For the past year, I have been working two part time curatorial assistant positions. The opportunity to gain insight into two long established art museums within the greater Phoenix area simultaneously is rare, let alone having the same job title. Both Phoenix Art Museum and Arizona State University Art Museum have unique distinctions; a stroll through their galleries, browsing their websites, or following their social media will reveal distinguishing features for any visitor.
I can always count on Tuesdays and Thursdays consisting of tasks related to the Collection Committee and acquisition process that I oversee at Arizona State University Art Museum. This entails interfacing throughout the day with the curators and board members and preparing images, artist research, paperwork, PowerPoint presentations, and agendas for the monthly meetings. But of course, these two days are never long enough and the hours quickly become absorbed by other curatorial projects and needs: permanent and traveling exhibition research, writing text panels and labels, compiling final exhibition reports, and touring. Because I am conveniently on campus, I also schedule my graduate classes in the evenings of these two days, and spend quality time with my second husband: the library.
My Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are spent at Phoenix Art Museum, where I am the curatorial assistant for American and Western American art. Here I oversee the production of an image catalogue database of the entire American and Western American collection. This project entails photographing, measuring, and conditioning every artwork (roughly 2,800 objects), inputting this data in multiple systems, and updating our online gallery collection as well as our database Argus, (now TMS). In addition to curatorial projects listed previously, I frequently give presentations for educational purposes on current exhibitions and work in Phoenix Art Museum’s collection.
While both positions offer their own challenges and variety in projects, there are several features of both museums that are noteworthy from both an employee and patron standpoint. My biggest technological feat: conquering TMS. The best benefit: working with two different museum missions and curatorial approaches. The second best benefit: attending favorite annual events such as the culinary festival, Devoured, the yearly exhibition and sale The West Select, and the self-guided ceramics studio tour in Phoenix, Ceram-A-Rama.
Learning a museum database software program is no easy task. Training it to read my mind and complete my sentences took weeks of brutal training, with intermittent rewards of easy name searches. I had mastered two: Argus and Microsoft Office Access. Ironically, both museums transitioned to the super sleek and powerful TMS about six months ago. I have observed both the excitement and hesitation from fellow colleagues; leaving behind what is familiar is not so easy, even if it is inadequate. After spending a lot of one on one time with the system, taking advantage of training sessions, and reading online blogs, I began to really embrace what TMS has the ability to do.
What I did not realize was that both museums’ datum had different organizational structures, hierarchies, thesauruses, and text field entries making the user-friendliness of TMS almost nil. What took me hours to learn in one museum would not produce results in another.
For example, consider searching the following inquiry: all the paintings and prints about the desert, created by female artists, and not currently on display. The “desert” description would be in two possible locations at one museum and in three completely different locations at the other. One museum requires the Query Assistant method by searching key words related to “desert” in fields such as “description” and “title” under the category of “object cataloguing” versus a search in fields such as “notes” or “object terms/attributes” under the category of “subject.” I have learned that any database system is only as good as the data it holds; how the information is organized and what is actually entered ultimately dictates my results. Unfortunately, TMS does not possess the supernatural powers I dreamed it would, but its endless possibilities for tracking an object and exhibition or streamlining reports and labels is still pretty fabulous.
Perhaps the best part of my work is the access it offers in staying current with the museum’s trends and goals. In particular, both engage in interdisciplinary collaborations that are distinctive and noteworthy. In 2006 Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson established an innovative collaboration in which the curator of photography has the advantage of drawing from over 80,000 works from the Center to exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum. The Museum’s film program screens films in relation to current exhibitions, including documentaries about artists or films that have inspired artists. It also seeks to showcase film as an art form by showing films not widely available or only available at film festivals.
Unlike Phoenix Art Museum, the location of the ASU Art Museum offers a variety of academic partnerships across campus. In early March, ASU hosted a three-day campus-wide event that combined the schools of art and science to explore the impact of technological evolution in the future. Participants engaged in a variety of workshops and the resulting products have transformed a gallery into an exhibition. Its Ceramics Research Center is an important resource for students, artists, and the public with more than 3,500 objects and more than 5,000 square feet of open storage and exhibition space. Finally, a variety of program initiatives such as “Social Studies,” which provides a complete gallery to a visiting artist to explore their social interactive approach, has surpassed how I considered art to function. While fulfilling one of the most important ASU commitments (community engagement), the results of these interactions take the work and artist beyond a traditional exhibition structure.
The art in these museums are in good hands, here in the desert. The summers are brutal underneath the blistering Arizona sun, but respite is always near. Enjoying the collection of Philip C. Curtis paintings in Phoenix or American-turned wood bowls in Tempe will make a venture into this desert worthwhile. Yes, I may have to schlep my way between two cities during the week and need an extra few minutes in the morning to visit my to-do list, but the experience and professional connections have been immeasurable.
Nicole Herden is a curatorial assistant at both Phoenix Art Museum and Arizona State University Art Museum. She holds an MFA in Painting and Drawing and is in thesis stage for an MA in Art History. Along side her graduate and museum career she has supported the arts in a variety of roles. She served as an adjunct instructor in art education, visual resource coordinator, and an art advisory board member for a student union art collection and gallery.