When Rosalind M. Pepall began her career as a curator more than 30 years ago, her job title had a very specific institutional meaning. Curating was a specialized profession requiring a graduate degree and was reserved for caretakers of museum and art gallery collections. But because most people aren’t aware of what a curator actually does, the pervading pop-culture stereotypes are of icy, turtlenecked snobs or puttering old men toiling away in dusty tombs.
In her new book, Pepall, a former curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, demystifies her profession through 15 essays that highlight favourite career moments and illuminate the work that goes on behind the scenes of blockbuster exhibitions. There have been few publications on the subject, especially in Canada, that would appeal to a broad audience of museum-goers. While David Balzer’s 2014 long-form essay for Coach House Books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, is a fascinating theoretical look at the profession, Pepall’s book contains refreshing insider appeal.
Though conversational in tone – no art jargon here – Talking to a Portrait opens with a fairly traditional curatorial essay on Montreal painter Edwin Holgate and his 1930 portrait, Ludivine (named for his 15-year-old subject). The piece, which wouldn’t seem out of place in an exhibition catalogue, ends abruptly (as many of the essays in the book do) on a quietly remarkable note – Pepall being handed a photograph of the real Ludivine. The moment begs for more emotional inquiry, especially considering that the essay begins with the question, “Has a painting ever brought you to tears?”
Pepall selects interesting details about various artists’ lives and works that are personally meaningful to her. But the book is most successful when she shares details of how an exhibition or acquisition came together, such as how she obsessed about Tiffany glass for three years, travelling as far as the revered Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in preparation for an upcoming show. The complex operations and risks of moving priceless artifacts are fascinating and Pepall recounts her travels as a courier ensuring their safety. Also illuminating is the curator’s role as salesperson: part of Pepall’s job is to convince wealthy collectors and other institutions to part with valuable art pieces for extended periods of time.
All this labour is driven by a curatorial vision that occasionally doesn’t come to fruition. Those false starts are also entertaining to read about, such as the time Pepall found the perfect 1930s twin-prop airplane for a travelling design exhibition much to the chagrin of the museum’s head of installation. She ultimately settled for a vintage Airstream trailer, which was procured at the last minute from the Ohio-based manufacturer and souped up with curtains sewn in-house by MMFA’s conservator.
It’s an interesting time for a book about curation to appear. Online culture has co-opted the word, which is now used freely by Pinterest enthusiasts and playlist makers to describe what is essentially just choosing stuff. COVID-19 has expanded public interest in online exhibitions that are not attached to a physical space, and as cultural institutions examine their internal policies and histories, some curators find themselves taking on more of an activist role as collections and exhibitions are decolonized from their Eurocentric foundations. Although Pepall doesn’t hypothesize over her profession’s future, Talking to a Portrait serves as a thoughtful remembrance of a fulfilling career and a profession now in flux.