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Charly Haley, Published December 09 2012

Plains Art curator aims to engage museum visitors

FARGO – To Megan Johnston, art curating isn’t just about organizing a display – it’s about connecting with people.

Though she’s not an artist herself, as the Plains Art Museum director of curatorial affairs and interpretation, Johnston says, she works to bridge the gap between artwork and the viewer.

As a curator, what do you do?

Traditionally a curator organizes the exhibitions, so you would research the artwork, select the artwork, write the labels, place the artwork. And our field is about 150 to 200 years old, and so historically we’ve always worked in museums, and curators worked with art or objects pretty much. But now, the title curator has changed a lot. Historically it comes from a Latin word that means to grow or to cultivate. To curate also has religious connotations.

Over the past 10 or 20 years there’s been a movement toward engagement – so that space between the object and the viewer. And so I’m kind of (from) one of those generations of curators that is really interested in that experience. While I love objects – paintings or sculptures or whatever – what really excites me, and what excites a lot of younger curators and those who are in kind of the cutting edge of the field, is that experience that we hope to curate, that we hope to evoke. So it’s a little different.

How do you work to engage people?

For example, I call my curatorial process slow curating … it’s about connecting with people in different ways. The exhibitions are a little bit more poignant I’d like to think, because of that connectivity.

An example is on the third floor, we have DJ Spooky – a big name, hip, super cool. He did a project on Antarctica. He’s a really cool African-American DJ in New York and travels all over the place. Well how is that relevant for Fargo? Well, first, there’s a big DJ underground music scene here, and so what we did is we had this really cool show, and we worked with a local group of DJs, and we had this big party with DJs and rapping. We had a graffiti show.

So we kind of riff off of ideas and shows and do programs around it. It’s not just about putting artwork on a wall. It’s about trying to create meaningful experiences around it.

How did you first get interested in curating?

I took all different kinds of things in school. First I think I was pre-med – don’t know why, because I don’t like science – but I was pre-med, then pre-law for a while, then history, business, and then, because I went to the University of Minnesota, we have to take all these liberal arts classes, and I took an art history class as an elective. I just fell in love with it because I thought art is kind of the visual manifestation of history and our time. And I liked contemporary art because it reflects our time.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311