where they also did the same thing and really went to visit as many studios as they could across the United States, and thought, what would it be like if I left the museum? It's closed anyway, but it might be nice to get outside the walls of the museum rather than always acquiring something by bringing the objects to this space. What about the curator leaving this space and going to meet people in their own spaces and making the effort to turn up? How would I get there? Well, Amtrak would be kind of a great way to do it because it's environmentally friendly. It would not be great to take a car across the United States. It's the worst thing you could do for the environment, second to flying, which is what curators always do–you fly in and out of a biennial–I have never really subscribed to that as a way to transfer or share knowledge. God bless the people who do, it's not a criticism, but it's just not of interest to me to go see the same thing that, you know, 1,000 to 10,000 other people are also going to see too. Those artists will be taken care of by somebody else who will see their work and do something with it. And so the idea of traveling also became a way–you know, no one wants to read a collection strategy, not even the person who writes it–but people like reading a travelog and if you can take people on a journey, then they might be more interested in craft, as a history, it becomes this way of taking that medicine at the same time. And so the research question became, Who's the teacher that brought you to your practice? And I thought if I could go across all forty-eight contiguous states via Amtrak and go to different places of craft education–some very, very well known like Haystack or Penland or Pilchuck–but then, you know, others that are not. I went to high schools that have craft programs, one on a reservation in Idaho, and the Chicago School of Shoemaking, which fewer people have heard of, but is a really vibrant and wonderful hub. If I could go and ask that question, sometimes people will tell me, you know, Bob Arneson was the teacher who brought me to my practice, and other times people will tell me, my grandmother or my neighbor or a community member. And so it gives me the opportunity to write this broader and perhaps more inclusive, or at least to me more interesting idiosyncratic, super subjective history of contemporary craft and for me to learn at the same time because I need to find a way to, to be teaching myself as I am trying to steward this collection. So that's where the Craft Schools project came from. The Center of Craft gave me a grant which covered my travel. So I went on Amtrak which is really inexpensive if you take your own sleeping bag with you. I also was able to work with Schiffer as a publisher so they will publish the book, that will happen next year . So right now I've just gotten back from the last train trip. I did it in five different chunks because I also had a full-time job. I'll be writing it up and it's also going to a series of [MFA collection] acquisitions that are coming in from all forty-eight states. Those acquisitions may end up in an exhibition, but my goal for them really was just to be able to augment the collection that we have. So it really does fulfill the collection strategy that I was meant to–and I did write in 2019. But this idea is, I hope that some of these, all of these acquisitions could actually just go out in collection exhibitions and galleries rather than being in a special fanfare Craft Schools exhibition to help augment the stories that we can tell, both in their juxtaposition with historical works in the collection, and also as part of contemporary collection exhibitions. I think contemporary decorative arts, contemporary craft, is still sort of seen as an anomaly next to other works that we have in our contemporary collection. This summer we have a rehang of our contemporary galleries in the Linde Wing at the museum–they have for the last three years had pandemic-era shows from Monet in that space to Guston to Twombly and next we will have about eighty to ninety different works from the collection in that space instead, starting in July . And many of those works will be from the Craft Schools acquisitions but they will be next to many of the works that we've had in our collection for a long time that are across media. So we have, for example, a really nice constellation in the exhibition between Robert Rauschenberg from the early seventies–one of his cardboard combines–and then next to it, a really beautiful cardboard-covered wooden box created by Adam John Manley who's a furniture maker at UC San Diego. He collaborated with–or Beth Lo actually was the collaborator who invited him in. Beth Lo, the ceramicist who took over Rudy Autio's chair at the University of Montana, is an amazing studio ceramicist herself, but took it in a very different direction, thinking a lot about her Chinese-American identity and so she's created these beautiful, incredible, delicate porcelain to-go boxes. They pack up really beautifully into this incredible case that Adam has created, and it unpacks to show what usually would be very throw-away things in this incredibly precious material. The kind of conversations that you can have between Rauschenberg and Beth and Adam's work probably wouldn't be possible in other museum craft collections. So, the project was meant to result in acquisitions that could help us with that kind of storytelling in the galleries.
Beth Lo and Adam John Manley, Chi-Not Dinnerware, 2020. Approx. 20 h x 36 x 36 in. when set up. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image courtesy the artist.
ED: How did you develop the list of schools and places of education to visit?
MMF: Good question. So, layers of different types of research. Online research a lot of the time. Looking at a very simple–everything from very simple Google word searches to looking at state funding mechanisms and figuring out through looking at résumés of people who had won state funding where they had trained at, asking through word of mouth, so sending a call out often through artists who lived in a particular state, makers who lived in a particular state. Often the question I would ask is, can I come visit you? And who else should I go visit? Who else don't I know about that you do? Posting on Instagram some of the time, saying, I'm going to these states, what should I know about? Who else? Really that was it-through word of mouth and taking at least, sort of, two to four months each time to really plan out the itinerary and the route. And so often when you ask the question the first time, people will say, you know, here are the top five things that you should go see in the space, but you let it marinate for a little while and then you're doing extra research, something else will pop up, you'll do a studio visit with someone. You'll say, I'm going to Arkansas, and they'll say, oh my goodness, do you know X? Or you will be reading something in the New York Times or whatever and, you know, something else will pop up from that. And so letting it take its time actually in terms of the planning was one of the best things. I needed to do that because I couldn't do these trips one after another. They were quite intense to do as travel. But yeah, so a lot of the time it was through word of mouth, through others’ recommendations, through doing my own searches, and then through just letting it kind of like all settle somehow until it felt like it was the right body of information to pursue. But they are very, very subjective lists. It's not as if I have a comprehensive list of every single craft-oriented place of knowledge transfer in the United States. I'm very, very upfront about it. I mean, it would be impossible, I would be traveling for the rest of my life. [laughs.]
ED: Do you have a few more minutes?
MMF: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, I have all the time, but I also, you tell me when you are ready.
ED: I want to talk a little bit about education.
ED: It's sort of the running throughline of everything.
ED: And access to knowledge and this broadening of a conversation–
ED: And audience and speakers. Can you speak a bit about that and what role education plays to you personally in your work?
MMF: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it's right at–I think that sort of is an overlapping Venn diagram of access to education and labor, because those two things are the crux of how I experienced growing up in both very good and not so good ways. [laughs.] I mean, I don't know– a lot of these conversations about how your career is structured, these things, people keep it very professional. For me, it's absolutely not that. You know, I think it's not that way for most people–but I think in these professional settings, we're taught to say, you know, I went to this school and then this came, this internship led to this job, and then this is what I do. I grew up in a country where it is free to go to school. I feel so lucky because I could never even imagine that people would pay the amount of money they have to pay to go to school here [in the US]. Even a state education can be expensive here in comparison, and I'm very, very proudly state educated both at home and here. I also grew up in a house where none of the adults I knew had a college education. And I could see as I grew older how that very directly affected their choices in the labor market, or their lack of choices in the labor market, I should say. And so I pursued education because I think, you know, I'm the oldest and my mom was so cognizant of the ways in which not having education had not allowed her to have autonomy in her life when she really needed it and choices around work. I had an aptitude for it. I was interested in studying. I was good at it and so I think she was an incredible influence in all of her children's lives. I have two siblings who I'm very close with, and yeah, education really was a throughline for her, for us. She didn't care what we did. In fact, she didn't know really what the options were except access to as much education as we had appetite for. And so she really was a–it has always been a motive, you know, family pride in some senses that is a motivating factor, I think for all of my siblings and myself rather than a particular external motivating factor. It's always been something–we're a very tight family unit–we needed to be. And so education really comes from that, and then also just understanding it as a–I didn't even know the word feminism existed. I didn't understand what that was as a methodological throughline, as a historiography. I did not understand that until I was past my undergraduate years in many ways. But I understand the way in which my mom engaged in education. She'd never, never used the term, probably never really heard of it. It wasn't something that she was connected with in any sense, in terms of her own understanding of self or her actions. But looking back on it, I very much understand her insistence on education as this sort of emancipatory prospect, and she understood that, I think. And so for me, education, my access to it, has defined everything else about my life. And I then came to a country where access is so, so, so very different. Not that Scotland is a paradise by any means. It's a country of deep issues too. But coming here and recognizing that education costs so much, that it has such–that it is valued in a very different way, that people are searching often for name recognition. It is an external validation system in so many senses. Whereas I had always understood and still understand education as something that was absolutely within our kind of family unit in a sense, in terms of any validation that came with it. I was just so fascinated by that because it seemed at the root of so many imbalances in terms of access to not only knowledge, but the autonomy and the power that can result from access to such things. I work in a museum which doesn't feel deeply accessible all the time, although $25 entry is a lot cheaper than fifty grand a year to go to a school here. But they both are spaces that don't seem inherently accessible for many, sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent reasons. So I think a lot of the things I'm interested in about knowledge transfer are these spaces that are outside academia and outside institutions, which is why I've loved going at least outside of the institution to do Craft Schools, or Designing Motherhood starting on Instagram. And the extra-institutional being a real locus of the research for it. It's why I feel very strongly about salary transparency, that knowledge being free [laughs] is a great thing because then it can subvert some of the structures that are at the same time foreclosing people's destiny in the way that, you know, very expensive education is as well. So education has ended up being something I'm really interested in–in terms of an open source version of it, like making knowledge as free as I can. Even while I am very obviously working in institutions that don't always subscribe to that as well. It’s where also–it's a much drier project in many senses, but I did a website about ten years ago called Art History Teaching Resources. I was a graduate student at CUNY, and as you probably have been too I was a teaching fellow–that was my service for my fellowship for tuition. And at the beginning of it, I was handed the Stokstad, the prehistory to present textbook, and told “teach.” And I was like, oh my God, who could do this? I had come out of the fold at the Guggenheim where I was a museum educator and we had professional developments weekly where we would share each other's teaching materials and we would learn from each other. You'd demo a tour in front of somebody, they'd give you feedback. And so I thought, what would that look like if you could do it in the context of a graduate art history survey so I worked at, again, collaboratively with a number of different faculty members and built a website, a really crap one, but a website, which then I hired with some funding from Kress, the folks who worked on the Met’s website. But to create this as a place where we could pay master teachers who were specialized in a particular area of the survey to write lecture notes, create a PowerPoint, and then create assignments around certain elements of the art history survey both teleological and longer chronology, but also thematic as well. And so that was put out as an open source education tool. And now it's, well we do not work on it in the same way as we did ten, or even five years ago, because I just don't have time, but people from about 180 different countries have used it in some sense. We get those kinds of metrics looking at the back end of the website. And so, yeah. That's a really long-winded answer, Erin, to say that education is–I think my interest in it has been about access, as you said, and trying to figure out ways to, even in a system here, make it as accessible as possible. But it's an imperfect attempt because the US really loves to create to capitalize and to monetize knowledge. But I mean, you must have many, many, many thoughts about this given your career to date and working within the education system. So yeah, I'd be really interested to hear them. [laughs.]
ED: We'll talk about it. Yeah. [laughs.] Tell me about your own experience teaching.
MMF: I loved it. I loved it, really loved it. I taught at CUNY. I only applied to go one graduate school, at CUNY, at the Graduate Center, because they had teaching fellowships and they made you teach.
MMF: And it wasn't just like any old–you know, you were not TAing. You literally were like, here's your two classes that you'll teach every week. There's two sections of them. So you're teaching four lecture classes every week. You have about a hundred students. And that was after doing four years as a museum educator, which I really liked too. I loved it. I really loved it. I was terrified a lot of the time because, like, I don't know anything about art before 1400 on the African continent because there is no such thing. But that's a chapter in Stokstad. In the same way as like when I was teaching at the Guggenheim, I didn't know anything about Cai Guo-Qiang before he came to do his exhibition at the museum. But in teaching, you are always learning. Like you are always–you know, sometimes you're only one step ahead of your students, which is, they probably absolutely deserved a better teacher than me. But it was a way to really feel in connection with the material but also in connection with people–mentoring and being around–sometimes they mentored me–but being reciprocally connected to people is something I love. And so teaching I really, really enjoyed. And at the Graduate Center, as part of CUNY in particular, there were students who were also first gen to college a lot of the time. They were also people who–teaching changed when I did other spots, you know, at other schools. But at CUNY I loved it. I loved it. I really, really loved it.
ED: Did that experience at CUNY inform your work now when you're thinking about interpretation and–
ED: Who's coming in [to the museum] and–
MMF: Yeah, I mean in, in some senses, yes, in some senses. I mean, I guess it informed it or is connected at least–I only applied there because CUNY's mission is to teach the children of whole people and they have historically been the place, you know, again, imperfect, no system is great. You don't wanna hold anything up too high because no example is perfect, but they always inform, that experience has always informed my subsequent career. And the professors, I've been lucky enough to have there and still have as I'm finishing up–the idea that knowledge is for a whole people. I mean, that's not who comes to the museum. So in terms of interpretation in museums that I worked in, in New York, often the rough statistic is that seventy percent of your audience is a tourist. So if you have enough money to come to New York as a tourist for a vacation, you've either saved it and it's like a big deal or, you know, you can afford $25 entry, your audience is always somewhat circumscribed by that. And then it's sort of–it is different in Boston, where this is a bigger local audience. And then I mean it's always nuanced. Audiences are not homogenous. There are many, many, many people coming into a museum, but it's a leisure activity that people need to have $25 if to do if they're coming in on their own and like upwards of a $100 if they're coming in as a family. And so it does to a certain extent affect things like label writing, et cetera. But it also, I think more so, affects my interest in accessibility of knowledge more generally. And so less maybe about audience because I don't think that's gonna change hugely right now with museums, but I am interested in who's on the other side of that, like what happens if you have a more diverse staff? What happens if you are able to attract more people into a job where they do make the subjective choices that I was talking about in terms of acquisitions or display or getting to write books? And so that's I think where transparency around labor and pay comes into it. So the Salary Transparency Spreadsheet went out in 2019. The first people I sent it to was my listserv at CUNY in the art history program because I knew that people there would not be afraid to put their salaries down too and would spread it. This is a place that would not censor this, they would celebrate it. And so, yes, that is how CUNY has shaped those ideas. I felt like I was in a milieu or a group of people who were equally active and had inspired my thinking. It wasn't that I was alone. And indeed I was learning from people who were thinking in the same way.
ED: What work are you drawn to recently?
MMF: Mmm. Well, so very recently, in the last week, I just read a book that kind of broke my heart. It was so beautiful and I knew of the project, but I couldn't go see it because of the pandemic. So do you know the artist Carmen Winant? Her work is beautiful.
ED: Oh, I know who you mean, yeah.
MMF: She doesn't take photographs so much as gather them and re-combine them. I first saw her work in 2018 with Lucy Gallun, who's a lovely friend, and the curator of photography at MoMA, [which] mounted her My Birth project where she'd gathered many, many existing pictures of birth–before labor, immediately postpartum, over 2,000 of them, and created a collage on two walls. And I've kept up with Carmen's career ever since. She just did this amazing project in the last year or so at The Print Center in Philadelphia with a great curator, Ksenia Nouril, who is now at the Art Students League. I'm going to butcher the name of it, oh, I'll send it to you [A Brand New End: Survival and its Pictures, 2022]. But there she was looking at the archives of centers that help women experiencing domestic abuse [Women in Transition and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence], looking at paper ephemera, works on paper. Carmen is from Philly, and she said she grew up going past the [Women in Transition] center, and she wondered what it was for. And as an artist now commissioned to work at The Print Center, learned more about it and collaborated with that archive. It's an archive that's connected to a center that is devoted to working with victims of domestic abuse. And so working with them to secure logistical and very necessary things that they might need, shelter amongst them, but also working with them expressively to be able to think about craft and art making as a form of therapy after trauma. And they just made an exhibition, which I didn't get to see, but I just got the book in the mail from them and I spent so long–it came right in the–I was opening up some mail at lunch and I just sort of put my lunch aside. I didn't want to eat anymore. The book itself is so beautifully designed by Common Name, it's a great design firm out of New York. They've scanned these archival materials that remind me, actually, of a work we have in the upcoming collections exhibition by Joan Snyder called Resurrection, a really large eight panel work. And part of that is also a collage of newspaper articles from a specific era in time that look at the prevalence of violence, especially male violence against women, children, and elders. So Carmen and Ksenia worked to scan and to make sure that these archival materials could be represented in the book. They have various different voices of contributors, writers that have come in to make sense of the program's activities, what it is to look at this material, to look at it in a way that is not voyeuristic, that is bearing witness to it. I think about it very personally. My mom was a domestic abuse survivor. She lost her hearing through it. And so, it's an area that really hits home very personally. And it's sort of, again, with your question about criteria, does it move you but also does it move audiences? Is it something that people may have contemplated before? I think that domestic violence still, actually, if we thought of motherhood and reproduction as taboo, that kind of intimate partner violence is still really, really, really taboo. I haven't tracked it. It's something I think about personally. I haven't really ever engaged it in my professional studies, but it's not something that I see come up in the collections archives when I'm looking through images of works that we have in the collection, which will change. I think of the work by the wonderful photographer, Donna Ferrato, who I love, and I think we are due to get some images or works of hers coming into our collection. But yeah, Carmen's is an amazing project. I think I always love the book even more, I think, than exhibitions. And this book is a keeper. So that's, I mean–off the top of my head, what has moved me recently. That book has moved me. It's beautiful.
ED: What, as you think about the future, what stories or concerns or issues do you hope to explore next?
MMF: It's a really good question. I guess I have two. One is sort of logistical, one is conceptual. I'm really fascinated by the menopause. [laughs.] I think, like ten years ago, as I was contemplating having a kid, I was interested in motherhood. I'm really fascinated by the menopause. I had a long conversation with an artist whose work I collected a couple years ago, Helen Redman, who's a brilliant painter and works across media in pastel as well as drawing. She has for a long time now–she's in her eighties–has been thinking about and working through issues of the menopause. I also see an efflorescence of writing and thinking about it too. So I'm really fascinated though, because the material culture for that particular life stage, unless you're talking about like HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy] patches, I think there's a gap there. I'm not really too sure what material culture really expresses that or records it in some sense. So it is an open question. I don't know if there is a throughline that materializes and is physical or whether there is another way of manifesting, somehow, objects–systems–that go along with the ideas and experiences of that life stage. But that's something that's really interesting to me. Logistically I'm in my middle career and I'm really interested in what you do with the information and the experience that you've amassed–how you can let it work with and connect reciprocally to generations who are coming up behind you. It's wonderful to work with people who are younger, but also, you know, there are only so many curatorial positions in the United States. I'm struck by the fact that if you stay in one for twenty or thirty or forty–or the last person I worked for was there for fifty-three years and counting–what space does it leave for other people? And so if we're really committed to thinking about a diverse–whatever that word might mean–a curatorial field somehow, I think that has to mean at some point in time, unless there's magically going to be a thousand more curatorial spots in US museums, it means stepping out of that work. And so that's what I'm thinking about a lot. I'm not trained for much else [laughs] and so I'm thinking, what can be next? You know, you have to do things in life, I think to a certain extent, that fulfill you and I like reading and writing. But I'm wondering if it always has to be in a museum space, if it has to be in a curatorial role in a museum space–what that might look like. And so thinking about modes of working in–no, I wouldn't say leadership because I think I just did the Center of a Curatorial Leadership program and I loved it. It's a very positive, really well-run program. But it made me understand that I do not want to be a leader in the kind of job title-ness of that role. I'm not looking to be a museum director. But how can you help shape your workplace collaboratively, I guess. So non-hierarchical forms of–let's not call it leading–but, like, working together. That's what I'm really interested in because I just, I don't quite know or see how that can work well in a non-profit that is often straitened in terms of its resources. So that's a question that might take me until the end of my career, wondering, oh, that's how we should do it. [laughs.] By which time it wouldn't be very applicable, but at least to my experience, but yes–I'm really interested in the menopause right now and I'm really interested also in what happens at midlife in terms of the experiences that you have and where to put them in a place that makes them ethical as well as interesting to you. So that's it.
ED: I feel like this is a good place to stop.
MMF: Thank you for the amazing questions.
[End of interview]