BY MILISA GALAZZI
Milisa Galazzi: Thank you so much, Kate, for being interviewed for ProWax Journal. In past issues, I have focused my column, Artist Communities, on interviews of artists and by choosing to interview you, I am looking more at the community side of the equation. You are involved with an acquisitions committee at the Art Institute of Chicago and I am interested to know more about how museums work with artists to acquire work for the permanent collections. Could you explain your current role on the Acquisitions Committee at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)? How does that committee function within the larger museum? Do most museums work this way or is this system fairly unique to the AIC?
Kate Neisser: I currently serve on the Acquisition Committee for the Society For Contemporary Art, (SCA) a group founded 75 years ago to support the contemporary department at Chicago’s Art Institute. Our committee works on a yearly cycle and begins its art selection process in the fall. At our first meeting of the season, each committee member chooses at least two artists from a list compiled by Art Institute curators and departmental advisors. Committee members then communicate with galleries and research their artists with the goal of developing presentations which we deliver to the group at subsequent meetings. Through studying the artist, traveling to art fairs, and thorough discussions within our committee and with our curators, we learn about the work and the artist. The committee spends the next seven months winnowing the list down until a handful of finalists remain. At the culminating event – our annual meeting – which occurs in late spring, the museum mounts a show which allows the SCA’s membership at large to view the actual works of the semi finalist. Finally, board members vote for the piece, or pieces, to acquire and the Society for Contemporary Art purchases the art from the artist or their gallery. Finally the work is donated by the SCA to the museum. Our process at the Art Institute of Chicago is different from many other museums because the Society for Contemporary Art is actually an autonomous non-profit and this allows us to operate and make decision independent of the museum.
MG: During the acquisition process, what does the committee take into consideration as you vet the art works and zero in on the pieces that are finally presented to the SCA membership for possible purchase and inclusion in the museum collection?
KN: The better question might be, “What don’t we consider!?” Our budget differs from year to year. So, of course, price is a consideration, though that is a minor concern given everything else we contemplate. We look at a work as an individual entity with its own merits and then we consider the artwork’s place on the contemporary art continuum for its particular medium. We typically consider how a specific work is a dynamic piece which may be vital to a distinct time, place, or technique which fills a gap in the museum collection. Since we only look at the work of living artists, we talk about the artists’ age and whether younger artists still need time to artistically mature. Often artists have restrictions on when and how works can be shown. That obviously needs to be considered. Sometimes, as with exceptionally large work, we even think about storage requirements or other physical needs of the artwork since the job of the museum is to protect the work in perpetuity. Clearly, we have a lot to talk about when the committee meets!
MG: What is your background/relationship to art and is your past experience fairly typical of the other people with whom you work on the committee?
KN: I grew up in a family of art enthusiasts. My mother helped found the store at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago where I spent Christmas break making mistakes as a cashier so young I could barely see over the counter! I studied art history in college and after graduation, I continued learning about art for pleasure and to inform my understanding of my family’s ever evolving art collection. Am I typical of an Acquisition Committee member? Not necessarily, but there is a common denominator: We are all active learners and art lovers who are endlessly fascinated by contemporary art!
MG: What advice would you give to our readership of artists who are eager for their works to be acquired by museums?
KN: I would suggest that artists show their art as much as possible while also maintaining the integrity of the work. Having said that, I recently met an art collector who purchased a piece of art having first seen the artist’s work on Instagram! Additionally, I would say, do not restrict yourself to gallery shows. Continue to put your art out there. Sometimes it only takes one person to—snap—change everything.
An avid Chicagoan, Kate Neisser lives in Lincoln Park and supports art throughout the city. She is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art as well as the Society For Contemporary Art where she serves on the Acquisition Committee. She is also a member of the Prints and Drawing Committee at the Art of Institute of Chicago. Additionally, Kate has a seat on the national advisory committee for Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum. The first president of Snow City Arts, a non-profit providing intense arts education for hospitalized children, Kate is most proud of her sons, Eddie and I.Z. who are her most beloved pieces of work.