Aldrich senior curator chats about creating contemporary exhibits

Senior curator at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Amy Smith-Stewart has curated over 30 exhibitions there since joining the museum in the fall of 2013. As a curator of contemporary art who works primarily with living artists, she says her process always begins with the artist(s). We asked her about the joys and challenges of curating exhibitions today.

Andrea Valluzzo: For preparing an exhibition, how do you choose artists/pieces?

Amy Smith-Stewart: Since I am a curator of contemporary art and work primarily with living artists, the process for me always begins with the artist(s). I spend a tremendous amount of time seeing art, attending exhibitions, visiting artists’ studios, and thinking about the greater context that orbits the art being made in our present tense. This means being passionately engaged with the material and completely immersed in the field. The choices we make as curators are not only informed by the context in which we live but also by the mission of the place where the artworks will be exhibited. The Aldrich is an artist-centric institution committed to presenting first solo museum exhibitions by emerging artists, significant exhibitions of established artists, and topical thematic group exhibitions.

Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator? What does it mean to be a curator?

Smith-Stewart: My ideas on being a curator have evolved with my experiences making exhibitions. Every time I work with an artist I experience something new about the greater world we all share. For me, curating is about trust, generosity, collaboration and vision. Always present with me is the notion that this is an incredibly privileged vantage to be in and with that comes great responsibility — with the material, with the access, with the context.

Valluzzo: What work of art most affected you personally and why?

Smith-Stewart: This changes for me over time so I couldn’t name one work of art that has singularly affected me. Each time I launch into something new, I become so completely excited by the artist, the material, the work, that it becomes the focal point for me at that moment. A recent work of art that had a tremendous impact on me — and continues to do so — is Harmony Hammond’s Presences series from 1971-72. I had the great privilege of installing this body of work with Harmony at the museum last year on the occasion of her first 50-year museum survey, “Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art.” The Presences are seven free-standing sculptural works that range in scale from life-size to slightly bigger. We installed six of the seven Presences in a small gallery at the museum. Arranged in a group, together they charged the room with their powerful abstract presence.

Valluzzo: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to plan upcoming exhibits?

Smith-Stewart: We have had to move our exhibition calendar back. Exhibitions that were to open earlier this month, “Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey” and “Genesis Belanger: Through the Eye of a Needle,” are now opening Sept. 20. As a result of not being able to physically be with the works on view in the museum, we have been organizing online content for our audiences, such as virtual walk-throughs of our exhibitions, studio visits with artists, at home art activities, and more. We are very fortunate to have beautiful grounds around the museum where visitors can still enjoy artworks firsthand by leading artists of our time: Tom Friedman, Tony Tasset and Radcliffe Bailey.

Valluzzo: What are the differences curating a virtual exhibit versus a physical exhibit?

Smith-Stewart: I am currently in the process of organizing an exhibition for Instagram for another organization. This is an incredibly fun and liberating process because there are absolutely no limitations! Usually curators are constrained by budget, space, availability, transport logistics and more.