Finding Common Ground in the Personal and Distinctive

By Jessica Brier

This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin Scholarship to attended the 2013 Annual Meeting

This year, I had the privilege of participating in the Western Museums Association Annual Meeting for the first time. It was also my first presentation at a conference, as well as my first visit to Utah. This thoroughly novel experience was made possible by the support of the Wanda Chin Scholarship, for which I’m so grateful. The most inspiring aspect of my time at the conference was meeting colleagues from museums and organizations that were previously unknown to me. Walking around the exhibition hall and meeting people felt like a virtual trip across the American West. The wide variety of institutions represented gave me a sense of the rich diversity of culture in this part of the country, and a renewed sense of pride in working at an art museum on the West Coast.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), we are in the midst of a truly transformational moment, literally watching our existing museum building be partially deconstructed and rebuilt before our eyes, with the addition of an expansion that will more than double our exhibition space when we reopen our doors to the public in 2016. This expansion is both a great opportunity and a mammoth challenge to think about how the Museum will change in our expanded space. As I said in my presentation at the conference, bigger is not always better, but it is certainly different. This opportunity has provoked important questions about our programmatic vision for the future; who our audiences are (emphasis on audiences, plural) and how we reach them; and how we distinguish ourselves from other Bay Area cultural institutions, as well as from museums of similar sizes and scopes. This latter point, about how we are distinctive—which doesn’t necessarily mean “biggest” or “best”—was something I thought a lot about at WMA 2013. I met and heard presentations by colleagues at museums I knew little or nothing about. The texture of the experiences they shared was a constant reminder that what distinguishes all of our institutions—and the work we do within them—is our personal connection to and investment in that work.

The impetus for my participation in the conference was presenting in the session titled “Turning Curator Drafts Into Compelling Text.” This panel included two curators from art museums, including myself, as well as two professionals from the natural sciences, a field I am fascinated by but know little about. Hearing my colleagues’ presentations and comparing the diversity of approaches we take to writing, revising and presenting exhibition text was fascinating and rich. Though the stakes, premises and intended audiences of our exhibitions are often wildly different, we can learn valuable lessons from each other about the methods we use. Finding common ground was a theme that popped up for me in many of the other sessions I attended, especially “Driven by Photographs: A Case Study of Three Collections” and “How to Successfully Address Controversial Issues and Engage Your Community.” Both of these sessions, while unrelated in terms of content, brought together colleagues from very different types of institutions. They were most interesting when questions and discussion revealed the similarities between them, which in turn made me to reflect on the ways many of their conundrums and challenges resonate with my own work.

View Jessica's presentation in "Turning Curator Drafts into Compelling Text"

Inversely, I was also inspired by presentations from colleagues whose institutions couldn’t be more different from mine, as in the session “Extraordinary Spaces: Site-Specific Collections and their Challenges.” Listening to a presentation by Ginger Ridgway, Director of the Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, it struck me that this type of site is defined by the specificity of its history as tied to people and stories, with all of the messiness, inconsistency and idiosyncrasy of human life. A site such as this is more like a person than an institution. By contrast, one of SFMOMA’s biggest curatorial challenges is how to personalize the way we present content in a friendly, welcoming way. Many people want museums like ours to be a voice of authority, but they also want to feel invited into the conversation rather than being lectured to. Striking a balance between the institutional and personal is our constant challenge in delivering any content or message. But of course anyone who works in a museum—or really any institution, for that matter—knows that the history of a place is always shaped by people, which makes every place unique, messy, and quirky. SFMOMA is certainly no exception, and people love to feel like they are peeking behind the scenes, so why not make this more obvious to our visitors? I came away from this session thinking about how to make these qualities more a part of our public face and work to our advantage in reaching diverse audiences, demonstrating how distinctive we really are.

On my flight home from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, I sat next to a man who was on his way to visit family (and who, from my stolen glances at his computer screen, did something for a living that is totally unrelated to art), and we got to talking about what brought me to Utah. I described the conference, and told him that I had presented on a panel about writing compelling wall text. He lit up at the idea of this as the subject of a conference panel, telling me how important he feels wall text is to his understanding of exhibitions when he visits museums (and of course prefacing his comments by saying that he’s “not an art person”). It was so clear from his enthusiasm that he felt a true investment in the way museums present information, and that he was grateful to have a chance meeting with someone who thinks about this daily. It seems that part of the mystification around museums has to do with visitors not seeing the faces behind what institutions do. Being in the midst of the WMA was a constant reminder of the enthusiasm and personality that drives great museum work. Chatting with my seatmate at 35,000 feet reinforced my feeling that the more we can personalize what we do as museum professionals, making the connections we have with what we do more transparent to visitors, the richer everyone’s experiences of museums can be.

The Wanda Chin Professional Development Support Fund helps support travel and registration for Western Museums Association members and students. The Fund is underwritten by a Silent Auction in the Exhibit Hall of each Annual Meeting. Thank you to all donors and purchasers who have supported both the Fund and professional development it makes possible. For more information, please click here.

Jessica Brier works as Curatorial Assistant of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she has assisted in organizing exhibitions including Francesca Woodman (2011), Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective (2012), South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk (2012), and the upcoming, jointly-organized exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa (2014). She has contributed writing to Art Practical (, art on paper and SFMOMA’s blog, Open Space. She holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts.



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