Andrea Karnes, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, discusses her career with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff.

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Andrea Karnes, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, talks with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about the upcoming exhibit titled “Women Painting Women.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Fornoff: I know that you answer this question frequently, but there are so few people who hold the title of curator. I’m curious what the title means to you and how do you describe it to people who work outside the museum industry? What’s your typical day like? 

Karnes: The term curator actually comes from the idea of being a steward of a collection or an object or at a museum and really being the caretaker of that object. But the word has morphed over the last hundred years. A lot of people don’t know what it means. My role here is to come up with ideas for exhibitions and and then see those ideas through until the show is installed in the gallery and then to be an advocate for that exhibition, whether it’s only here or it travels to museums across the nation or across the world. That’s one aspect of being a curator is organizing exhibitions. We want visitors to walk in and just think about what is right in front of their eyes and not about how it all got there. If we’re doing our jobs well, it’s just seamless and people aren’t thinking about who did the show, they’re just actually thinking about the artist or the works before them. 

Another aspect of it is being one of the people who oversees the vision for the institution. That includes, in our case, adding works to the permanent collection. Not every museum has a collection, but we do, and so it’s important to keep that going in the same direction, which is collecting really important works of art from 1945 to the present. Being a curator involves everything from ideas and then lots of research and writing and lots of public speaking to negotiating loans of works of art for exhibitions, minding a budget and helping oversee the vision for the institution and representing the institution. 

Fornoff: “Women Painting Women” is going to be your first exhibition as chief curator. Can you talk more about when you got the idea and what inspired it? How long has it taken to go from that idea process to implementation?

Karnes: I started working on the idea right at the beginning of the shutdown. This exhibition actually has a little bit of a shorter incubation time. Usually it’s like three full years, but this one might have a little bit of a shorter incubation time. I had a lot of ideas, and I was trying to base them on careers and works that I know best. Normally as a curator, I travel a lot while organizing an exhibition to either meet with artists or see works firsthand or any of that kind of thing. But because of the pandemic, I couldn’t do that like I normally would. So I was trying to choose a group of artists whose works I know and also I wanted to do a group exhibition because we’ve done a lot of monographic exhibitions and it’s so nice to mix in a group exhibition. It has a completely different energy in the galleries for visitors. The very first exhibition I organized was a woman artist and I have definitely championed women throughout my career, so I wanted to continue that and it just sort of coincided with the title change for me.

Fornoff: It’s pretty unusual to have someone who was born and raised and mostly educated in Fort Worth in the chief curating role. How does that perspective shape what you bring to the audience at the Modern? How does your background and your geography influence what you and the work that you bring in? 

Karnes: Well, that’s a good question, it may be one I can’t answer because I’m first person, you know. But the way I see it? My mother took me to Europe, to Italy, for the first time when I was 12 because we had relatives there. My mother was first-generation American and so really at that age it was the first time that I was looking at art and realizing as a 12-year-old like, this object tells the history and culture of its time, which I didn’t understand before that. It seems obvious, like, “Oh yeah, of course, something that somebody makes today is influenced by their history and culture.” But it just all kind of came together for me then, and that’s when my passion for art began. 

I was also an exchange student when I was in high school, and my family always made travel important. So, even though I was born and raised here and I love it here, I feel like I had a bigger view of what it would mean to be a curator or to study art history from an early age. But I also had the advantage of having three amazing museums right here in Fort Worth as I was growing up on par with any of the rest of the world. 

We’re so lucky in Fort Worth to have all of that, and sometimes I think people don’t realize it. You can see so many works of art first hand here, and people come from all over the world to do exactly that. So that in unison with the fact that we were traveling a lot, has shaped my philosophy and role as a curator. 

Fornoff: Working at the Modern for as long as you have, starting as a receptionist to becoming curator over 30 years, I imagine there have been a lot of opportunities where you could leave and go to one of the coasts. What has kept you here? 

Karnes: We’re in such a unique position here at the Modern because we have such a strong support system, such strong benefactors, such an amazing board of trustees who has always trusted the people they’ve hired, or approved the hiring of, to run the institution and uphold the mission. And that’s not true of museums everywhere. I’ve gotten to bring a lot of things here that otherwise haven’t been here and people are receptive to that. The communities are receptive to that. We’ve had all kinds of exhibitions that are challenging to the community, but we’ve always been able to work with groups that were relevant to whatever the topic was to get the word out and then get the public in. And I love that process here as well, and I love that Fort Worth is a big and diverse and growing community, but you don’t have to navigate the same kind of urban landscape that you do in other places, maybe, you know?

Fornoff: Speaking of exhibitions that are challenging, do you have one that over the past 30 years that’s been a favorite? 

Karnes: This is like a “Sophie’s Choice” question. 

Fornoff: Pick a favorite child. 

Karnes: Yeah, exactly. It’s really hard to do. You can ask me one day, and I’d say one thing and another day I’d have another. The “Mexico Inside Out” exhibition that I did was one of my very favorite and most challenging things I’ve ever done. It allowed me to go to Mexico City a number of times and Oaxaca and other places in Mexico to get to know the artists and what they were doing. 

Then I thought the concept of the exhibition was very interesting, and I loved all the artists. I loved bringing that exhibition here because the community, it’s tapered off now because that exhibition was in 2013, but, for a number of years I would get emails from people saying, “My parents took me to see this exhibition, and it made me really understand where they come from because I’m first-generation U.S. citizen or whatever.” But also it was a tough exhibition that broached some very tough topics. Because of that, I also got criticism from people who thought it showed Mexico in a bad light. Of course, that was not the point at all. It was to show every aspect of what’s going on. 

And then the Laurie Simmons exhibition, which looked at 40 years of her career, was another absolute favorite of mine. She was due for that kind of retrospective, and I had the privilege of doing it, and it traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And it was just an amazing experience. And I could say that for every exhibition I’ve done, you know? 

Fornoff: I know earlier you were saying that part of your job is to make it to make the exhibit in such a way that people can come in and experience the art and not have to think about all of the factors that went into it. But I would love to know what your strategy is for, you know, meeting a diverse group of people where they’re at, where some people might have a really solid background in art history and some people might come in and they may not be sure what they’re looking at. How do you cater to such a widespread group of people and what goes into making that accessible to all of them? 

Karnes: I’m going to be honest and say, I don’t think everything is accessible to everyone. I wish that it would be, but some of that is on the visitor. Our philosophy here is to give some information, but not to have text compete with the art. The hope would be that if someone’s interested, they would do more research on their own or come back again. But I do understand there’s an intimidation factor, especially with modern and contemporary. Our gallery spaces are pretty contemplative and intimate, and it’s a little overwhelming maybe when you walk into the beautiful Ando lobby. But once you’re in the space, I feel like there are lots of opportunities to let the intimidation shake off and just share something with what you’re looking at or the person you’re with. We also have tons of tours. I certainly don’t do all of this alone. We have an amazing education department that make things accessible to people. My job is really more to pick the works and then make them sing within each space that I put them in. 

But having said that, I do try to take into account all walks of life.For example, I did an exhibition with the artist Kehinde Wiley. I think it was in 2007 or 2008, I’d have to look it up. For the first time, we had young men of color coming into the museum, like pointing to the works, talking about the work, seeing themselves in the work. And that happens more today. Still not enough, but more today than it did in the first decade of the 2000s. And just seeing that connection was magic and understanding that we needed to do that more so that people do feel that they make a connection with what they’re saying and, you know, understand it on a different level because of that.

Fornoff: For people who might not recognize that name, Kehinde Wiley, gained a lot of prominence from the Obama presidential portrait portrait.

Karnes: Yeah, and actually, Amy Sherald, who did the portrait of Michelle Obama, is in the “Women Painting Women” exhibition so it’s an opportunity to see her. 

Fornoff: I want to go back to the negotiation process. I would love to hear what is maybe one of the hard fought negotiations that you’re really proud to have won and what people say as you’re traveling throughout the world and you’re saying you want to bring a piece to Fort Worth, Texas. 

Karnes: Honestly, the reputation of this institution is what I ride on, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the most recent blip of history. We’re the oldest [art] museum in Texas, people don’t know that because our mission has changed so much over the years. People know this museum and they’ve been here, people all over the world. But we’ve had a history of amazing directors and curators who have also really bolstered that reputation. So whenever I’m trying to get a work for the collection or trying to bring a work here for the acquisition committee to see, it’s usually not difficult. But we have to be trying to get a work at the right time in the market. We’re not going to pay top dollar — we’re an institution so we don’t have money to throw out the window. And then it’s a matter of the right work. Like we don’t want just any, name the artist, for the museum. We want the best available and the right one for the institution. That’s what we’ve done with artists like Kehinde Wiley or Francis Bacon or Picasso or, you know.  We don’t want to have something just so we can check a name off. We want to have the right work for the collection, for the right price. And if we can’t do that, we don’t do it. 

In terms of loans, that’s a different story. There have been some difficult ones for sure. There have been some that I’ve lost at the last minute, which then you have to scramble and figure out a different work and see if you can get it. It’s a different kind of process. For a group show [showcasing multiple artists], it’s harder because if you’re doing a one person show, usually you’re working with that gallery or the artist, if they’re alive. It’s much easier to go to a collector or another institution and say the artist really wants this work to be in this exhibition. In the case of a group show, I’m not dedicating a whole floor to one artist, so it’s a little bit more difficult. But most collectors and institutions are happy because there’s a catalog that’s going to have a reproduction of the work that is in their collection. That’s going to have some text about that work, and the exhibition will get press, you know, so they’re. It’s from those aspects they usually are on board, sometimes they’re not. I mean, there are some things I wanted for this show that I didn’t get for women painting women, but I have other works instead and I’ve had to get OK with that. 

Fornoff: We were talking about picking your favorite baby earlier. I’m sure it’s hard for collectors to give them up. 

Karnes: Absolutely. You know, there are all kinds of reasons why they can’t or won’t. They could be committed to another show somewhere else or to their own show in a museum or a collector needs it to be home for whatever reason. But most collectors or responsible collectors, and they understand that they have an obligation to let that work out into the world to be seen. 

Fornoff: I want to go back to “Women Painting Women.” What would you say to people who are barely on the fence about going? What’s your pitch to draw them in? What can they expect if they go? 

Karnes: Well, I think in a big group show like women painting women that spans 50 years and there will be something for everyone. But I also think portraiture hooks people in like nothing else. We all can relate when we see another human, you know, on canvas or in a photograph or whatever. It’s the most accessible kind of work a visitor can view. 

If someone was on the fence, I would say you’re going to this will be more accessible than most things. You’re going to see things that you relate to because you’re going to see the human form throughout this exhibition. The very definition of woman is being contested right now and in sort of liberated from its binary terms. There are some aspects of the show that deal with femme-identifying artists or subjects and all kinds of different aspects of gender and sexuality and color are all broached within the exhibition,Working against archetypes and working within archetypes or stereotypes to comment on how difficult that is for any of us, no matter what gender or sexual preference, any of that stuff, or color we are. 

To me, there’s something for everyone in this exhibition, whether you’re a woman or not. My hope is that young, especially women artists in the community will come see the exhibition and be inspired to keep doing what they’re doing and to look at that and realize how difficult that must have been for a woman of color like, for example, Emma Amos or Faith Ringgold in the late 1960s to be doing what she was doing. It paid off in the end, you know, and I hope they’ll be an inspiration for young artists in our community. That’s my hope. 

Fornoff: Anything else that we didn’t talk about that you want to mention or you think you wish I would have asked you? 

Karnes: You’ve done a very good job and asked very thoughtful questions. I think the main thing is I want our community to feel like this museum is a comfortable place for them and part of their home and part of their pride in Fort Worth. We try to bring exhibitions that will reach everyone on some level. Again, we don’t overdo it with the text and all of that, but we’re open to comments, we’re open to being more accessible, we’re open to hearing what people want.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...

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