Each week CGN interviews a local art-industry professional to discuss the ins and outs of running a space in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with Natasha Egan of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Current Position: Executive Director, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago
Hometown: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Previous Occupations: Curator, teacher, gallery manager, landscaper
5 favorites from the past week
Restaurant: Dinner at HaiSous in Pilsen
Watch: Went to Moutainfilm in Telluride Colorado—a documentary film festival. This year’s theme was migration with a particular focus on the global refugee crisis and some highlights were these powerful films: Soufra directed by Thomas Morgan; On Her Shoulders directed by Alexandria Bombach, Are We Listening? directed by Tim Kressin; and Lifeboat directed by Skye Fitzgerald. I am organizing an exhibition about this subject in early 2019 so my hope is to help bring these films to Chicago if they are not already scheduled.
Listen: My most recent concert was The Sea and Cake at the Empty Bottle.
Shop: I found a great Marni dress at Luxury Garage Sale on Wells.
Read: This week I read Ai Weiwei’s “little blue book” Humanity edited by Larry Warsh released at the end of April.
CGN: Tell us a little about your background and the journey that has led you to become Executive Director of MoCP?
NE: I started at the MoCP in 1995 as the Assistant to the Director while pursuing my MA in Museum Studies and MFA in Photography at Columbia College Chicago. The first exhibition I organized opened in April of 1998 titled Alienation and Assimilation: Contemporary Images and Installations from the Republic of Korea. For many of the seventeen exhibiting artists, this exhibition was their first in the United States and today some of them are South Korea’s leading contemporary artists—such as Atta Kim (aka Kim Seok-Jung); Bae Bien-U; Choi Jeong-Hwa, and Yook Keun-Byung.
In 1998, I moved to Germany and served as a freelance curator. In 2000, I was hired back at the MoCP as the Associate Director and Curator where I organized dozens of exhibitions and managed the operating budget for the MoCP. In those years I also taught in the photography department at Columbia College. I co-taught for five years a January session course for the humanities department taking students to Shanghai and Beijing for a crash course on the arts and culture of China.
In 2011, I became the Executive Director of the MoCP. I continue to serve as a curator but have an increased role in administration and fundraising, while leading a remarkable staff of seven professionals and fifteen graduate and undergraduate interns from Columbia College Chicago.
CGN: Give us a day in the life!
NE: Everyday is a juggling act but when you are passionate about what you do everything usually ties together nicely.
Today my day started on the Red Line reading the NYTimes morning report and NPR on my iPhone. Briefly reading and deleting the fifty new eblasts from galleries, museums and artists from around the world that filled my inbox during the night. When I get to the museum, my first task is to review a final report for a foundation grant. Next, I send a couple informal thank you emails to MoCP donors and set up a couple follow up lunch/coffee meetings. Next, I meet with Kenneth Guthrie, a graduate student intern working closely with me on an exhibition about the global refugee crisis for early 2019. We discuss developing the checklist, writing the individual artist’s wall texts and creating a print viewing set with works from the MoCP’s permanent collection that will complement the exhibition. We also discuss how a partnership with Heartland Alliance and the Transatlantic Refugee Resettlement Network could function. We ended with a conversation about the documentary films I had seen at Mountainfilm the week before.
Next, I respond to a slew of emails that had been neglected for too long—some were responses to artists I had met back in March at Fotofest in Houston, admittedly, I am way behind on some email correspondence. Next, it is lunchtime. In the taxi on my way to lunch at The Kitchen with a potential new advisory board member I, again, briefly read and delete the next fifty plus art eblasts I had received over the last few hours. Several email announcements alerted me to important art openings dates, so I added certain ones to my calendar with the intent to attend as many as I can. After lunch, I walked back to the MoCP because the weather was finally beautiful.
Back at the MoCP my afternoon turned to the more administrative side of my job. I met with Columbia’s finance department and in-house counsel to figure out the logistics of a new grant and then I put some time into preparing the MoCP’s FY19’s budget for review. Where did the day go? At the top of my To Do list is to write the introduction for the upcoming MoCP publication The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold: Art, Identity and Politics which will complement the exhibition opening in October as part of Art Design Chicago, but I did not get a chance to even think about Ralph Arnold—perhaps tomorrow, as the deadline is looming. I end my day on the Red Line reading the NYTimes evening report and skimming and deleting the fifty or so new art eblasts that have yet again filled my inbox.
When I got home, I made fish tacos for my family with a cucumber-mango salad, we enjoyed catching up over dinner, and I am now sitting on my sofa responding to these interview questions.
CGN: How would you sum up your experience during your time with MoCP?
NE: Rewarding on so many levels.
I have been fortunate to work with a great range of colleagues and artists from different corners of our planet and they have helped shape how I perceive the world. It is invigorating to work at a small and nimble college art museum in the heart of downtown Chicago with a staff that fosters creativity. We take advantage of our medium specificity and work with artists who often push the boundaries of what defines photography and address a range of contemporary social and political issues from different perspectives. I have learned to be unafraid to take risks allowing the MoCP to create impactful dialogues with our students, faculty, staff and our wider international audience.
CGN: Do you have a favorite collection or exhibition that you have worked on in the past?
NE: After organizing exhibitions for over twenty years it's impossible to pick a favorite but I will say that working closely with artists such as Beate Gütschow, Victoria Sambunaris, and Christina Seely on their exhibitions and monographs has been deeply rewarding.
The craziest exhibition I organized was in 2016 for the Dubai Photo Exhibition. I was invited to serve as the curator for the USA and Canada Pavilion and the mission was to exhibit both the masters of the 20th Century and emerging artists of the 21st Century with only eight artists total from the USA and Canada. Picking the artists was tricky as one cannot just borrow an original masterpiece from say the Metropolitan Museum of Art on short notice, particularly for an exhibition that was going to be installed in a temporary space that was constructed in only three weeks. I also ran into some issues with the sponsors of the exhibition not supporting some of the artists I had originally chosen, and a Canadian artist pull out of the show as a protest to human rights issues.
In the end, I had seven artists and only one Canadian represented—but all masters in my book. My theme was loosely based on political and social movements through the decades starting in the 1930s to the end of the 20th century. The exhibition started with Dorothea Lange's photographs from the Farm Security Administration and I used images downloaded from the Library of Congress archive. I then showed Alec Soth's Songbook project, which he made in the 21st century but the photographs harken back visually and conceptually to the 1950s. The sixties were represented by Dawoud Bey's The Birmingham Project, again contemporary work like Alec, but about the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Church in 1963 and racial violence. The 70s were marked by Chicago artist Barbara Crane's series titled People of the North Portal, which depicts people exiting the north portal of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1970 and 1971. Looking at Barbara’s pictures decades later one realizes, based on the fashion and diversity of the individuals, that her portfolio captured humanity in the early 1970s. For the 1980s I showed Meridel Rubenstein's portfolio Lowriders: Portraits from New Mexico. The lowriders, descendants of the 1950s cruisers, was fitting as I learned that there is also a cruising culture in Dubai along the beach but the drivers are mostly in SUVs not lowriders. The last two artists were more about the passage of time and family over multiple decades with Nicholas Nixon's Brown Sisters and Moyra Davey’s Seven project focused on her and her six sisters.
Each of the artists exhibited in Dubai have works included in the MoCP's permanent collection, so that was another method I used to distill the 20th and 21st centuries with only seven artists.
CGN: What major successes have you had this year? What about challenges?
NE: This year the MoCP received its largest cash gift of $1M from the David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation to support the museum’s future exhibitions and acquisitions. The Ruttenberg family’s generosity has been instrumental since our founding in shaping the MoCP and our mission: to cultivate a deeper understanding of the artistic, cultural and political roles of photography in our world today. Speaking of mission, the MoCP also collaborated with a remarkable team of volunteers this year from the Executive Service Corp to develop our current strategic plan, and in true Daniel Burnham style, we will make no little plan. Our future is bright and the challenges are exciting.
CGN: What do you look for in an artwork? When searching for yourself, what speaks to you?
NE: I find that I’m drawn to work that is layered—visually or conceptually. I’m interested in art that is capable of communicating multiple stories depending on the life experience of the viewer. I am also interested in art that educates us about a topic with artistic and conceptual integrity. For example, the MoCP is currently showing Mohau Modisakeng's three channel immersive film titled Passages (2017) which speaks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in both a haunting and visually compelling way. For me, an artwork needs to be able to create a complex story, with irony, humor, or formal complexity.
CGN: What should we expect to see next from MoCP?
NE: We currently have a phenomenal exhibition on view organized by our inaugural Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts Sheridan Tucker Anderson titled In Their Own Form: Contemporary Photography and Afrofuturism. If you haven’t had a chance to see the exhibition, run to the MoCP before July 8, 2018. Next up, MoCP’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator Karen Irvine has organized Lucas Foglia: Human Nature opening on July 19. For the last ten years, Lucas Foglia has been poetically examining our relationship to the natural world both emotionally and scientifically.
We will also have a related collection show on view upstairs organized by Kristin Taylor, MoCP Curator of Academic Programs and Collections titled View Finder: Landscape and Leisure in the Collection with works by such artists as Ansel Adams, Terry Evans, and William Henry Jackson. And, then on October 11, 2018, as part of Art Design Chicago, we are very much looking forward to opening two companion exhibitions The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold: Art, Identity and Politics organized by art historian Greg Foster-Rice, PhD, associate professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago and Echoes: Reframing Collage organized by Karen Irvine, showcasing new works by Krista Franklin, Wardell Milan, Ayanah Moor, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Xaviera Simmons.
Natasha Egan is Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography on South Michigan Avenue. For more information regarding MoCP please visit Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Castillo