Artists play a key role in shaping communities and our choices about where we choose to live, work, play, and stay. But do we fully appreciate the role of the curators, the designers working behind the scenes to display artwork in local museums? Here is the first of five stories about local curators who demonstrate remarkable thoughtfulness, energy, and vision in how we view and react to what we see.
Part 1 in a series of 5.
There’s no doubt that figuration maintains its popularity with museum visitors because of its inherent ability to weave distinct narratives, no matter how abstract they may be, in a viewer’s mind.
Joanna Robotham at the Tampa Museum of Art takes cues from Museum’s collections, particularly the work of painters, to build -- layer upon layer -- a grand epic through her curatorial guided displays, asking herself which paintings speak to each other the strongest to make the most visual impact.
Robotham has long been steeped in the culture of inspiring audiences through narration, having worked for the Jewish Museum in NYC for 11 years before moving to the Tampa Museum of Art in 2016, where their curatorial program fostered story-building.
“Usually curators have a theme and then pick artworks around that, but I’m someone who likes to find inspiration in an artist, a couple of artists, or an object or couple of objects, then build a story around that,” says Robotham, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Tampa Museum of Art. “My role is to help our community understand the history of modern and contemporary art. There are a lot of misconceptions, and people can be intimidated by those terms. I’m here to make that accessible. When you come in, you should not only be inspired by the artwork, but the wall text should be understandable so anyone can enjoy it no matter what background, whether you are a long-time collector or just walking into a museum for the first time.”
Robotham cites curator Maurice Berger, who focused on providing a platform for underrepresented artists, as a major influence in her work -- particularly when looking at one of her favorite curatorial endeavors that represents what she wants to accomplish at the TMA: the Ordinary/Extraordinary series of exhibitions focusing on the theme of assemblage in three small shows highlighting Jean-Michel Basquiat, Purvis Young, and Haitian Vodou flags.
“What was great about this series is I could take an overarching theme and link these artists through the various ways they were making art,” Robotham explains. “With Young, we had a large collection gifted from the Rubell Family Collection. Only two dozen had been on view out of 91 total. Many of them were still in original packaging when they came to the museum in the early 2000s, so an immediate goal was to get that collection on view. Young had connections to Basquiat in that he would paint on anything he could get his hands on, like old doors and boards. We took those ties to African and Caribbean diaspora and connected that back to the Tampa Bay Area.”
Seeing how robust the programs are at the TMA, one would have never guessed that before Robotham was hired, there wasn’t a dedicated curator of modern and contemporary art for over a decade.
“She has really transformed the entire program with modern and contemporary art, which is extremely exciting. She has fundamentally built an entire program that had been less formal in the past,” says Michael Tomor, Executive Director of the Tampa Museum of Art. “She has done an excellent job as a liaison, building wonderful new relationships not just with colleagues at other institutions, but with one-on-one relationships with the community.”
Having fresh eyes roam the museum’s collection, Robotham has been able to build more contemporary context, then show the community art they may not have seen in years, if ever.
Robotham also wants the community to know that the TMA is actively collecting new, quality works.
“My starting point is always the collection, that’s the heart of the programming. I use that as a starting point for so many of my shows and have been excited and happy with what I’ve found. In the long-term, I would love to build a world-class collection here and continue to broaden the diversity of artists we bring in, since building the collection goes toward the notion of community support and representation,” Robotham says.
To make room for more art and more ambitious exhibitions, the museum is slowly turning storage and administrative space into gallery space so that more of their collection can be on view instead of tucked away in storage. Robotham believes this will be groundbreaking and help solidify their programming and help add to a more vibrant arts ecosystem here in Tampa.
“She really brings a great excitement to the position that is very contagious. She is so passionate about what she does and is excited when people come along with her on that journey,” Tomor says.
To find out more about exhibitions and programming led by Joanna Robotham, visit the Tampa Museum of Art website.