Jack Rasmussen is currently the Director and Curator and the Katzen Arts Center and the American University Museum. He grew up in the Northwestern region of the United States, spending time in Seattle, Portland, and San Jose. He has earned degrees in Art and Anthropology before moving to Washington D.C. and getting his MFA in Painting. In this interview, Mr. Rasmussen goes in depth into his personal experience as a curator and what it takes to do his job successfully. Here is a Brief Introduction of…
What exactly does it mean to be a curator and how does that role work in conjunction with being the director of the museum?
The role of director requires me to monitor staff and lead planning, while the curatorial aspect is more arranging the programs for the individual exhibitions, laying out the concept of the space, and figuring out how to execute the vision of the museum. The job of curator covers a lot of territory, the word used to mean someone who used to take care of the bones of saints but in turned into a verb to mean someone who makes exhibitions.
I know that your background is in art and anthropology. How has having that background while holding this director position helped you in developing a business skill set applicable to your role?
I think the programmatic art and anthropology side comes from my studies and my passion, while the director side has come from experience. It’s not as fun, its like being an artist only every 10 minutes someone comes in and and spills coffee on what you’ve been working on. It requires a lot of problem solving, this job requires both a left brain, right brain mentality.
How big is your team here? Does is fluctuate depending on the exhibitions and how do you manage those changes?
It does change. We have 8 full time staff, a lot of student interns, and contractors that help with the instillation and deinstallation of the art. The staff will swell about 3 weeks before show.
What do you think are the most important aspects of running a museum other than a passion for art, what skills have you developed that have helped make the Katzen Art Center so successful?
On the one hand, you have to filter through the ideas and figure out what you can actually pay for. I think one of the biggest skills I brought to this job was my ability to fundraise. So that you can get the fund you need to do what you want to do.
Would you say that it the most challenging aspect of your job?
For me the curatorial part of my job is fun, paying for it is not. Another challenging aspect is dealing with staff, hiring and firing, and reviews. I actually have a great associate director who is really good at all the stuff I don’t like to do.
What is the exhibit you been most proud of and what has been your most rewarding curatorial experience?
It is always the latest thing I’m working on. Right now, getting the photography show from the Arab world was a big accomplishment. I was able to work with a group of artists and curators coming out of the UAE and Dubai, and being able to put together a show that could travel here and be paid for was great. I have done a lot of interesting shows; I could probably name 40 but I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t really like them. They’re my children, its hard to choose between them.
What is the process from seeing a show or an artist that you want to have in the museum to debuting the exhibit?
It’s about a two-year process, from the basic ideas to execution. We have to plan pretty far in advance, particularly when we’re doing international shows because things can get very complicated. There are a lot of great ideas, so you have to figure out what is feasible. You want to do as much as you can, but you don’t want to get ahead of yourself.
Due to the fact that D.C. is such an international and metropolitan city, how do you determine your audience and determine what to show?
Because of the nature of the space, all the the rooms kind of bleed into each other. Not that there is one comprehensive theme, but you still want theshows to complement each other. For example, if we had all international artists, it may be harder to draw in the local audience and vice versa, you want to bring a diverse audience to your local artists. Another big factor is actually getting an audience. You’re not doing anyone a favor putting on a show that no one actually comes to. This museum isfor D.C. and the surrounding 50 miles and because this such a great city for museums, we wanted to focus really on what wasn’t being done. There is very little political or socially charged art, also very little international contemporary at, and little local art. We focus on those three things, we do it because we can, we have a lot of freedom being a separate entity from the government. Right now, I have to think what is going to be important in 2020, it’s important to know what will be relevant in the future, maybe inclusivity based of of today’s climate, but for that show I’m deliberately trying to wait and seeing what will be relevant. Four years ago I did this huge show on the Occupy Movement, but the protests ended about month before the exhibit opened, so it became a historical piece rather than a contemporary show. It is interesting because when I went to artschool, what people are doing today wouldn’t be classified as art so it’s important to be open and receptive to what artist are doing rather than what I think they should be doing.
In my experience throwing art shows over the past couple of years, I learned how important the relationship between the art and its surrounding space is. In planning we have learned to limit pieces and adjust layouts in order to create the most engaging and comprehensible experience possible. Do you find that to be true in the museum field as well?
Yes, that’s exactly right. You have to be able to make choices. I spend my whole day mostly saying no. I get 4-5 proposals a day. I want to be the nice guy but you have to make choices to be able to find a sort of coherence and focus so that the viewer experience is going to comprehensible.
Yes, I’ve noticed in museums that if there is a lack of flow or cohesion between the exhibits it can almost take away from the individual works or art.
It does, my objective it to make it possible to make it possible to slow down and experience something.
Did you always know you wanted to be a curator? If not, what was you path took to get where you are now?
They only thing I knew relatively early on was that I wanted to do something in the arts, I figured out what I liked to do and what I was good at and where those two converged was great. After I got my MFA in painting I really had no idea how I was going to make a living. was just trying to do jobs to keep food on the table and it sort of evolved into curatorial works and running and administering arts programs.
What advice do you have for some one who is interested in working in the art world? What is one thing you wish you would have known when you were my age?
You know, everyone wants to be a curator, so competition is pretty tough. I was lucky when I fell into a fundraising job, I didn’t like it, but I became good at it and all of a sudden I could get a job in the arts. So the one skill I would say you need is fundraising, now I can do any show I want to do because I am able to pay for it. If you can figure out how to support what you want to do you’re way ahead, and it’s a skill you can really only master by doing, so try and work with an organization or company to get the experience.
How to you fundraise for the Katzen Arts Center?
People can establish memberships from $50 on up. It is also crucial to identify people who are responding to what you’re doing and finding that emotional connection that’s where the contributions come from. You can’t just talk people into just giving you money, you have to make them believe in what you do. Once you find them, get out of their way and don’t mess it up!