SINCE 2003, Stephanie Snyder, who's the John and Anne Hauberg curator and director of Reed College's Cooley Gallery, has curated some of Portland's most ambitious exhibitions, and written some of the city's most comprehensive art criticism. This January, Snyder and I met for a typical Portland encounter: over coffee, on a rainy Sunday. We talked about what defines a professional curator in contemporary society, and what differentiates Snyder's work from curating a sock drawer.
Do you have the 2015 schedule set for the Cooley Gallery?
STEPHANIE SNYDER: Coming up next is a wonderful exhibition of historic vintage print photography by a British photographer, E.O. Hoppé. The great Cecil Beaton called him "the best." He had a portrait studio, like people did at that time. He photographed everyone, from Queen Mary and King George, to Vaslav Nijinsky and Hannah Höch. Mussolini came through his studio. We are exhibiting 145 of his works. He was really interested in trying to understand British society, and the difference between the classes, and how British society worked. He would often go in disguise into poorer neighborhoods, and really get to know people, take their portrait.
Can you talk about the process of curating a show, the inkling of an idea, and how it evolves?
I think—and this is a [generalization]—but I think there are curators that curate from concepts first, and then there are curators who curate from the work first, from movements, particular artists. So I'm always keeping that in mind; I'm always trying to examine what perspective I'm bringing to the work, whether it's the work, whether it's a concept, whether it's a desire. Exhibitions can come from strange places.
Do you think ahead as much as two years?
Oh, three years. An exhibition can take between one to four years; it's usually not four. It's usually two.
Is there anything you think is essential to understanding what a curator does?
I will say, I was thinking about this in advance of our conversation: The word "curator" is used a lot, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that.
Do you think it's overused?
Of course. I guess I should say [that] it's overused if we are still asking the word curator to define me, as opposed to the person who curates their iPhone photos. Like, is it okay if it's the same word? For me, I'm comfortable for it to be the same word. Which makes me think that maybe it's time for people who do what I do to think of another way to describe themselves. I think culturally the word "curator" rightly... helps people and businesses to describe the level of discernment that they feel like they're bringing to their everyday lives. People talk about curating their kitchen cupboard—maybe they're researching the kinds of dishes that they bought at the thrift store, and carefully arranging them, and putting all this love and care into them. But, traditionally, the word relates to the long-term stewardship of a collection, and the lengthy research and level of engagement with objects, and I think that's something to be deeply valued.
I think also we need to be skeptical about it, and look at our society from a capitalist perspective, and think about how the dispersion of the word curator in our society has also happened at the same time that social media has blossomed. I wonder if the word, using language that makes us feel like we are bringing this great level of discernment to what we do—I wonder why that's particularly useful to us at a time when so many of our interactions are dematerialized, and so impersonal. We "like" people by tapping our phones; we "like" people by hitting a keystroke. We meet people in disembodied ways. I wonder if part of why we like to think of ourselves as curators as opposed to consumers is that it gives us a sense that we are investing what we're doing with some significance, at a time when so many of our things are so intangible.
Do you like the idea of a new term for a [professional] curator?
Do you have any suggestions?
I don't like it when people entrench themselves in the past in a really reactionary way; for me to say what other people are doing is not curating—I would never do that. That's disingenuous. And many, many other people are using the word; there must be a reason why. So I'd rather think about other language and new language, instead of [taking] it back. I don't think it has lost its significance totally. But I literally read things about people curating their sock drawers.
Is there a little part of you that screams?
Yes! Of course. So, exhibition-making is a really important term for me, [and] research, writing. But exhibition-making doesn't encompass all of the long, thankless work that goes into stewarding an art collection and taking care of it.
E.O. Hoppé: Society, Studio, and Street Photographs, 1909-45 runs through May 10 at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College. A public symposium on the exhibit takes place Saturday, February 28, 11 am-3 pm. Stephanie Snyder's writing can be found in Artforum and Plazm magazine. She will also be a curator-in-residence this fall at a major New York museum—with details to be announced later this spring.