Julie Pierotti: Hi, Courtney! Thanks for taking part in this conversation. I thought you would be a great person to interview because of all the great work Telfair does – you all (or should I say y’all?) seem to strike a nice balance between exhibitions of historical art and shows that focus on artists working today. First, I thought it would be helpful to have a little bit of an introduction. Where are you from originally? How did you come to work at Telfair? What is your area of expertise as a curator?
Courtney McNeil: Hey, Julie! First, thanks so much for inviting me to participate and for your kind words about the work we’re doing at Telfair. I grew up in the Boston area, then left to go to college in Washington, DC, and graduate school in London. After grad school I returned to Boston and worked a few years at a wonderful commercial gallery, which I loved, but I knew that I wanted to transition from the commercial art world to a nonprofit museum. I came down to interview at Telfair as they were about to undertake a major expansion, and Savannah just stole my heart. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been here almost fourteen years! When I first started, we had a very lean curatorial team, and I had the opportunity to curate everything from European Old Master prints to photography to contemporary art. I am proud of the fact that during my tenure we have grown Telfair’s curatorial team to its largest size in the organization’s long history, with a current total of six curators. Now, in addition to my role as chief curator/deputy director, I also curate the museum’s collection of American and European fine art to 1945.
The institution I call “Telfair” is actually Telfair Museums, an organization of three museums, Telfair Academy, Jepson Center, and Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, in Savannah. How do you program each of these spaces curatorially? Is one more focused on highlighting Georgia artists than the other?
Telfair Museums is a really unique organization! We operate three separate buildings that have three totally distinct functions and visitor experiences. The good news for our visitors is that admission to one of our buildings comes with complimentary admission to the other two, which has helped us steadily increase our visitation numbers over the past few years. Telfair Academy is a historic art museum housed in an 1819 building—it opened in 1886 and is the oldest public art museum in the South and one of the first in the country. The curatorial focus of this building is to showcase the gems from our founding collections—works by highly trained academic European painters from the late 19th century, plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures (commissioned for Telfair by our first director during his travels to Europe in the 1880s), and exceptional works by American Impressionist painters and artists associated with the Ashcan School. One of our upstairs galleries is dedicated to scenes of Savannah from our collection that date from about 1920 to 1960, and an adjacent space is home to the iconic Bird Girl sculpture by Sylvia Shaw Judson, made famous after appearing on the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in a photograph taken by Savannah photographer Jack Leigh. Even though Judson was from Chicago, Bird Girl will be forever linked to Savannah thanks to Midnight!
The Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters is a historic house museum that interprets the period of 1820-1840 and focuses on the complicated story of urban slavery in Savannah as well as the unique architecture of the home, but we don’t mount any temporary exhibitions at that site. The Jepson Center is our contemporary building, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. It’s where we host our major traveling exhibitions from all time periods as well as our permanent collection of modern and contemporary art. The Jepson also hosts most of our educational programming, our art studios, and our interactive children’s play area. We present about 8 significant exhibitions a year at the Jepson, along with numerous smaller installations and projects. Since the Jepson Center opened in 2006, we have worked with nationally and internationally-known artists, and we have also worked with several important Savannah artists, presenting solo exhibitions of artists including Marcus Kenney, Jerome Meadows, Betsy Cain, Luther Vann, Katherine Sandoz, and most recently (on view until October 13) Suzanne Jackson. Since 2016, we have also engaged with local artists through our #art912 initiative (912 is Savannah’s area code), which offers exhibition opportunities to Savannah artists in our #art912 lounge and in the large street-facing windows along the ground floor of the Jepson Center.
How does your curatorial background inform your approach to programming contemporary art for the Savannah community?
I feel incredibly fortunate that so many fantastic exhibition ideas come across my desk—either shows generated by my team or loan shows from other organizations—than we could ever begin to host. So, when we’re crafting our exhibition schedule, we have the luxury of looking among all of these great ideas and winnowing the list down to the projects that are not just visually compelling and curatorially rigorous, but that resonate in a particular way with our institution’s audiences and context. For example, our curator of history is using scholarship surrounding our historic house museum as a jumping-off point to convene a scholarly symposium in the fall of 2020 examining the legacy of slavery here in Savannah. From the beginning, I challenged our contemporary curator to work closely with our curator of history and play a role in the planning of the symposium and associated programming, and I am thrilled that the result has been that the project has evolved from the initial concept of a scholarly symposium and a related exhibition to what we are calling the Legacy of Slavery in Savannah Initiative—an interdisciplinary project comprising community-embedded town halls, a public symposium, compelling exhibitions and performances with contemporary artists, all culminating in a major scholarly publication. This is a project that is unique to Telfair—what other museum in the American South has this unique combination of a long background in interpreting the story of slavery AND a robust contemporary art program? We owe it to our community to use our unique platform in the most effective way possible. I think a project like this is where we do our best work and can have the greatest impact on our community.
Before the Dixon started our Mallory/Wurtzburger exhibition series dedicated to regional contemporary art in 2008, we had no plan or focus on the art of our own specific time and place, and we were really isolated from the Memphis arts community. Has Telfair always showcased Savannah artists?
Telfair has a long history of engagement with Savannah artists, dating back to the 1920s when groups like the Savannah Art Club and the Association of Georgia Artists were founded and Telfair would regularly host their annual members’ exhibitions. But the museum shifted away from those types of exhibitions in the latter part of the 20th century—museums around the country were beginning to experiment with programming models geared really strongly towards frequently rotating exhibitions brought in from far-flung locations, and Telfair was doing a lot of this. It really took the opening of the Jepson Center in 2006, which gave us so much more gallery space, to invigorate our engagement with local artists. While our mission is to bring compelling work from around the country and around the world to Savannah, we absolutely recognize that there are many talented artists are living and working in our city, and we have an institutional obligation to support them. It’s pretty hypocritical to sit back and say, “Yes, isn’t it great to live in this vibrant, creative city full of passionate and talented artists who enliven our community?” but not utilize our institutional platform to support their work in some way. There is certainly more that we could be doing (and hope to do in the future), but our #art912 initiative has been highly successful since its launch, providing exhibition opportunities to over a dozen local artists, nearly all of whom had never shown in a museum before. It’s important to me that these projects include a budget for an artist honorarium, a talk and reception at the museum, and are featured on our website and in social media like all of our other exhibitions.
It seems that in recent years, Savannah has increasingly become a major tourist destination. How do you attract these visitors to Telfair Museums, and once there, how do you think they respond to your regional contemporary exhibitions?
Savannah’s tourism industry is booming, and this has had ramifications across all sectors. Our head of marketing is always ready to remind us that 80% of our visitors are tourists, the vast majority of whom will visit us once and never come back. Tourists have always been drawn to Savannah for its history, but in recent years we have seen a trend in which tourists (particularly millennials) are seeking out unique, authentic experiences when they travel. We have long thought about Telfair’s three museums as each providing a unique Savannah experience, so we have begun emphasizing this feature when we market to tourists, and people really seem to be responding well to this message—in 2019 we are on track to achieve the highest attendance in our institution’s history! We have also cultivated relationships with hospitality industry employees, particularly hotel concierges, who often help influence tourists in deciding which attractions to visit. Once they make it in the door, we always try to have exciting and diverse offerings on view. For example, when we recently had the great privilege of borrowing the Dixon’s collection of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism for a featured exhibition in our main galleries, which was a real crowd pleaser, we thought it would be exciting to complement that show with something totally different. So right across the hall we hosted an edgy, conceptual installation by contemporary artist Erin Johnson titled Heavy Water, which used immersive video and sound installations to explore the story of the Savannah River Site, a U.S. nuclear weapons facility and National Environmental Research Park. Our hope was that visitors who had come out for French Impressionism would also encounter this exciting contemporary work and leave the museum having had an even richer experience than they might have expected.
At the Dixon we are always conscious of the connection we as an institution have with each of our exhibitions. How do the contemporary art exhibitions at Telfair Museums differ from those at other Savannah art institutions?
Savannah has a fantastic ecosystem of museums and cultural sites, and we each occupy a unique niche, so there is really a great sense of community and collaboration, rather than competition, among the institutions in our town. There are other historic house museums that examine time periods and themes different than the ones we interpret at the OTHSQ, there are wonderful organizations like the Coastal Heritage Society and Savannah Civil Rights Museum that focus exclusively on Savannah’s history, and there is the excellent museum at the Savannah College of Art and Design, which is known for hosting fashion exhibitions and for working with interesting contemporary artists whose work is of particular interest to SCAD students. And there are excellent commercial gallery spaces like Laney Contemporary, which has really helped to elevate art collecting opportunities for Savannahians. Telfair is the only nonprofit art museum in town hosting exhibitions (both contemporary and otherwise) that are geared towards our entire community. In addition to the tourist audiences that I mentioned earlier, many local households are members of the museum, and thanks to a decades-long partnership with the local public school system, we host about 3,000 fourth grade students at the museum every year. For each major exhibition we also develop outreach programming, and a dedicated staff member oversees our outreach efforts (over 200 outreach visits a year!) to underserved members of our community at local senior centers, veteran rehabilitation facilities, and community centers. So, as we select exhibitions and develop our gallery interpretation, we are looking for ways to make the content meaningful and exciting to a wide range of audiences, from local families to tourists to SCAD students to fourth graders, and everyone in between.
Naturally, we have found that the more we invest in contemporary artists, the more the local arts community invests in us through their attendance, membership, and participation in our education programs (workshops, lectures, etc.). Have you had a similar experience at Telfair? Or has the support base always been there?
We all really felt a difference in the level of engagement we had with the local arts community once we began our #art912 program in 2016. Another key development for the museum in 2016 was the hiring of the institution’s first dedicated modern and contemporary curator, Rachel Reese, who has done fantastic work not only curating shows with artists from around the world but with championing the work of local artists and conducting regular studio visits and building relationships within the local arts community. An anecdotal feeling of increased engagement can be really hard to quantify using the data we have available, but one of the most obvious and quantifiable metrics is the number of active artist memberships the museum has. I recently took a look at those numbers and was thrilled to see that the number of artist memberships has increased by 60% since 2016. We hope those numbers will continue to grow as we continue our work in this area.
Telfair Museums have a large and diverse collection. Do you all actively collect Southern contemporary art? And if so, how do you balance collecting in that area versus collecting historical art?
Like most museums, we have a fairly extensive collection and can only physically display about 10% of it at any given time. So as we seek to grow our collection through purchases or gifts from private collectors, we always try to prioritize the acquisition of works that will fit well within the context of our existing holdings, either by filling a gap in an area of existing strength or by complementing and building upon the stories we are already able to tell with our collections. So, yes, we do actively collect Southern contemporary art, but we select works that fit within an existing theme in the collection, like artists examining humankind’s impact on the environment, contemporary photographers building on (or diverging from) the traditions of mid-20th-century street photographers, or artists considering themes of national importance like race and identity but from a uniquely Southern perspective, to name a few examples.
On a personal note, I should mention that you and I met at the AAMC (Association of Art Museum Curators) conference when we were both expecting our first child. Three children later, how do you balance your work as a curator with your role as a parent? Since almost all art events happen outside normal work hours, I find that I am constantly struggling with this push/pull dynamic.
I remember that conference so well! I sat down at a crowded lunch, exhausted and very pregnant, only to look next to me and see you in the exact same situation. I had my three children over the course of four years, and I feel incredibly lucky that my director at the time was also a working mother of three and made it a point to be as transparent as possible about how she managed the demands of work and motherhood, creating a workplace that felt incredibly supportive. So while we do have many after-hours events, I know that I am able to have flexibility when I need it, like having to leave midday for the kindergarten holiday concert and then work from home the rest of the afternoon instead of driving all the way back to the office. For me, managing evening events is most successful when events are planned both far in advance and in close communication between departments. Does the development department need me to lead a tour for a former board member’s cousin’s garden club? Probably not—one of our fantastic docents would be able to provide them with just as great of an experience. Over the years, my colleagues and I have worked closely and now have a great level of trust—I trust them only to ask me to participate in after hours events if my participation is truly essential, and they trust me enough to know that I will say yes whenever possible and that if I have to say no to an event, it’s for something really important and I’m not just blowing them off!
Finally, I thought it would be good to see what we can expect next from the Telfair. What projects are you working on? And are there any projects your curatorial colleagues are planning that you are particularly excited about?
There are so many great projects in the pipeline for us! This fall we will be opening a temporary exhibition at the Jepson Center called Summon the Sea! Contemporary Artists and Moby Dick, organized by our contemporary curator Rachel Reese. What I love most about this show is that the artists are not just inspired by Moby Dick, but the work they produce has an epic quality as well, like Melville’s epic novel. From a 52-foot whale made of white felt wool (complete with handmade wool barnacles!) by Tristin Lowe to Frank Stella’s series of 6-foot-tall, riotously colorful Moby Dick prints, this exhibition will be heavy on spectacle and awe as well as providing opportunities for thoughtful reflection. Our major curatorial endeavor for 2020 will be the Legacy of Slavery initiative that I described earlier, and in 2021 we plan to present a major retrospective of the photographer Bruce Davidson, curated by our assistant curator Erin Dunn, celebrating the transformational gift of more than 300 Davidson photographs that we received last year.
All of this sounds great, Courtney! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and congratulations on all your great work. I hope to come visit soon (just not during hurricane season!)!
Julie Pierotti is Martha R. Robinson Curator at Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Courtney McNeil is Chief Curator & Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at Telfair Museums.