The Norton Museum of Art has long been known as the cultural hub of Palm Beach County. Although smaller than most national and international museums, the Norton has a strong cultural influence, always striving to be a renowned player in the arts.
Its impact was truly felt when Hope Alswang took over as executive director/CEO in April 2010. Instead of infusing programs with more financial support, she expanded the curatorial staff members and gave them the creative license to develop their own shows. A recent case in point: the hire of Tim Wride as the William and Sarah Ross Soter curator of photography in November 2011.
“The cultural landscape here has changed in so far that we will be generating more shows than we take. Hope is so supportive and adamant that the curatorial voice actually drives the institution," says Wride, adding that he came to the Norton because of the dedication shown by Alswang and Assistant Director Charlie Stainback. "That is an unusual director. That is a director that believes in the core mission of the institution—and does and is willing to stand behind those beliefs and give the curators the voice that they should normally have.”
This is a seismic shift in the way the museum has operated. In the past, the Norton rented more shows from outside institutions, rather than produce their own by the curatorial staff. Now, to create more in-house exhibits, the museum aims to build a strong permanent collection—a daunting task for the curatorial staff.
“We have a very young collection. It's a little bit nascent, which for me is very exciting because it is always lovely to shape something for the future,” says Wride (left), who served as curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for 14 years. “As a curator, I am shepherding a collection that has a lot of different audiences: the people here [locally] year round, nationally, but also an audience that is yet to be born.
"I am very aware of how the things I do will impact how this institute will operate in the future. What we bring in now will have ramifications far into the future, because we are in it for the long haul.”
He adds: “I am cognizant of creating a collection of this place and time, but also beyond the place and beyond the time. That is how I operate.”
One of the most recent moves to make international waves was the Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers, introduced in October. Established by the museum and Beth Rudin DeWoody, the Rudin Prize is a biennial international award in contemporary photography—and a call led by Norton to find the next generation of photographers. For the award, a nominating panel of five internationally acclaimed photographers each selected one emerging artist considered at the precipice of the genre who has yet to have a solo show in a museum. The result is a wonderful display of art and emerging voices that give the Norton a bout of international clout, not to mention five new additions to the collection.
Argentine photographer Analia Saban, winner of the inaugural Rudin Prize, mixed media with her photograph Seascape with Blue Tape.
The museum’s permanent collection consists of about 7,000 works of art, concentrated in five distinct categories: European, American, Chinese, Contemporary and Photography. The photography collection, which has more than 3,000 photographs and starts at 1839, the beginning of the medium’s timeline, is still finding its footing. While museum staff build upon what’s already there and branch into new waters, the idea of pulling in different areas of the permanent collection is always a thought in the back of the curators’ mind.
“It is about creating, reaching out with tendrils that draw disparate parts of the collection together, so we can tell a story about photography and about art in multiple ways,” says Wride, who looks at collaboration and commissions as the future of the collection.
We recently caught up with Wride to discuss his direction with the collection, his thoughts on South Florida and collaboration.
How is the Norton different from LACMA?
Coming from the big behemoth, encyclopedic museum, it was really hard to get a handle on who was coming in the door, who was visiting. I am one of those people who loves to be out in the galleries and loves to meet new people—I tend to take a lot of art breaks—and here, I get into conversations with people, whereas in L.A. it was really hard because it was just too big. I love the fact that there is access here; it makes me very happy.
The most recent addition to the permanent collection, 39 pieces from famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, including this photograph of legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (left) and dancer/choreographer Mark Morris, co-founders of the White Oak Dance Project, photographed in 1988 in New York City. The acquisitions are currently on display through June in the exhibit simply titled “Annie Leibovitz,” which was curated by Assistant Director Charlie Stainback.
What are some of the collections’ strengths, and where do you want to concentrate?
The collection is so rich in European modernism, especially Eastern European modernism, German modernism. These are our strengths, and we need to play them. So I will be looking tremendously at how to forge those alliances between what’s being done now and what was being done.
We have a great selection and beautiful examples of early Bernd and Hilla Becher work. They were instrumental in forging this new way of looking at landscape, with the manmade as artifactual. This allows me to come back in the United States and play with the New Topographics but extend it, because if you do not have Bechers, you don’t have [Andreas] Gursky. He studied with the Bechers and comes directly out of that sensibility.
I also think we have a great opportunity here to take a look at photography used in conceptual art. We have a really lovely collection—that was here long before I got here—of minimal art and West Coast conceptualism, which really lends itself to that.
I love to let artists show me how to think. That’s something that I will be playing around with. Things that I—we all—take for granted, artists have the opportunity to give us a chance to look at them differently. So you’ll see commissions coming in and artists doing work here. And while [the work] may relate to Florida, it’s not about Florida. It’s about the art, about the artist and how they think.
What are some projects you have coming down the pike for the Norton?
I need to make this a go-to collection, and to do so, I am going to build this collection into something that I believe is relevant—locally, nationally and internationally. I want to make this a go-to place for some very interesting objects and some very select fields. That’s my mission.
My other mission is to really empty out these shows that I have had in my head for these many years, which are relevant to both [the area] but also to photographic making at the moment.
I have become fascinated with the Everglades—which is not to say I am going to do a show that is all pictures of the Everglades—but I have become fascinated by this amazing landscape that is so unique and so misunderstood. I had never been there [before moving here], and I certainly had an opinion. When I went there, though, my opinion was very quickly proved wrong. I thought one thing, and the realty of it is something different.
I think that it would be interesting to see how international artists react to this landscape that everyone believes they know and believes they have a handle on but will be proven wrong and how they react to that as artists. So we will be doing a show that will give a historical sense of how the Everglades has been imaged but will also be bringing in artists from around the world to take a look at the Everglades and react to it.
Bjorn Veno, Rudin Prize finalist, explores and exposes the often cliché identity of maleness with his work, which is a bit cheeky to boot.
How do you see the museum’s permanent collection interacting within the five major departments?
We are constantly rechanging the permanent collection, and there are photographs interspersed with painting and sculpture. It is really one large story, so we tend to address it that way.
I am always cognizant of what I bring into the collection can cross barriers. I have a great working relationship with Cheryl Brutvan [director of curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art], where depending on what I’m thinking about purchasing, we’ll have a conversation about it, get her take on it, and she does the same with me. And now we have a new [American art] curator on board, Ellen Roberts, who is really amazing. We have already started talking about ways we can collaborate with her interests and mine.
[The Norton's photographs] span from 1839 to the present, so I am working with both of them to ensure that what I bring in—in some way, shape or form—can form a bridge to some of the things they are bringing in. It is really one story about art; we are just in different media. So not to acknowledge that and not work together—to not make those affinities a strength—would be silly.