A Day in the Life of a Curator

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Braque

Posted by Katherine Jaruzelski | Student Life January 28, 2013

This story originally appeared in the January 28 edition of Student Life.

Last Thursday afternoon, Karen Butler, Ph.D., stood around a table with three other museum staff members in a closed-off gallery space inside the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Around them, workers were still in the process of assembling the Museum's newest major exhibition, Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, which would open the next day.

Most of the French artist's paintings had already been installed, but there was still significant work to be done: the last of the light fixtures had to be put up, the rest of the labels needed to be transferred and the contents of the display cases still had to be finalized.

That afternoon, Butler was working on the latter. She and her colleagues were debating the placement of various documents and descriptions, trying to decide which sizes and arrangements would look best inside the vitrine. After agreeing on an arrangement, someone mentioned that the gray labels for the paintings were a bit hard to read on the gray walls. Or were the walls more taupe?

As the Kemper's assistant curator for collections and the curator in charge of the new Braque exhibit, Butler had handled a lot over the past week. Between interviews with the press and meetings with other museum staffers, Butler also oversaw the entire installation process for the exhibition, from the construction of the architectural layout to the writing of labels. In fact, Butler has spent the past three years working on this exhibit, managing it from its conception all the way through to the opening celebration on January 25.

Butler started her career at the Kemper in January of 2009, leaving behind her previous job at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. One of her primary areas of expertise is early- to mid-20th-century European art, which influenced her decision to make Braque the focus of this exhibition.

"Your ideas for an exhibition develop out of your own research interests," Butler said. "Mine have always been the relationships between art and politics, particularly during World War II. So I've always been interested in artists whose work in some way engages that historical moment."

When it comes to the selection of pieces for an exhibition, the process is usually long and research-intensive. Butler had originally looked into Braque's various works from the 1930s and '40s, but after doing more research, she narrowed her focus down to his still lifes. Through more research and museum visits, Butler developed a list of the specific paintings she found most interesting and then started contacting museums and collectors about getting them for the exhibit.

The paintings began arriving about one week before the exhibition's opening, coming from collections throughout the U.S. and Europe. Due to their high value, paintings such as Braque's are often couriered, which means that someone stays with them and looks after them from the minute they're taken off the wall in their original museum to the minute they're hung up at their destination. The paintings were gradually installed throughout last week, mainly on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The final product was the first major exhibit of Braque's work in 16 years.

"After years of preparation, you finally get the paintings all together in the same space, and the reality confronts you. You have to put them up on the wall in meaningful ways, and that's the real challenge," Butler said.

Butler has been involved in plenty of other behind-the-scenes preparations over the past three years. For instance, when planning a major exhibition, a lot of time is spent fundraising. Butler applied for a number of different grants and ended up receiving funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lucerne Foundation in Switzerland.

"This is what I've dreamed of doing ever since I was an undergrad art history major," Butler said. "I interned at museums myself, and now, here I am, finally a curator at a museum and doing a pretty important exhibition. That's one of the wonderful things about being a curator."

Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 will be on display in the Ebsworth Gallery of the Kemper Art Museum until April 21.