BY MILISA GALAZZI
Milisa Galazzi: Thank you so much, Michele, for agreeing to be interviewed for ProWax Journal. As you know, I am deeply committed to exploring the intersection of artists and communities, and by choosing to interview you I am continuing to mine the ‘community’ side of that equation. You work as a full time employee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Could you tell our readership more about your role there and could you describe a typical day?
Michele Wiji: I work at The Met as a Research Associate in the Modern and Contemporary Art Department, one of the 17 curatorial departments at the museum. Essentially, I have two roles in this position: one driven by research, the other administrative. The research can take many twists and turns. My work can include providing primary source material, which contextualizes existing works in the collection; delving into provenances of works of art; researching works of art in special exhibitions, and writing about them; or more obscure matters like tracking down art works that have been de-accessioned, discovering vintage documentary photography and providing information for catalogues that we publish.
I am also heavily involved in organizing special loan exhibitions for our department. These exhibitions can either be generated solely by The Met or are a collaboration between our museum and other major institutions. Known as traveling shows, these exhibitions involve coordinating loans between several institutions, which can be complex. The average time to organize a special loan exhibition is about two years or more. This part of my job is a terrific task because I get to work with every single department in the museum, from editorial to conservation, photography, digital media, communication, finance, merchandising and even catering. I’m lucky enough to have a job where there is no “typical day.”
I begin my day with breakfast with colleagues from other departments in the staff cafeteria. It’s a wonderful way to catch up. About once a month or so, I will attend a lecture by one of the curators on an exhibition that has opened in the museum that I have not had the privilege to work on. I divide my day between research and administrative work according to the needs of the department. This may involve a trip to our incredible research library or the archives, or I might just work at my desk. My day may be punctuated with meetings. One of the best things about working at the Met is that if I am having a bad day, all I need to do is leave my desk and spend some time walking through the galleries. I challenge myself to look for a new object in the collection every day and I am never disappointed. It’s an extraordinary museum.
MG: Michele, you have a wonderful sense of humor, and you often say that you “work with dead artists.” Can you talk a bit more about what you mean by that?
MW: Dead artists are very compliant people to work with. I like them! Joking aside, it’s really just an issue of chronology for me. I specialize in European Modernism, which means that my knowledge base is art made from about 1900 to 1945, mostly in Western Europe. This is a narrow scope, and I have other colleagues who have different interests. Most artists producing art within that time period are no longer with us. Working in this time period is interesting to me because I am able to focus on the art itself without being distracted by the artist. The art can stand alone as an independent object and be evaluated on its own terms.
Of course this is not to say that the artist is ignored. Viewing art from any time period comes down to the interplay between the artist’s intention when creating the object and the viewer’s reception of the work of art. When the artist is still alive, this becomes an ever-changing dialogue. When [the artist is] dead, the art itself becomes the legacy and can be viewed independently and in the context of other art works from the same period.
Art has no agenda. Artists often do. Picasso once famously said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” by which I think he meant that while art may be illusory, art objects provide us with a window to understand life. So I like to focus on the art itself. As art historians it is our job to reconstruct the who, what, when, where, and how a work came to be. Most importantly we work hard to answer the question, Why did the artist chose this form of expression? When the artist is alive, the answers to these questions are often dictated by the artist. When you only have the voice of the artwork itself, you often get a different answer. I am very diligent about researching the artist and the context in which the art works were made. In addition, I do like the purity of solely looking at the art!
MG: From my perspective, Michele, the artist community in which you work comprises the deceased artist’s family members, gallery representatives, and/or the artist’s estate managers. This is a very important part of an artist’s ongoing community. Could you talk more about this community of people who represent the artist and his/her work after the artist is no longer part of the community?
MW: You are right. The artist’s work is obviously part of a larger community when the artist is no longer here to represent him/herself. Family members will often take on the task of caring for works of art and for maintaining the artist’s legacy. This community of caregivers for the art can come in the form of a not-for-profit foundation, a private museum, or gallery that still represents the artist or simply manages the artist’s estate.
MG: Because our readership is comprised of artists who are alive and actively engaged in art making, what advice do you have for artists who hope to have their artwork become part of the cultural conversation long after the artist has passed?
MW: This is a very difficult question to answer. I think it is really important for artists to remain true to their own mission and creative output. However, artists cannot be part of the cultural conversation when they are dead if they were not ‘being heard’ while alive. So the more that artists can share their artwork with others, the better. This is especially true when sharing their artwork with people who are writing and conversing about art. For this reason, artists must engage with curators, critics, and gallery owners. The great thing about the technological world in which we live is that artists can share their work via social media and really attract a very large audience. We are probably living in one of the most democratic times for artists to be part of the cultural conversation.
MG: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about Artist Communities from your perspective working at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. I am confident that you have given our ProWax Journal readership much food for thought.