May 18 2014
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) has an incredible collection of art from all eras, and luckily for us it’s right in our backyard. Their newest exhibit, Posing Beauty, features paintings, sculptures, and photographs by African American artists exploring themes of personal and cultural identity. This week, we sat with the Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Dr. Sarah Eckardt, and discussed the evolution of photography and the future of the VMFA.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Officially, I’m the Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, and I’ve been at the VMFA for three years. Before that, I curated at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. I got my Master’s in Art History from the University of Illinois in 2003. My graduation dissertation was on abstract impressionist Hedda Sterne, and my master’s was on Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. Now I run the photography program at the museum as well. It’s really important that these works are in dialogue with other works in the galleries and that they aren’t isolated. Given my current emphasis on growing our photography collection (and especially our representation of African American photographers) Posing Beauty was a great opportunity for us because it ties it all in.
How long did it take to curate Posing Beauty?
Posing Beauty is a package deal that we purchase, but we plan out a year in advance. We have to design the space, get all the programming in order, plan the promotion-it’s a year-long process. It started at NYU in 2009, which also when the book was published by Deborah Willis.
Why is it important for the VMFA to support African American artists, in your own words?
It’s important to have as many diverse cultural perspectives as we can. Especially because we are in Richmond, and our history, and the makeup of our population, it’s important that we are committed to an African American perspective. We’ve received a really enthusiastic personal response from a number of different audiences.
It’s so interesting, from the beginning of photography, there has been a debate as to whether it is fine art or not. From our perspective, the debate has been settled: it is. It has been recognized as fine art since the 1980’s. Because anyone can get a camera and anyone can make an image, there is this perception that anyone can make a photo. But when you look at the photographs of the artists, you recognize all the skill that goes into each image. You have to be very improvisational to capture these specific moments. In the pre-digital era there was the whole process of printing and all the skill that goes into that and making the print itself. As part as my job, I still do a lot of educating the public about why photography is fine art. I was of the last generation in my schooling to use a darkroom. I’m so glad I had that experience.
What do you think that the advent of digital photography and the way it’s changed the craft?
It’s interesting in a sense. One thing I’ve noticed is that many contemporary photographers are looking back to outdated methods. There is a whole contingent of photographers that are interested in a more hands on process. It’s akin to this turn back to vinyl records over MP3’s. Artists are currently exploring tintypes and glass plate negative processes. Ideally, the hands on method brings something to whatever the photographer is creating, rather than just doing it for nostalgia’s sake.
What is your favorite piece in Posing Beauty?
I love the connection of the Mickalene Thomas photo and her painting in the exhibit. I think photography is so important for her process, so it’s nice to show her work in both mediums. A reoccurring theme with many of the female contemporary artists is looking back to the 1970’s as an important cultural moment. It’s another posed female subject, but on such a huge scale. That’s one of my favorite connections between her two pieces. I also think the link between Lauren Kelly’s work and Sonya’s work and that they both involve hair. They’re both working with very powerful cultural symbols. The iconic Black Power fist and the Confederate flag, two very loaded images, that are really framed in unique and powerful ways. I feel very passionate about keeping Richmond’s history as the heart of the Civil War front of mind. It’s a complicated and heavy history. On the other hand, it’s so clear when you see her piece.
The exhibit has two sections, Posing Beauty and Identity Shifts. Why did you decide to break it up into two pieces?
They are two separate exhibitions, but on the same ticket, we are calling Identity Shifts a companion show to Posing Beauty. All the works are on loan, and we wanted to highlight the works in our permanent collection so people can view them in a dialogue with Posing Beauty.
What do you want visitors to get out of viewing this collection?
That is the big question: what do we get out of viewing any art? First and foremost, it should be a fun experience. It’s such a dynamic exhibit, there are so many unexpected pieces. You don’t expect the sequins on the Mickalene Thomas painting, you don’t exhibit the shot of Lil Kim. It should be thought-provoking in thinking about identity, how we construct our own identities, what they say about people in the image, and what they say about our culture. People will have a little time to slow down and think through some of the themes.
What’s your next big project or curation?
The next big exhibit is Forbidden City. I’m always excited about our next installation in the 21st Century gallery. It’s a gem. People should always check in and see what’s new-we’re in the 21st Century now so we’re always updating it. I’m always excited about mining our photography collection, it’s about 1,500 objects now and we rotate that twice a year, that’s been a privilege and a lot of fun to get to know the collection.
Lead Image: Young Man in Plaid, New York City, 1992, Jeffrey Henson Scales. All images c/o the VMFA.