Eve Schillo has worked on a range of exhibitions in her 20+ years with LACMA, including Cuban photography, multi-media work by author/artist William S. Burroughs, an ongoing self-portraiture series, Pictorialist displays, and the still and moving imagery of Katy Grannan and Charlie White. She curates exhibitions that span photographic history and appear in galleries dedicated to American, Latin American, Modern, Contemporary and Japanese Art. Recent projects include an exhibition celebrating Mexican photographer Mariana Yampolsky (Vincent Price Art Museum); This Is Not a Selfie (touring collection exhibit); Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld(LACMA); and Road Trip: Photography and the American West (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux). She is working on an exhibition on California photography.
We spoke on May 23 in the LACMA courtyard.
Paula: LACMA is preparing for a major architectural project, so you’re in a state of transition. What can you tell me about it?
Eve: The two newest buildings, the BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion, will stay, as will the Japanese Pavilion. Everything else will be torn down, including our lovely Study Center. Quite a lot of demolition. You're already seeing the staggering of closed galleries as you go through the museum. We’ll live temporarily in South LA in one of two spaces: one location is in Magic Johnson Park and the other is a place called The Wetlands. Each of these will start out primarily as temporary art storage and then slowly evolve, with a direct tie-in to the community by way of small exhibits or programs. We may also have larger exhibitions at other local partner institutions. There's still a certain portion of artwork that's going to be on view here at the main museum campus. For example, we have donor commitments that require keeping a certain portion our modern art collection on view, so that will live permanently on the third floor of the BCAM Building.
The concept of the new building designed by Peter Zumthor is really a hybrid of the classic museum. The building will be one continuous floor with an amorphous shape and several different entry portals. There will be some directive about how to travel through the building, but because of the non-rectangular space that you enter, you won’t have to progress through the history of art in one particular way.
The whole idea is to create a sense of discovery rather than a directed educational experience. That's the idea behind the “21st-Century Museum.“ Also, the two South LA sites will remain part of our profile after the new building is complete. It’s particularly important for school visits because no matter how much support we have for school buses, you just can’t have kids travel that far for a day trip!
Paula: It's interesting to think about the new museum model. Is this in response to changing demographics, declining attendance, selfie culture or…?
Eve: It's [LACMA Director] Michael Govan's vision. This small anecdote might help to explain: he's known internally for being adverse to wall labels with extended text. He really wants people to be able to immerse themselves and to create their own experience. To own their experience. That way of navigating art and context is what defines a 21st-Century Museum. And yes, it's also true that people now have access to information, so you can come see an exhibit and have that guy named Van Gogh still rolling around in your teenage head, and you're already engineered to source your own information on your own time – maybe in the museum, maybe after. It’s the museum responding to changing times, and I also think we’re trying to diversify what a museum is. The museum profession more clearly understands that their audience arrives with varying degrees of art appreciation – it’s not that they have zero, it's just how they’ve been able to deploy it to date. So we can give an assist in multiple ways, not just the standard ‘you will be educated now’ approach – and not revert to ‘you will be entertained now’.
Paula: Maybe also to create a feeling of belonging?
Eve: Yes, the feeling of belonging. In Los Angeles this is the people's museum. It could be even more so.
Paula: You’re also doing other partnerships. Other ways of getting out of the building and into the community. Can you tell me some more about that?
Eve: The idea is there will be a lead-up to our presence in the community that I mentioned earlier. We wouldn't just show up one day and say, "Hey! LACMA’s here!" By sharing our collection we can create real relationships with many communities in L.A. County. Your backyard is our backyard, so to speak.
Paula: Why do you want to do that?
Eve: During the transition time, while we're under construction, it’s going to musical chairs here, meaning there’s just not going to be enough seats for every collection. So looking to the whole range of locale partner institutions is an obvious win-win. The experience I’ve had with our Study Center has really made me appreciate sharing the collection in a broader sense. To get the collection out to, say, the Vincent Price Art Museum, which is on the East LA College campus. We use the term campus when speaking about LACMA, but we don't have that full curriculum from Sociology to History to, well all kinds of classes that could embrace the arts. I can picture any one of their lectures happening in the VPAM gallery and there could be some really fruitful discussion, different than what happens at the LACMA campus.
Paula: It speaks to people in a different way.
Eve: A lot of what we're trying to do here and what I’d hope to do in a college campus setting is to get people to think for themselves and speak out – have agency. It's that idea of getting people to be comfortable using their own eyes, to get to the point where there's satisfaction that goes beyond a docent telling you how to look at something. To encourage critical thinking.
From my brief experience, the community partnerships exhibits are site-specific presentations – not just a LACMA show plopped across town. That, and the spaces are not as ‘controllable’ in the same way that our galleries are here - we’re a big bureaucracy and control freaks in our space! I like the opportunity to be nimble and to reconsider the audience in those settings. I usually tend to install on the sparse side; a few images can really hold a show if you pick the right ones. But for VPAM I acknowledged that this audience needed to see more, with a certain repetition allowing the visitor to understand the photographer's eye.
Paula: How did this partnership come about?
Eve: For the exhibition program at the Vincent Price Art Museum, we received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, whose mission is to bringing arts into the community. The grant allowed us to have three staggered shows: Chinese ceramics, Egyptian, and photography.
Both the Egyptian and photography exhibitions are there simultaneously (through December 4), which was initially not the plan, but as it happens, they have some interesting overlap with themes like the afterlife, the presence of death in life and the appreciation we have today for ancient cultures. The photography display at VPAM is in a….challenging space, but I enjoyed the challenge. That space is actually much like some of the spaces in the new Zumthor Building. We’ve been calling those spaces Meander Galleries; there will be traditional rectangular spaces, but the pathway to them will be more organic configurations and they’re not meant to be empty, they’ll have artwork. The idea is there will be something pulling you through the Meander Galleries, but it's going to feel like a less guided experience. A meander.
Paula: I’m interested to learn how people are going to respond to these kinds of installations. I expect information when I go to a museum show.
Paula: I expect there to be a logical layout so I don't miss anything.
Eve: Right, you don't want to miss anything. There's a specific museum anxiety of “I want to make sure I see everything" which drives me crazy!
Paula: Although, on the other hand if I give myself permission to not be so worried about those things...
Eve: You appreciate just a simple discovery. Or two.
Paula: Serendipity, a sort of freedom.
Eve: Yeah, it's going to be very interesting to see how that works.
Paula: Why did you choose to exhibit Mariana Yampolsky’s work for VPAM?
Eve: We received a wonderful donation of her work from Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. It was fresh in my mind and I wanted to do something with it. I also thought she’s still somewhat unsung in the photo world.
Yampolsky was born in 1925 just outside of Chicago and lived on a farm with her emigre parents (her father’s family was from Russia and her mother from Germany). She moved to Mexico at age 19 and is considered to be one of the modern masters of Mexican photography – yet many don’t know more than one or two iconic images.
I found it intriguing to have her story told at VPAM, in East L.A., because the flood of immigration is as much a part of Mexico's history as it is ours. As many cultures have landed there as here. Mariana goes on to meet several Mexican artists in Chicago on university residencies and decides that this is where she's going to live. As a 19 year old, in the midst of WWII, she decides to go to another country - ! Her father passed away in her final year, so she's a bit unmoored, really like, "I need to find my new place in the world.”
In Mexico City she immediately offers her services to the People's Graphics Workshop. And there she meets, well, everyone - Diego Rivera participates, etc. She's the first woman to be part of the workshop, and ends up running it eventually. She is a printmaker for her first 10 years in Mexico. After her fourth year, she becomes a Mexican citizen. She takes photo classes with Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo and they become lifelong friends. There definitely is a Bravo-esque approach to her compositions. Yampolsky and Manual Alvarez Bravo work on a photo essay for a publication and that's her breakout moment - she never returns to printmaking.
She's really interested in the culture and the traditions of Mexico, and she's hugely influential as the person who's putting together both publications and touring exhibitions of Mexican prints and photography. She compiles one of the premier texts on Mexican folk art. She’s really doing it all – curating, editing, making, supporting other artists - so I truly mean it when I say she's unsung. And yes, to answer the question: she never switched to color, black-and-white her whole career!
Pilar [Tompkins Rivas], the director at VPAM, said, "You know our community is filled with a lot of photographers who haven't had a chance to show their work, who are covering the same territory, who are in fact are Mexican-born and documenting the Latinx community, stateside or otherwise.” So Yampolsky was a bit of a push considering those parameters. It was really good discussion point. I replied "I am actually thinking about that. I'm planting this work here so that the school can perhaps have a dialogue about whose imagery, what images, and the politics inherent in images.” It's a maybe little touchy, but where else are you going to have that dialogue?
Paula: A museum is a place for conversations like that.
Eve: Right, ideally we’re a neutral place. A place where people can appreciate each other’s opinion – so when you absolutely hate an artwork, it’s like, "Oh, okay, I get it. You hate it for X reason." Reasoned debate, critical thinking – that’s what’s being taught on a college campus though, so an exhibit there could have exponential impact.
Paula: Let's talk about the other show, This is Not a Selfie, In Pasadena at Art Center. How did you approach that one?
Eve: That started as a publication first and then grew into a show because there was once the print-on-demand book was issued. The book was a departmental project. I took the lead as curator for the show and added more work; there are 50 images in the book and 80+ in the show. The exhibit has depth the catalogue doesn’t – a bit opposite our usual model. And we certainly knew that the selfie is living large in the world!
The idea of planting it in our backyard at Art Center was specific to this tour, which started at San Jose Museum of Art. Art Center really wanted to have a show regardless of us being in transition and needing to deploy our collection. It was gratifying to see interest going in both directions with our community partners. Again, the exhibit is in a student setting, and a great opportunity for the school to encourage a firsthand experience with art objects. In an art school that’s pretty invaluable.
Paula: How great for the school to have access to this incredible collection.
Eve: You walk around the corner and you have Diane Arbus and it's like, "Oh right, I've been learning about her." But this is a Diane Arbus you’ve not seen in the classroom presentation. That's what I like about the self-portraits in this sub-collection: a lot are by artists who often utilize themselves in their practice, but then there are just as many who don't. Diane Arbus is about the latter. To see her photographic gaze turned onto herself is very compelling.
Paula: I'm fascinated by this whole collection. I think it's so cool. There are so many different manifestations of the self-portrait.
Eve: It's never ending. And we keep adding to the Irmas collection (referring to Audrey and Sydney Irmas), thanks to their generosity, and every one is striking a totally different note.
Paula: What were the organizing principles that you were thinking about when you put the exhibition together?
Eve: Well, photography's always been playing with the truth. For me, it was important to see that from the get-go, so I included 19th century work to give a fuller sense of that history. Alongside that core principle, both the performative and the conceptual are really strong notes in the collection. Performative, conceptual, and gender/identity issues. So within each of those three sections I moved backward & forward chronologically, so all the messing-with-the-truth-in photography wouldn’t seem to just be at the contemporary end.
I'm really thrilled this collection is out there, living large. As much as it's nice to have it on view in an encyclopedic museum, it was time for it to engage with the Selfie world. And maybe a few more people will think about that 39th selfie they've taken for the day. Is it necessary? That's my ultimate goal of this show (kidding).
Paula: Be thoughtful about your selfies! Last thing--tell me about the junior curator’s group that you’re part of.
Eve: It's called FOCUS and it’s held in a different city each year. FOCUS: LAX is coming this October 3-6 and is jointly organized by LACMA and the Getty (shout out to Mazie and Arpi!). It’s in the 7th year and came into being in response to Oracle [an international photography curators’ conference]. Some of the more ‘junior’ curators got together after one Oracle and thought, "If we had a gathering, we'd be talking about different stuff..." And indeed we do! So far it's been held in Portland, New Orleans, Tucson, Rochester, Toronto, and Pittsburgh. As a group we have behind-closed-door sessions, find out what dream projects we’ve got cooking, visit various public & private collections, and of course, we get together with our favorite local collectors.
Paula: What are some of the group’s concerns?
Eve: Most museums are currently thinking about the breakdown of existing internal structures, like the departments we create – such as Photography. MOMA is one that's trying to break out of that mold and, in an ideal scenario, have photography cross over, to be embedded into other departments where it organically should be, and to create photo exhibitions that are not always photo-excusive.
Paula: What do you think about that?
Eve: I wouldn't want every show I curate to be integrated with other objects, because I think that strategy can help or hurt in different ways, but it really annoys me when I go through, say, the American galleries (in some un-named museum) and there's no reference to photography whatsoever. Zero. There are moments in the history of American Art that make or break because of photography. I know some people see it [the integration of departments] as a negative, but I do see it as a plus, because I feel like we're gaining, not losing, options.
Paula: That doesn't mean that you can't have a photography show.
Eve: Right. Here’s an example: I placed a really wonderful donation of a group of Steichens in the American Art galleries. It was a beautiful jewel box gallery that the light sensitive curatorial departments have been sharing. The exhibit just sang there, highlighting Steichen’s development of fashion photography in America and the creation of American celebrity through photography. It could have been a stand-alone show somewhere else, but it was perfect there because you walked through the Arts and Crafts movement in a nice build up to the modern age of photography. That felt good, and different than a photo show in isolation.
So some of the internal structures that we call curatorial departments are really just there because of the needs of the media, but why isn't American art collecting photo? Photography can live in South and Southeast Asian, or Modern, everywhere.
We talk about dilemmas like this at FOCUS. Are there certain collecting areas – Latin American photo comes to mind - that the photo specialist really should partner with the Latin American curators in order to create the most relevant collection? We also talk (more dully) about collecting strategies around color work - should we be acquiring two images, one to preserve and one to display? Who's doing that? How are they managing it?
It’s interesting to see what percolates out of the FOCUS sessions naturally because most of the junior level curators don’t have this kind of open forum within their own institutions. And everyone’s definition of ‘junior curator’ varies. As a junior curator at a large encyclopedic museum I can be facing the same battles as perhaps a more senior-junior (!) at a smaller institution. It’s fascinating to learn how everyone's tackling the same problem.
Paula: More big-picture conversations.
Eve: Yes. I was inspired to suggest LA to be the next venue when I was at FOCUS: Toronto. LACMA’s curators are staring many of these big issues in the face because of our building transformation, so I thought since all I'm doing is swimming around in these issues, I would like to bat them around with my photo friends.
Paula: Plus you can show off what LA has to offer, which is a lot.
Eve: Which is really the hardest part because we can't do everything. We're already working on a list for what everyone can do in their ‘free’ time!