Sylvia Wolf, John S. Behnke Director of The Henry Art Gallery

 

The Henry Art Gallery was founded as Washington State’s first art museum in 1927, by Seattle entrepreneur Horace C. Henry, on the principle that art stimulates inquiry, fosters knowledge, and builds healthy communities. The Henry is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the research and presentation of contemporary art, and especially for its photography collection. The Henry’s photography collection was founded with the Joseph and Elaine Monsen Collection of Photography, which reveals the development of photography as an art form during the last 180+ years. For over fifty years, Drs. Joseph and Elaine Monsen assembled one of the most important privately held photography collections in the country. As the Monsens were among the earliest serious private collectors of photography, they were able to acquire works that are virtually unobtainable today. Later, the increasing rarity of historical images and the explosion of new ideas by artist-photographers in the 1980s led the Monsens to concentrate on contemporary photography. Following Elaine’s passing in 2014, the collection is still evolving as Joseph Monsen and his daughter Maren fill gaps or discover new artists. Their collection has also become a catalyst for gifts to the Henry from other collectors.

The Monsens have had strong ties to the University of Washington and the Henry Art Gallery for over twenty years. Joseph Monsen is professor emeritus of economics at the UW and Elaine Monsen was a professor of Nutrition and Medicine. The Henry Art Gallery has acquired works from their photography collection in several increments since the first donation of over 100 photographs in 1979. The largest addition to the collection came in 1997 when gifts from the Monsens and funds for purchase from The Boeing Company allowed the Henry to add over 300 pieces to its collection. Also in 1997, the museum completed a major expansion, quadrupling its size to better present and preserve its collections and to increase exhibitions and public programs.

Sylvia Wolf is John S. Behnke Director of The Henry Art Gallery. Before becoming the Henry’s director in 2008, Wolf served the Whitney Museum of American Art as endowed chair and head of the Department of Photography from 1999 to 2004, and as adjunct curator from 2004 to 2008. While at the Whitney, Wolf presented solo shows by Roni Horn, Vik Muniz, Irving Penn, and Lorna Simpson, among others. Wolf came to the Whitney in 1999 from The Art Institute of Chicago, where she organized over twenty-five photography exhibitions during her twelve-year tenure. She is the author of over twelve books on contemporary art and photography.

In an introductory statement for the Henry and its collections, Sylvia Wolf says:

“The Henry is guided by our founding principle: that exposure to artists and original works of art inspires original thinking—and that original thinking is, and always has been, essential to advancing civilization. While works of art may have value as objects, it is the experience of them that is most precious.

To that end, we connect visitors to first-hand experiences with art and artists, and we provide artists with platforms for creating and presenting new work. Along the way, we contribute significantly to scholarship in contemporary art. We are committed to being a place where risk-taking and openness to uncertain outcomes are valued for their ability to foster inquiry, dialogue, and debate. We are the only institution in the Pacific Northwest whose principal focus is on researching, presenting, and preserving contemporary art. With our location on the campus of the University of Washington, one of the nation’s top research universities, we are a test site and laboratory for creative thinking and new ideas.

We aim to be a leading example of what a museum can be in the twenty-first century—something the Henry is uniquely positioned to do. The very skills necessary to succeed in today’s society are at the core of our work. Our exhibitions and programs invite audiences to push the boundaries of traditional thinking. The museum provides lively, participatory, hands-on learning experiences for people of all ages. On every level, we live our mission: to advance contemporary art, artists, and ideas.”

As an educator, Wolf has taught studio art, art history, and museum studies at the graduate and undergraduate level for over fifteen years. She served as professor in the MA program for Curatorial Studies at Columbia University, as adjunct professor in art history at New York University’s Tisch School of Art, and as visiting professor at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Wolf received a BA in French literature from Northwestern University and an MFA in photography from Rhode Island School of Design. She has been awarded the French government’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

With such an impressive background, I was happy to have a conversation and delve into her role at The Henry, and explore the mature facets of their photography collection.

 

“The arts provide a lens through which we may view the concerns of our time,” Wolf comments. “The humanities offer a means for studying and interpreting the arts. The Henry’s location within the University of Washington makes it the ideal place for innovation and improvisation, dialogue, and debate.”—Sylvia Wolf

 

Cary Benbow (CB): As the John S. Behnke Director of the Henry, you oversee all activities and operations at the Museum, from exhibitions to collections. Yet your background is very heavy with photographic curation, directorship, and scholarly writing. When I spoke with Catharina Manchanda at the Seattle Art Museum recently, she listed the Henry Art Gallery as a premier source for contemporary photography. Your background is extensively related to working in this area and is your forte. How does that define your role at the Museum? I know the Henry has more than just photography, but does that play a major part in your duties and your responsibilities or how you look at being a director or a curator of photographic works? What was your experience leading up to your role at the Henry? Did you have much interaction with the Museum in your other positions?

Sylvia Wolf (SW): At the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Whitney, I knew the Henry by reputation as a great contemporary art museum with a stellar photography collection . . . thanks in large part to Seattle collectors Joseph and Elaine Monsen. I first met the Monsens in 1989 when they came to the Art Institute for the 150th Anniversary Exhibition, “On the Art of Fixing a Shadow,” celebrating the announcement of photography to the world in 1839. When the Director position at the Henry opened up, it was appealing because I knew that there was a deep commitment to photography at the Museum. Everything happened to conspire in the happiest possible way for me to come to Seattle.

Today we are growing our photography collection by leaps and bounds. We are able to do so because collectors, artists, and gallerists are inspired by the Monsens and by the generosity of so many other Henry donors and patrons. And with somebody at the helm who has a deep passion for photography, the dialogue is all the more robust.

At this point, I don’t curate exhibitions very often. That’s the work of our curatorial team. But from time to time it makes sense for me to work in the galleries. We are about to close a show of Chuck Close’s photographs. I know Chuck and have been in conversation with him about photography for over two decades. Therefore, it made sense that I would be the person to organize the Seattle iteration of the Parrish Art Museum’s traveling show “Chuck Close Photographs.” In Seattle, we were fortunate to expand the exhibition to include a dozen major works from private collections, including paintings, prints, and tapestries.

 

PHOTOGRAPHS
Close, Chuck
U.S. (1940 – )

Linda, 1975
Internal dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid) with graphite and masking tape mounted on foam core

Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company
Henry Art Gallery
FA 97.40

 

 

 

 

 

I also oversee the annual Monsen Photography Lecture, launched in 2016 as an annual presentation organized by the Henry Art Gallery, which brings key makers and thinkers in photographic art to the Pacific Northwest with a goal to further knowledge about and appreciation for the art of photography. The inaugural lecture was by James Welling. Since the late 1970s, Welling has bridged the chasm between the modernist photography that fascinated him as a young artist and the conceptual framework that shaped his artistic practice at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied and earned his BFA and MFA in the 1970s. Welling has made the history of photography a constant point of reference in a career spanning four decades. His deep knowledge of the medium has allowed him to question it from within and to experiment freely with multiple technologies and processes to push its limits and those of its most familiar categories: landscape, still life, documentary, and abstraction.

This year the Monsen Photography Lecturer is Susan Meiselas. For over forty years, Meiselas has been a pioneer in the evolution of documentary photographic practice, working across multiple platforms from the photographic print to print media, from museum exhibitions to book form, from historical archives to online participatory sites. She has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1976. Magnum’s goal is to provide a community of thought that fosters curiosity and respect for what is going on in the world and that interprets the peoples and events of our world in visual form.

Meiselas is perhaps best known for the photographs she took of war zones in Central America during the late 1970s and 1980s, but she has worked all over the globe. Her photographs can also be found worldwide, in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Tate Modern, London; the Whitney Museum of American Art; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She has been awarded just about every award there is for documentary photography: The International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award, the Hasselblad Foundation International Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Robert Capa Gold Medal for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.”

 

Susan Meiselas, “Carnival Strippers” susanmeiselas.com

For this year’s lecture, Meiselas will introduce three of her seminal projects from the last four decades: “Carnival Strippers,” “Nicaragua,” and “Kurdistan.” In her talk, “From Frame to Form,” she addresses how these projects evolved from her initial introduction to her subjects to final form in print, online, and beyond. In all of her work, Meiselas engages deeply with her subjects, giving participants a voice, which adds a level of complexity to a project that pictures alone cannot provide.

In the last ten years, she has led the initiative to create the Magnum Foundation, which supports emerging photographers, expanding creativity and diversity in documentary photography. I am thoroughly thrilled that she is our speaker this year.

CB: Since you mentioned you don’t do much of the curation, let me take the opportunity to ask how the curation is handled for your photography collection?

SW: Our curatorial team members are experts in contemporary art. Because photography is so deeply embedded in contemporary artistic practice, each one of them has an understanding of photography. As most curators do, each has their own eye and their own voice. We have Nina Bozicnik, our Associate Curator, who has worked with artists who work with photography, as has Luis Croquer, who’s our Deputy Director of Exhibitions, Collections, and Programs.

I may do a small show from our photography collection that will enhance other aspects of things that we’re showing. But mostly, where I engage with photography is in building the collection. We are immensely fortunate to have several donors of photographs who are giving to us on a regular basis because they know that we are building and using our collection. At their invitation, I make selections from their holdings and provide the defense of those works for the Collections Committee.

CB: To dovetail with the topic of curation, as far as acquisition goes for the collection, a large part of your efforts are obviously trying to make sure the collection goes in the direction you want to see it go. Is much of the acquisition of works dependent on established donors who you already know? Is that something that drives a lot of your acquisition decisions, or determining those donors you may approach if they don’t approach you? It seems to me that the Henry has always been this contemporary, leading-edge institution, where people who are passionate about photography and artwork would like to see a dynamic collection, with fresh and engaging works and exhibits, and would donate works accordingly.

SW: That’s a good question. We do not have robust acquisition funds. I have an ongoing running wish list of works—all museums do—that would fill gaps in the collection. For example, New York street photography from the ’50s through the ’70s is an area where I would like to see us expand.

Coming from the Art Institute of Chicago, I have a broad appreciation for the Institute of Design school, for all of those who came out of Moholy-Nagy’s program, or studied with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. The Art Institute of Chicago is rich and deep in the Institute of Design school. We, however, are not. That is not a part of the history of photography that is particularly well known in this part of the world.

We do identify certain donors or certain collectors who are deep in areas that we need and help them understand what our needs are. I am amazed at how generous people are when they see that artists, gallerists, and collectors give to our museum—and they see that we are intentional in how we are building our collection.

Being on a museum campus makes a difference as well. We have the only study center in the region that is open and available to the public. You do have to make an appointment. But you don’t have to be anybody special either. You don’t have to be a member. You don’t have to pay. You can go online—almost all of our 26,000 works are digitized and available online—and see what we have, and then call and ask to come in and view what you are interested in. People hear that, and they get excited! And donors appreciate that their works will be a part of the life of the region, as well as of the students at the University and the Museum.

CB: The online photography and video site was great to look into and see how well it had been put together. One can approach it from a historical perspective of where certain historic periods or innovations fall in your collection, and very importantly, it is searchable. It has a lot of information and practical functionality that frankly many institutions, academic or otherwise, don’t have. So much of what’s going on in the twenty-first century with regards to photography relates to being digitally available and accessible. When I studied photography, it was on the cusp of the Internet coming into its own. Someone currently who wants to approach collectors or galleries can do it within a few keystrokes. It’s a very different world now versus twenty years ago, and I think being able to speak both languages, digital and analog, is crucial to reaching a wide audience. Being able to understand both what the public is looking for, and what institutions can provide for them, is an invaluable skill for museum curators and directors.

SW: What you’re saying is interesting. Shortly before I arrived at the Henry, I was trying to wrap my head around what digital really means to the field. Like you, I studied photography. I got my MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. Analog comprised the photography world, and it was where I came from. At the Henry, we look at photography as a medium with distinct properties and histories, while also recognizing it is one tool among many that are being used by contemporary artists. I’ve worked on a book that dealt with this subject in part—the idea that there was the analog world, and suddenly there was the Internet, and now there are all these artists and professionals trying to grapple with the new world. The rapid change has been really hard to keep up with, but the Henry is best served by all of us who are looking at photography as one tool among many that’s being used by contemporary artists, not just thinking about it as a medium, but rather a standalone in its own right. Our photographic collection at the Henry is actually very historic in its breadth. We have works from William Henry Fox Talbot all the way up to now.

CB: What drives you to look for certain things when you’re thinking about acquisitions?

SW: I mentioned that we have a wish list, so there’s always opportunity. But often, an artist or a donor will present something to us that may not be on our wish list. As with all museums, we have rigorous criteria as to what we bring in. We also have a Collections Committee that assesses all offerings against those criteria. If something is not a good fit, we decline the offer. We find that donors appreciate it if we are straightforward about a work’s alignment with our collecting—which people really appreciate if you’re honest with them. People want their works to go to artists and donors where they’ll be appreciated and valued. There’s no single set of guidelines, however.

Usually we are highly selective in choosing single objects, but on occasion there is a reason to go deeper. For example, we have been fortunate over the past few years to acquire through gift a full set of photographs from Danny Lyon’s “The Bikeriders” series. This is a perfect example—acquiring all works in the series makes sense to us, because Lyon thought of each photograph as a piece of a larger story: the whole greater than the parts. To have the opportunity to add the full set to our collection aligns with the artist’s conception of the body of work. Our approach would be different if we wanted to add single signature works from an artist’s career. Also, this would be different from setting a goal to acquire all of Walker Evans’ FSA work or something like that. Obviously that’s unlikely, but you can see what I mean. In short, we have to be thoughtful based on what’s offered to us but also intentional in going out to seek that which we need to round out the collection. Happily, there’s no end to this effort, because artists keep making new work.

CB: Thankfully, yes!

 

PHOTOGRAPHS
Lyon, Danny
U.S. (1942 – )

Route 12, Wisconsin
1963, printed 2008
Gelatin silver print

Gift of Yuri and Zoe Gurevich
FA 2011.65

Copyright Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

 

SW: I was thrilled to see in the New York Times recently that Chicago is planning a celebration of the history of art and design in the city, with multiple organizations coordinating programs and exhibitions. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; for example, will feature an exhibition of an Institute of Design graduate, photographer Kenneth Josephson, who we featured at the Art Institute of Chicago nearly two decades ago. This celebration of art and design throughout Chicago will be a moment not to be missed for photography scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts.

CB: One of my questions has to do with what certain institutions call “anchors” or “tentpoles.” What photographic works would one want a certain collection to be held up with or anchored by? When I talked with Catharina Manchanda at the Seattle Art Museum, she said, “Who wouldn’t love to have the ‘Holy Grail’ kind of image—everyone would love to have one of these or one of those kinds of seminal works.” But one doesn’t necessarily have the funds, and you want to make sure that you’re spending money in the wisest way to round out a collection. I get the impression that you’re working in very much the same type of approach. As you’ve been in both worlds of an academic versus nonacademic museum, how different are the motivations?

SW: There are different circumstances, different missions, and different contexts from museum to museum. For example, the Art Institute of Chicago has one of the deepest and richest historical collections of photography in the world. To have grown up with that and learned from those works was a privilege that I am deeply grateful for. Acquiring works for the Art Institute against the backdrop of a historical collection formed early in the twentieth century was very different from building the Whitney Museum of American Art’s holdings, where photography became a serious focus of collecting relatively late in the twentieth century. That had its own rewards and delights.

I was brought to the Whitney to head up a department of photography in 1999. Photography had been a factor and a feature of the Biennials for some time, but an independent department that focused on the medium and developed the collection was new. The Monsen collection that is at the root of the Henry’s photography holdings was formed by the donors starting in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and is historical in scope, with iconic photographs from William Henry Fox Talbot to today. Therefore, it is a resource and framework for the history of photography for audiences and peer institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest. One of the things I love about Seattle is the strong relationship we have with our colleagues. We understand our distinctions. The Seattle Art Museum, for example, features photography in the context of their historical collection of global art. We feature photography as one of our great strengths, and the breadth of our collection allows us to teach the whole history of photography. Together, our service to the region offers the best of both worlds.

CB: You are the first woman to hold the Director position at the Henry. What does this mean to you personally or professionally? How do you feel about your position in relation to other directors at institutions across the country or other colleagues of yours?

SW: I have been incredibly fortunate. When I started at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987, I was hired in an entry-level position. My mentors, Curator of Photography David Travis and Director James Wood, gave me opportunities few of my curatorial colleagues in other institutions enjoyed. I was really happy being a scholar and a curator, and got great opportunities to do that. At the Whitney, thanks to Director Maxwell Anderson, I had the opportunity to engage in conversation about photography with extraordinary American artists.

As for being a director, I didn’t have that in mind as a career goal. I just wanted to work hard with good people and great works of art. Thanks to countless women and men who have lifted me up over the years, I have had opportunities to work with amazing institutions, patrons, artists, and collections. That is what motivates me. The job of director is creative in the strategic domain. I immensely enjoy doing this work at the Henry. To steward a museum that has a strong commitment to photography; terrific people on staff, in the community, and on the Board; and room to grow? What could be better than that?

 

Interview by Cary Benbow
Photograph by Chona Kasinger