Katonah curator talks about falling in love with art

Attracted to the Katonah Museum of Art’s (KMA) dedication to creating thought-provoking and engaging exhibitions, Emily Handlin joined the museum in January as the assistant curator of exhibitions and programs. Given that the museum is a Kunsthalle, meaning it does not have a permanent collection, she enjoys having a wide range of artworks to choose from. She prefers to develop an exhibition not by coming up with a concept and then choosing artists that fit that theme but by thinking about and observing many artworks to see how they fit together in order to develop an exhibition.

Andrea Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator?

Emily Handlin: I’ve always loved history; I was a classics major in college and did a lot of photography as well. At some point, I realized that the medium of photography has its own fascinating history, and — after many, many years in school — I received a Ph.D. in art history with a focus on the history of photography. Being a curator is collaborative and allows me to study one topic intensely for a relatively short period of time, which is great if you’re curious and interested in a wide range of art and ideas. This is especially true at the KMA, which is devoted to showing work from all periods and cultures.

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

Handlin: The pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of how we plan exhibits, from shipping to ensuring that the museum is a safe space when we reopen. We made the decision to postpone our 2020-2021 exhibitions fairly early on in the pandemic. It seemed inevitable that shipping would be difficult and loans would be delayed or canceled, so we didn’t want to present reduced or compromised versions of the exhibitions we had planned. Instead we’re developing exhibitions that are just as ambitious, but won’t require quite as many loans from institutions all across the country. The exhibitions’ design also has to allow for social distancing and other safety precautions, which is also a challenge.

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

Handlin: They’re totally different. When planning physical exhibitions, it’s important to think about how viewers interact with the artwork as well as how the works of art interact with each other. Virtual exhibitions are more free-flowing; it’s more difficult to direct the viewer’s experience than it is in a physical exhibition. But there’s also the ability to layer and link to more content, which is exciting.

Valluzzo: What’s your favorite object in the museum’s collection?

Handlin: I’m cheating here a bit because the KMA doesn’t have a permanent collection, but I do have a favorite object in our current show, “Bisa Butler: Portraits.” “The Equestrian” is an extraordinary quilt inspired by a 19th-Century studio portrait of a woman named Selika Lazevski. We know little about Selika, other than the fact that she was a horsewoman in one of Paris’ most famous circuses during a period when women — let alone black women — rarely performed. Butler transforms this photograph, dressing Selika in bright, African wax prints and transporting her from the photo studio to the Taj Mahal. Butler gives new life and individuality to a figure who was almost lost to history.

Valluzzo: Curate has become such an overused word today in advertising and with Pinterest boards. How does that affect perception of what you do?

Handlin: Museum curators define the word “curate” very differently than Pinterest curators. Of course it relates to selecting and presenting works of art, but it also means taking care of these objects — in my experience, museum curators focus on the latter part of the definition as much as the former. Honestly, I think the fact that “curate” has become such an overused word has just made people more curious about what goes on behind the scenes in museums and hopefully more attuned to the ways that exhibitions are put together, which is great.