Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Grace Kook-Anderson is the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Laguna Art Museum, a museum whose mission is to display the talents of California-based artists. As someone whose field of expertise is art from the 1960s until the present day, Kook-Anderson is often able to work with living artists to bring their masterpieces to the gallery walls.
The Daily Gazette: Can you talk a little bit about your job at the Laguna Art Museum?
Grace Kook-Anderson: [Even though] my title is Curator of Contemporary Art, a lot of the staff members wear several different hats–often all at once! The main responsibility for me, at least in the contemporary field, is that I often get to work with living artists, and oftentimes when I put together exhibitions, I think of it as a collaborative process with artists. [My other duties include] working with the works that are in our permanent collection, taking care of those, interpreting [the works] when we show [them], and also hopefully working with gifts that we receive [and] new acquisitions for the museum.
DG: So for some background, how did you get involved in museum work? How did you become a curator?
GKA: I kind of came into it slowly, and I didn’t really even know what a curator really did. In college, I really fell in love with art history, taking all the courses, and decided to make it my major. I was also doing painting, so I did a double major. But the painting was more of a personal endeavor–academically, I was really driven toward art history.
I finished my undergraduate and then I worked in the art field for a few years. My first job was at an art gallery in downtown San Francisco. That was a really great experience, because in a gallery you do a lot of different things, and the turnaround is always so quick, so I gained a lot of experience. I got exposed to a lot of curators, a lot of artists. That’s where I started thinking about what a curator really does and started looking into graduate programs.
I [then] worked at the Asian Art Museum as the assistant to the chief curator, [which] was a really great experience because it gave me some insight into what curators do, [the duties of] the curatorial department in a large museum, how all the departments are dependent on each other, and how it all functions. So I did that for about a year, and then I went into graduate school. I did my graduate program at California College of Arts.
DG: Why did you want to focus on contemporary art, as opposed to modern art or Old Masters?
GKA: I think it really stemmed from my gallery experience. When you build these relationships with artists, it becomes a lifelong thing. It’s not just a job; it really becomes [a] lifestyle. I really enjoyed being able to support an artist if and whenever I could. […] I really enjoyed being involved in their creative process, and that drew me to contemporary art. It also made a lot of sense because [contemporary art] is of my time, so that [aspect] really resonated with me as well.
DG: At the Laguna Art Museum, what is your favorite show that you’ve helped to curate and exhibit?
GKA: I think the most rewarding show has been this exhibition that was part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Initiative in 2011-2012. Our show was called “Best Kept Secret,” and it was looking at artists and teachers that were at UCI [University of California at Irvine] when the univeristy first opened in 1965. It was such an involved moment. It was called “Best Kept Secret” because not a lot of people knew about what was going on at this time [or about] all of these things that came together to make it this creative hub. I really got to know quite a lot of the artists. […] Everyone that was involved in it really put their heart into it, and it was rewarding on all those fronts. And it ended up turning out to be quite a beautiful exhibition.
When we started it, because a lot of the works were very conceptual, artists were doing performative things, and there were a lot of photo-documentations, I thought it was going to be this gray, black, and white type of show. But it all came together, even right up to the moment where the works were coming in, that I realized it was really a very colorful, beautiful show.
DG: Wow, I wish I could have seen it.
GKA: That’s the other fun thing– you can always plan as much as you can up until the bitter end, and you can have a good conceptual sense of the space and how things will fit in the space, but there’s always this element of surprise when you actually see everything together in the room, how they communicate with each other. I think those are things that are hard to predict until you are actually in the space with them.
DG: What is the most challenging part of your job?
GKA: I think the most exciting thing is the most challenging thing, which is having to be a lot of things at the same time. There are some days where you just want to close the door and put your phone on forward and soak in all the research, and it’s really impossible to do. I think that’s becoming more and more the case of curators, no matter what kind of institution you’re working for. It’s a challenge because your initial love is working with the artists and having the time to devote to really being thoughtful about the work that you’re doing. […] I think more and more now, being a curator you often have to think about “how will that raise money” and “is going to be that doable.” […] I think that muddies the clarity of the goal or what your initial thoughts were. I think that’s a challenge.