After six months in office, the new curator of the Columbia Museum of Art, Michael Neumeister, is literally looking to the future of the museum. The New York native planned the institution’s Main Street exhibitions in its galleries for the next three years and had recently finalized plans for 2025.
Meanwhile, he’s also beginning to put his fingerprints on more present aspects, such as the underestimated and meticulous task of finding the right placement for the museum’s two upcoming exhibitions in October.
“I like research. And I like putting things together,” said Neumeister. “In a way, I like making things that can then be experienced. So I’m not only interested in similar collections, but also in this idea of exhibitions and what exhibitions can bring to people, because that was my experience.”
Neumeister’s career as a curator began as a student in New York City, although not in the arts.
After studying anthropology and religion as an undergraduate in New York City, he found himself wandering the halls of the city’s renowned museums. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, a fine arts museum in the city, he realized the curation had called him.
Neumeister said he felt like a newcomer to museums when he was young, but was always interested in how and why things are curated.
This led him to a graduate program in art history at the City College of New York. There he wrote a thesis on the intersection of curation and politics. In this article, he revealed some of his own thoughts on curating art.
“Especially in the big coastal museums, like in New York and Los Angeles, there are certain museums that really convey a deeply political message, which I think only contributes to polarization and doesn’t help it,” said Neumeister.
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A native of New York, Neumeister has found a more comfortable pace in Columbia and, accordingly, an advantage in his life and work. Life in an established college town in the South lends itself to a nuanced and energetic approach to art in the community, Neumeister said.
As curator, he sees it as his job to ensure a “holistic” experience for viewers, meaning it would be both intellectually stimulating and accessible to those entering the Columbia Museum of Art.
“(Trade fairs) should work on different levels,” said Neumeister. “So that you always assume an educated, well-informed audience. But then you too, if your show really works as well as it can be, then you can bring in a group of third graders and an art historian and everyone in between.
Creating an experience for a diverse audience is critical, and Numeister sees his role as both nurturing and guiding the experiences sponsored by the Columbia Museum of Art.
He sees the gallery as a place of learning, where the art itself can challenge the audience rather than methods of curation. For example, the museum houses a number of Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao Zedong.
However, without some level of guidance, one could perhaps misinterpret it, he said.
“If you don’t have exactly the right interpretation, people can take that in very different ways. And I don’t think Warhol (Mao) upgraded at all,” Neumeister said.
At the same time, the new curator wants to offer a non-political environment in which to interpret the art and enable the works on display to be understood and received.
Not only is public perception important in curation, said Neumeister, but just as important is remembering the history of the museum itself, its collections, donors and faculty.
The forthcoming return of the Kress collection to the exhibition – which opens on October 1st – represents this idea.
On the books for years, the Kress European Splendors collection is returning from various parts of the region to their native galleries in Colombia, acquired by the museum in its first decade of existence. The historical collection consists of 75 artifacts and is one of the Columbia Museum of Art’s most treasured collections.
The Kress Collection represents the Columbia Museum of Art’s potential to reach a broad regional scale, he said. Neumeister is also looking forward to expanding that influence locally and collaborating with other art groups in the city like the 701 Center for Contemporary Art.
Ultimately, he said that the energy in the city’s art scene made him stand out and that the museum was a welcome place for his curatorial endeavours.
“They’re doing really great things, they’re in such a great space,” Neumeister commented. “But I’m still learning a lot. To be honest, I think Columbia, as far as I can tell, has an arts scene that’s definitely energetic, definitely people who care in a way that I find really inspiring.”