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Cool Jobs: Heather Duffy, curator


What does a curator do, anyway? For this Cool Jobs feature, Stephanie Doublestein checks in with the UICA's Heather Duffy, who, on the eve of Live Coverage, fills us in on how her job is equal parts moderator, connector, dreamer, researcher, mentor, and educator.
The last time you walked through an art exhibit, did you think about whose job it was to decide what you were seeing? Who wrote the labels next to the paintings on the wall, perhaps, or who invited the artist to submit those exact sculptures? It's a job not many people fully understand, and it's what Heather Duffy, UICA's new exhibitions curator, spends her days doing.
 
When I ask Duffy what, exactly, a curator does, she answers in a lovely, Mississippi-tinged voice, "It's a little bit like moderating a panel discussion between artworks, in a specific theme, at a specific time, in the context of contemporary events."
 
When you think about it, Duffy says, lots of things have curators: "Blogs have curators, shop storefronts have curators, wine menus have curators, the Museum of Natural History has a curator." Here at the UICA, however, the work is less about delivering information and more about getting the viewer to participate in a conversation with the work.
 
Duffy, who earned both a BFA and an MFA in painting and has lived in Michigan for five years after growing up on the Gulf Coast, is new to this particular gig at this particular museum, though she's worked in arts administration in one capacity or another all along. It's not necessarily a job she dreamed of doing as a child – she was initially drawn to science and was sure she'd be a doctor one day, until a weak stomach convinced her otherwise – but she says she's always been drawn to the practice of making connections, both between different works of art and between art history and current events. To that end, she's worked for commercial galleries, as an exhibition assistant, and most recently as the exhibition manager for ArtPrize, while always maintaining a practice of independent curating on the side.
 
In her new role, Duffy says, "There's no typical day. But there are a series of tasks I find myself immersed in pretty regularly." She ticks them off one by one: researching artists and reaching out to them; brainstorming and dreaming up future shows; communicating with artists to see how their work is progressing; working with UICA staff to plan future programming; preparing spaces; working with marketing and design staff to write labels and promote exhibits; and completing administrative work like contracts.
 
In all this, a curator is focused on building a compelling exhibition, one that will engage the audience. The possibilities are dizzying – "The spaces and the medium produces almost an infinite combination of variables," Duffy says – so how does she begin?
 
"To me the most interesting art work is the art work that does not solve all of the problems for you," says Duffy. "That's almost like if someone tells you the punch-line before the joke. Part of the fun is working through it and not immediately understanding what's in front of you. So I try to think about methods of presentation that would stimulate you to do some of the work yourself. I want to trust that you are capable. It's a respect you give to your visitors by not handing them the answers to the test."
 
She says it's possible to build exhibits two ways: either by starting with a theme in mind and inviting art works that fit the theme in relation to the space; or by finding one or more anchor artists, inviting them to participate, and organizing that group of works into a theme that may emerge. "There's some detective work and research where you puzzle out the connections," says Duffy, and a good curator is always considering the works in relation to "the theme, current events, history, the architectural values of the space, and to one another."
 
Another part of the job involves being a mentor, a role which, as a woman leader in arts administration, Duffy says is fairly new and "really rewarding." She's the founding president of an advocacy group called Throwbacktivists, which brings together women and empowers them to step into leadership roles by giving them access to opportunities as well as pairing them with people who have been leading for a while.
 
"I think there is a shift underway towards more intentional diversity and inclusion within all levels of arts participation that's really valuable," says Duffy. "It's only been within the last 50-60 years that women were even invited to participate in the art world . . . and we're seeing a rapid shift toward the inclusion of many voices. It feels good to be a part of that."
 
At the UICA, Duffy is also preparing to welcome the museum's first curatorial fellow as part of the new ArtPrize fellowship for emerging curators. The pilot program will place an emerging curator at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design, SiteLab, and the UICA for six months, where the fellows will assist with the intensive research, writing and curatorial work that's necessary in advance of the annual fall event. "I feel a little biased because I wrote the program while I was still at ArtPrize, but being on the other side, I'm excited to add that teaching aspect to my own day-to-day work," she says.
 
In the meantime, Duffy is gearing up for this weekend's Live Coverage, UICA's annual fundraiser that invites regional artists to create original work while attendees watch, then auctions the art off, with a percentage of sales supporting the museum. Duffy will largely be watching and helping from the sidelines. "Artist liaison is a place I feel comfortable anyway, so I'll talk to people and find out: are you looking for something, are you here to buy art, are you looking for certain qualities, what type of art do you collect . . . That consultation and collaboration is really a great thing that we can provide. Live Coverage is a really fun way to see all of that in play at the same time – to see who is buying what and who is making what."
 
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
 

Photography by Adam Bird
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