The Craft of Curation: Natasha Boas

Welcome to the first in our occasional series, the Craft of Curation. In it, we’ll be exploring how curators of all types–in museums (large and small, collecting and non-collecting), galleries, and even stores–view, and approach their work.

As we’ve started talking to curators, we’ve been struck with the diversity of answers, styles and MO’s, as we have been with the range of paths that have led those curators to those jobs.

We’ve also been inspired: the good curators are master storytellers, scene and mood setters, talent hunters and zeitgeist mainliners, social psychologists and anthropologists. It’s not just about editing and arranging and taste: they’re artists and artisans in their own right.

So next time you go to a museum, a gallery, a really unusual store, think about what’s gone into the curating itself—and appreciate the experience even more.

We’ve loved going behind the scenes. We hope you enjoy the journey, too.

When you’re the (no way around it, diminutive) Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MOCFA), what’s your approach to hiring a Chief Curator? Do you try to find someone whose experience straddles both? (Not likely.) Or do you pick a side and go for someone who’s deeply immersed in craft, or in folk art?

Or do you do something different, pick someone with a broader art curation background who’ll see different connections, someone who can take the fustiness out of both craft and folk art, and make them alive, make them thrive, make them urban and vital once more?

Obvious answer, if you’re San Francisco-based, MOCFA: you pick Natasha Boas.

Natasha’s a curator of contemporary art who’s breathing some real life into craft and folk art by breaking down the barriers and blowing up the little niches into which those disciplines seem to have been wedged. ‘Bout time, we say.

“Contemporary artists are engaging with craft and folk and expanding definitions. Most artists don’t look at the traditional barriers–so why should we re-erect those barriers if we don’t have to?” asked Natasha.

But people do love their niches, and unless you’re a name museum and hosting something big, branded, and glitzy (Post Impressionism! Alexander McQueen!), it’s hard to get people to step away from their computers, gyms, and their TiVo’d “Real Housewives of …” episodes to take a risk on a Saturday afternoon.

But that’s what curators do: they tell stories and present work and ideas in different ways to help audiences make the connections…and help those audiences achieve escape trajectory from their respective vocations.

And Natasha–by training, experience, and instinct–is the person to tell the story.

Armed with a Doctorate in Art History from Yale, Natasha Boas has curated exhibitions around the world. (She’s been curator at the American Center in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the new Sonoma Museum. (Impressive.) But she’s also committed to expanding knowledge beyond the walls of a museum: she’s taught at Yale, at the San Francisco Art Institute and at California College of the Arts (where she pioneered the Masters in Curatorial Practice Program). Oh, and she’s a writer, too: a regular contributor to The Believer Magazine, Conde Nast design, travel and art publications, and Dwell magazine.

For Natasha, the craft of curation begins–always–with the “materials”, in this case, the art. “Others start with the ideas…I start with the work first .” And it’s not just the work, it’s often the artist itself.

Given that approach, Natasha’s view of her role as a curator is clear: she is the partner of the artist and the partner of the public. For her, much of curation is about this ongoing, vital and conversation.

Where does this instinct for the role of mediation, translation and facilitation come from?

“I was always interested in translating what artists were doing. Even in high school, I was curating. I liked that the curator worked with both the artist and the public, and curating suited my intellectual interests as an art historian, as well as my need to communicate about art and artists in the present tense. Curating comes from the etymology “to care for” and I believe that the curator has a responsibility to the artist and the work.”

This engagement with the artist is core to Natasha’s approach to curation, though in part it’s driven by the kind of museum MOCFA is. “As a non-collecting institution, what is relevant is to care for is the objects, or the artists practice, or the ideas and stories that are being generated.”

Curating, for Boas, is like producing a film. “As a producer you work with the director, the film maker. “It’s the same thing with artists: you’re helping them produce their work. There’s a business side, of course, but what you’re really doing is helping them bring their art to the world. Your job is to educate, contextualize, make connections, and institutionalize. And throughout, it’s a dialogue. It all comes down to that dialogue with the artist.”

And in between the (exhausting) production process–generating the idea, finding the money, doing the negotiating, the writing, the commissioning, the design, the installation, the marketing, the programming, and the recovery–what happens?

“You’re always looking, making visual decisions. You’re making choices about what you’re going to look at, and what artists you want to work with,” says Natasha.

And there’s a good deal of nurturing that goes on too–especially of young artists–to determine whose work is ready for a show–whether they have a deep and diverse enough story to tell–or whether they’ll take a little longer to mature.

But how, really does contemporary art relate to craft? Talking to Boas the connection is clear: “The commitment to the practice of making is really specific to the artists I want to work with.” All art, of course, is concerned in some way with making, but it is certainly more intense and central  to craft.

But it’s more than that, and it goes back to the idea that the boundaries between craft and folk art and contemporary art can, and should be broken down. An example of a contemporary artist whose work Natasha brought to the museum is Clare Rojas. “She’s pushing the boundaries of folk art even though she doesn’t really call herself a folk artist, although she would say folk traditions are important. She’s part of an urban folk tradition but she’s also a contemporary artist, who draws from high art and popular culture.” (For more insight into another show Natasha has curated–E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita–see our review of MOCFA.)

Through Clare Rojas, Sister Corita, and others, you also glimpse Natasha’s (and MOCFA’s) commitment to making craft and folk art relevant and even integral to the urban conversation. And that’s important to helping craft, folk art, art, and hell yes, human beings thrive.

What’s the best comment she’s ever received from a visitor about a show?  She smiles. “That it changed my way of looking at the world.”

And that’s just what we need.


See Natasha Boas’ craft of curation at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art.






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