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Once a year, curator Ingrid Schaffner delivers a lecture titled What Is Contemporary? She begins with a declaration: “I will never answer this, so come back next year.” Then she wrestles with the ever-evolving answer for the next 90 minutes. When Schaffner was named curator of the 2018 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature exhibition that happens every four years, she focused her annual talk on the past 30 years of its rich history. “We can tell the story of the rise of contemporary art through the Internationals,” she says. Organizing the venerable exhibition, which dates back to 1896, is a homecoming for Schaffner, who has attended every iteration since 1995. “Crafting the next International is a chance to shape one of the momentous cultural forces that helped form me,” she says. Known for her extensive knowledge of art history and her collaborative curating style, Schaffner previously served as the chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and is an accomplished writer and critic. A native of Pittsburgh, she spent many afternoons as a child exploring Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History while her father studied engineering at what’s now Carnegie Mellon University. Her family departed Pittsburgh when she was 10, but that early connection to museums is not insignificant as she plans for next October’s opening. Neither is the state of the world. Visiting artists globally, she encountered the disquiet that comes with periods of uncertainty and turmoil. “I began working on this show right after Brexit and during the election of Donald Trump,” says Schaffner. “This opportunity to embrace the international has an urgency right now.”
You’ve conducted five research trips, each with a different traveling partner. Why?
Since the first Carnegie International in 1896, curatorial advisors have been a part of the process. I continued that tradition, but reformulated the role into a travel companion and thinking partner. My invitation to them was, “Let’s go somewhere that neither of us has ever been before!” That way we were both in a position of being raw and open.
Have you also brought artists to Pittsburgh?
One of the best parts of being a contemporary art curator is that you work with living artists. You can bring them here, get to know them, and help them realize their art at the museum. I refer to these visits as “first dates” because it’s an opportunity for the artists to visit the city and spend time with our fabulous curatorial team and Carnegie colleagues. Like a first date, if you don’t feel it’s OK, we don’t have to go on a second date. So far everyone has come back for a second date.
In September, you announced three of the show’s artists, including sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. Why introduce the artists in stages?
I think it’s more interesting to have a sense of something as it’s evolving and developing. Thaddeus is part of the 20/20 exhibition, so he’s present in the museum, and he’s ever-present in Pittsburgh. His art and his energy are renowned. Why not celebrate his participation sooner rather than later? People can expect to see the names of more artists who are living in Pittsburgh or who say that Pittsburgh has been a formative place for them.
How else have you been engaging the public?
We’ve been hosting a series of improvised drawing sessions run by members of the International team. All or most of the artists will lead a session. You don’t have to be an artist or have any experience to participate. They’re about exploring the connection between the eye, the hand, and the mind. They’re called Tam O’Shanter sessions after the art classes for children that the museum started in the 1920s. Lots of people took them: Andy Warhol, the actor Jeff Goldblum, the artist Raymond Saunders. My mother was a Tam O’Shanter participant. We call them “Tam sessions” for short, which sounds like “jam sessions,” evoking the jazz heritage of Pittsburgh.
What’s the role of an art museum, particularly in turbulent times?
The essence of the museum is joy. As visitors, we get to be with art—and other people—and make meaning from that experience. The act of interpretation is invigorating. It can be daunting and inspiring. That’s what the art is there for, and museums are the machines that make that possible. It’s like going to the gym for your mind or to the spa for your perceptions.
What can visitors expect from the 57th International?
Visitors will get a snapshot of the art world and have a very present and welcoming experience of the art of today. The work has a lot of materiality and is legible, so there won’t be a lot of wall text. You can pick up a copy of the guide book, but you don’t need to. You can just come and be with the art and experience all the pleasures and provocations that might entail.
Ultimately, I want to share the joy I experience being in a museum, being a citizen in a world of ideas, beauty, craft, politics, history, culture. Visitors can relate to the art of today in so many ways, but they can also expect to encounter art that will just bowl them over.
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