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Interview with Curator Heather MacDonald

May 18, 2010
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One of our outstanding curators here at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dr. Heather MacDonald, graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer questions related to her job at the Museum. Continue reading for more information about Heather’s job and the exciting exhibitions that she is working on at the DMA. To learn more about Heather’s projects at the DMA, please click on the following link: ‘The Year of Heather': Curating at the Dallas Museum of Art

Name and Title: Heather MacDonald, The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art

Years Employed at the Dallas Museum of Art: 4 1/2

Heather MacDonald, The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of Eurpean Art

Describe your job here at the Museum: I work with the collection of European painting, sculpture, and works on paper (prints, drawings, and photographs) from the 15th century to 1945. Together with the Senior Curator of European and American Art, Olivier Meslay, I look after the permanent collection galleries as well as organizing temporary exhibitions. My job involves a lot of research and writing, but also collaboration with other departments in the museum on teaching and interpretation, managing multi-year projects, and on caring for the works of art. I travel a lot to see works of art, meet with colleagues, attend art fairs and professional conferences, and see important exhibitions. Being a curator is also being a teacher: leading tours, giving lectures, and training the docents who will help communicate your research and ideas to a wider public. You have to be as comfortable at the lecture podium as in the library or gallery.

What is the favorite part of your job?  I think that for most curators the most enjoyable part of the job is installing works of art in the galleries, whether it’s the permanent collection or a special exhibition. It’s the fruition of many months, sometimes years, of planning, and a moment to think in very specific, physical terms about the encounter between a work of art and the viewer. There is a real magic to seeing paintings come out of their travel crates and go on the wall of a gallery that has been designed just for them. You have to cross your fingers that everything works the way you planned, and it is a great feeling when it’s even better than you could have imagined.

What is a challenge you face in your job? It can be a real challenge to find time for the most important parts of my work (research, thought, and writing) with the constant demands of email and meetings that consume so much of the working day. Understanding and interpreting works of art is a time-consuming activity, and a lot of that slow-paced and intensive work inevitably has to happen at night or on weekends, away from the office.

How did you decide you wanted to work in a museum?  I thought I wanted to teach art history at the university level, but part way through graduate school I realized that career was not for me. Having at that point almost completed my PhD in art history, I thought I might as well try a museum job before leaving the field entirely, and I found the work much more engaging and rewarding. I feel very lucky that I was able to find this other career in my discipline.

If you weren’t working here at the Museum, what is something else you would be doing?  Well, I have a lot of fantasy careers, of course, but I think most likely working in editing or publishing. I love books and the written word. I’m lucky that part of being a curator is working on the creation of exhibition and collection catalogues, which allows me to be involved with publishing in that way.

What are some upcoming exhibitions that will be at the Museum over the summer?  This summer my exhibition Coastlines: Images of Land and Sea will be on view at the Museum. It features more than 60 paintings, photographs, drawings, and prints made between 1850 and today describing the landscape and human experience of the coast. We’re trying something new by presenting this exhibition with a sound installation that was created by faculty and graduate students from the University of Texas at Dallas.  I’m really looking forward to hearing how people respond to this sound environment. It’s a new way of experiencing an exhibition, and I hope it will encourage people to look more slowly at the works of art and think about them in new ways.

The May 21 Late Night will focus on the closing of the exhibition The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850-1874 which was curated for the DMA by Heather. Visit the Web site for more information about this program.

Amy Wolf
Teaching Programs Coordinator

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