Curators collect, organize, and shape the content we see everywhere from our Twitter feeds to museum collections. They have long occupied an important role in society as protectors of precious social records. In many ways, they're the ones who preserve our history as a human race. It’s a term which has evolved time. According to British Art Show curator Tom Morton, in Ancient Rome, curators were noble senior civil servants. He writes they were tasked then with public works that including overseeing and managing Rome’s aqueducts, bathhouses, and even sewers. In the medieval period, they even took on the role of priests responsible for the care (“cura”) of souls. It was in the 20th century that curators were in positions likened to the one Dr. Jennifer Jankauskas holds today at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
“Uncommon Territory is something I was interested in doing because it is a contemporary survey of Alabama. I was most interested in puncturing the idea of what might be Alabama art versus Southern art.”
Recently, Jennifer took Foreword South on a personal exploration of a popular exhibit that put some of Alabama’s most talented artists on full display - “Uncommon Territory: Contemporary Art in Alabama”. Dr. Jankauskas’ career began 25 years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago where she was an intern while completing her graduate studies and eventually became a full-time curatorial assistant. She went on to obtain her Ph.D. in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in England.
“The word ‘curator’ actually comes from a history of people taking care of the art and really being the custodians of art,” Jennifer explained. Her experiences in the art world during college helped Jennifer realize her calling was not to create art, but to create space for artistic expression. She admits the day to day work is less glamorous than some may expect.
“I spend a lot of time in front of a computer,” she said.
But it’s the time invested in research and the use of today’s technology that allows for curators to identify and reach out to more artists than ever before. As a contemporary art curator, one of the bright spots in Jennifer’s day is being able to reach out directly to artists and engage in conversations about their craft. In fact, research and meetings that started two years ago laid the foundation of what ultimately would become the Uncommon Territory exhibit that we took a walk through with Dr. Jankauskas.
While she is not a Southern native, she was inspired by the idea of making a space that would give Alabama’s talented artists a platform. “Uncommon Territory is something I was interested in doing because it is a contemporary survey of Alabama. I was most interested in puncturing the idea of what might be Alabama art versus Southern art,” she explained.
As we toured the exhibit, sculptures were strung from the ceiling and even emerged from the walls, alongside beautiful artistic works of all mediums. After Jennifer traveled around Alabama and met with nearly 100 artists, she chose the work of 32. They're featured in the exhibit that includes installations, paintings, videos, photography, ceramic, and glass pieces. While the pieces are diverse in both their style and presentation, several themes tie them together: nature, identity, and landscapes both real and imagined.
“A great exhibit will invite questions and conversations”, Jennifer pointed out. “As I think even of how to hang something on the wall I hope that it will spark a conversation.”
Sure enough, the questions came to mind and more conversation was sparked as we set our eyes on each piece. There were familiar images of Southern homes portrayed in works such as Blue House Dusk, Colleen Comer’s colorful paintings of weather homes in Mobile, AL. And in Annie Campbell’s three-dimensional porcelain, stoneware, and plexiglass sculpture, Deepwater, she captures a the disastrous impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days.
“A great exhibit will invite questions and conversations.”
In her process of choosing what to put on display, Jennifer resisted the idea that a display of Alabama art needed to fit into any box or set of stereotypes. “The stereotypes of Alabama may bleed over to what people might think of our art. I chose thoughtful work that might not just speak to Alabama exclusively but what would speak to what artists are concerned with all around the world. There are few artists that may speak to the South in their subjects, but not necessarily in their technique.”
That intentionality is clear in the contrast of some art pieces like a beautifully ornamented deer head, known as Becoming Osiris, and created by Merrilee Challis’. This precious image brought new life to a dated and stereotypical image reminiscent of Alabama’s culture with an eccentric style. On the other hand, Birmingham artist Darrius Hill’s massive display occupied an entire wall with an installation called A Spade by Another Name. He captures the struggle of blackness in America today and historically the experience of being Black in the South through a circular shield that he says represents, “the cycle that blacks find themselves in due to social-economic and racial issues.” Outlined with wood strips which he painted to look charred and old, at the center of the shield is a spade. The symbol of a spade represents a derogatory term used toward blacks following the Civil War era. He was also inspired by the logo used by the notorious hip-hop group Public Enemy.
“The stereotypes of Alabama may bleed over to what people might think of our art. I chose thoughtful work that might not just speak to Alabama exclusively but what would speak to what artists are concerned with all around the world."
Another element of the exhibit that stood out was how many different media these artists utilized to create dynamic art out of materials Dr. Jankauskas describes as both “artistic and robust”. Suspended above us was Roil, a piece that was made of corrugated plastic and evoked imagery of clouds, water, or even a canopy of trees - a nod to Alabama’s diverse ecosystem.
“As a contemporary curator one of the roles is to know what’s going on, and what people are doing,” says Dr. Jankauskas, “I look at art now and decide what is going to be significant in the future.” She considers the stories the art work and the exhibits can tell.
And as MMFA continues to showcase the talent native to Alabama and Deep South, a bright future clearly lies ahead. “When you have a great museum, it invites excitement and involvement,” she tells me. And it’s not her work alone that keeps things moving at Montgomery’s only fine arts museum. Registrars, preparators, educators, and many more are vital to getting to this point. Creativity and vision are required from each person involved.
Jennifer has a goal to “move the culture forward by bringing artists and mediums to the forefront that we might not be paying attention to. [Uncommon Territory] is a balance of newer artists and some with names we may even recognize.”
After 25 years of museum curation, Jennifer describes her husband, who is also an artist, as one of her inspirations as one of “her people” - along with the art community and her colleagues. Her advice for young people interested in museum studies and art curation is to get out and immerse themselves in as much art as possible. She encourages them to go to museums when they can and utilize the internet to study different works. Jennifer points out that the life of being a museum curator will take you to lots of places and it requires that you be willing to move, but she has embraced this aspect of her job - after all, it brought her back to her husband’s hometown of Montgomery.
Dr. Jennifer Jankauskas’ story is a reminder that art surrounds us, from the talent to the inspiration behind masterpieces, even outside the museum walls. Her work as a curator seeks art out and elevates it for all to see. While she did not grow up in the South, she feels moving around has taught her to to erase a lot of the mental barriers one may put up when going somewhere new, a lesson that we can all benefit from. “This work not only allows you to let go of presumptions but actually learn to embrace a place because of the people - that’s a true testament of culture and who we are - the people.”
- D. N.