After several decades of working in museums, Elizabeth Smith was offered the chance to steward the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation as its first executive director. At first, Smith was unsure if this was the right move for her, but the more she thought about it, the more interested she became.
“I respected Frankenthaler’s work,” Smith shared with me, “and I believed I could be a champion for the artist’s work. I also welcomed the chance to put the spotlight on a woman artist and I ultimately came to see working at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation as another learning opportunity.” Since taking the job in 2013, she has not looked back.
Elizabeth Smith has had a storied career as a curator, and her interest in art began early in life. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she still considers Boston her home town, though as a youngster her family lived for a time in Asheville, North Carolina and in Baltimore, Maryland, following her father’s job as a mining engineer. Her mother was a talented hand weaver of utilitarian objects who had a small shop where she sold the things that she wove. Smith's grandmother, Angele Myrer, was quite active as an artist and made an indelible impression on her granddaughter.
It was in high school in the Boston area that Elizabeth Smith was first introduced to art history. “At Concord Academy, we had a gentle, older woman who taught us art history. She really made art come alive, even ancient art and art from the Etruscan period. This teacher would be very formative to my understanding of art,” Smith recalls.
She started her college education at Connecticut College, studying dance before transferring to Barnard College in New York City to study languages, literature and art history. She says that she liked being part of a small college within a larger university which offered a lot of freedom. As for New York City during the 1970s when she was going to school? The city was going through a lot of issues. New York was definitely a rougher place then than it is now. Yet, for Smith, New York was a place where there was always so much to see – always something going on. She would eventually get her degree in European Area studies from Barnard College.
Following her time at Barnard, she applied to and was accepted into the doctoral program in Art History at Columbia University. “Believe it or not,” she says, “I was not at all focused on a career when I started the art history program at Columbia. I was more just doing what I liked. People today are so career focused, but in those days, it seemed you were freer to explore. Columbia was a large program and there were a lot of people doing a lot of things. I was concentrating on modern and contemporary art at the time.”
Being a student at Columbia allowed Smith to take courses at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Here, she took classes in Southern Baroque Painting, which would become one of her two minors in graduate school. The other was Modern Architecture. Her studies in architecture, in particular, would serve her in good stead in the coming years.
Interestingly enough, while Smith remembers graduate school as rewarding and stimulating and a time when she developed eclectic interests, she hardly remembers any discussion of women artists. The question of women artists and their relationship to the canon and the academy, she now admits, was not really part of her awareness. At the time, she did not even think or know how to formulate questions specific to women artists. Smith would go on to write a master’s thesis on Spanish painter, Ignacio Zuloaga’s townscapes.
It was while Elizabeth Smith was doing work on her doctorate that she was offered a job as assistant curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA), where she had worked in the summers while in graduate school. “When I was offered that job, I had to face a decision as to what to do. I had finished all the work for my doctorate in art history and done my orals and I wondered whether I should finish my doctorate or take the job? It was then that a professor said to me that you are getting this doctorate to get a job in the field and you should take the job. For years, I paid fees to Columbia, so convinced was I that I would somehow finish my doctorate.”
The seventeen years Elizabeth Smith spent at MoCA were exciting ones. She would move from being Assistant Curator to Curator and she worked on several terrific projects. “I can honestly say I learnt to be a curator in Los Angeles,” she told me. At MoCA the curators could propose artists for a small rotating exhibition spot that the museum had set up, and without making a conscious choice Elizabeth Smith found herself gravitating towards the work of women artists. She was, for example, to give a then little known Catherine Opie one of her first museum shows. She also worked with more well-known figures, such as Cindy Sherman, for a larger museum show.
Smith was drawn to the work of the artist Lee Bontecou, but while she could find Bontecou’s work, she could not find the artist herself. “Finally, I was given an address for Bontecou that I kept writing to, but never got any response all the time I was working on this exhibition of her work. When I wrote the text for the exhibition I sent it to the address, and one day I got a phone call from her with a correction to the text.” This correction marked Miss Bontecou’s return to an art world that she had turned her back on and walked away from.
Following her time in California, Elizabeth Smith spent ten years in Chicago as the Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She remembers the city as being a very civic minded and very collegial place. Exhibitions she curated on architecture, on Chilean painter Matta’s work in the 1940’s, and a show with Kerry James Marshall all stand out in her memory of her time in Chicago. She also did a lot to acquire the work of several artists, including women artists, for the collection.
Then Smith decided that she wanted to do something really different, and for three years she worked as the Executive Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, before returning to the United States to be the executive director of The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The Foundation, Smith explains, has several main functions: to steward Frankenthaler’s legacy; to lend works to exhibitions; to open up Frankenthaler’s archives to scholars; to hold public programs; and to support arts organizations such as the visual arts department of Bennington College where Frankenthaler was a student and later a trustee. It is a job that keeps Smith busy and engaged.
So, what advice does Elizabeth Smith offer to would-be curators and artists?
“The job of a curator,” Elizabeth Smith asserts, “is to be always out there and looking at work. To visit artists in their studios. Spend as much time as possible looking at art and meeting with artists. Develop your eye, your awareness, and trust your instincts. Study art history to understand how the work of artists fits into a larger history. Curate small shows and especially learn how to make an argument and how to write well.”
In so far as artists are concerned, she believes that, first and foremost, artists need to get their work seen, and that includes in not-for-profit spaces and places you wouldn’t even think to look for art even on social media. Artists should also show up to art openings and host open studios. An introduction, she says, is always helpful. “Artists should grab as many opportunities as possible to get their work out there and seen.”
Until next time.