Museum curator Grace Kook-Anderson: Figuring it out

Grace Kook-Anderson is a curator based in Portland, Oregon. She has served as the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art at the Portland Art Museum since 2016. Recent exhibitions she has curated include APEX: Laura Fritz and the group exhibition, the map is not the territory. Prior to her appointment at PAM, she was Curator of Contemporary Art at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, CA, and has also worked on various projects as an independent curator. I spoke with her via phone recently while each of us worked at our respective home offices during the Covid-19 stay-home mandate. In the time since our conversation, PAM has announced it will furlough 80% of its staff in an effort to manage the financial impacts stemming from the pandemic. 

A woman with long black hair in a low ponytail, dressed in a navy blue plaid coat with a draped collar and simple black dress, poses in an art gallery featuring contemporary sculptures, to the right of a man wearing a gray business suit and black tie, with square-framed glasses
Grace Kook-Anderson (photographed here with museum director Brian Ferriso) in the Northwest Art Gallery at the Portland Art Museum. Background art (left to right) Karl Burkheimer, Heather Watkins, and Avantika Bawa. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

This is the second in a series of short(ish) interviews with Portland artists and arts professionals about their experiences and insights into the effects of the pandemic on our arts community. I hope these conversations will provide a bit of connection, critical perspective, and hope during this difficult time. 

How are you doing? Do you have any strategies for managing the various anxieties, fears, and inconveniences the pandemic is causing? 

I’m doing…OK (laughs)! [My husband and I] have a seven year old who’s in first grade, and now he’s homebound. So it’s about figuring out how we can squeeze in our workday and give attention to our son and sustain him, and still remind ourselves to be kind and slow down. There’s a need to feel like I’m doing things or accomplishing things. 

We’re structuring our day around our son’s day. In the morning he spends time doing projects with his dad, and I work during that time. I pulled out my old desk from college and cleaned it up to make an office space. We gather together for lunch, and in the afternoon I take over and do reading, math, and other lessons with him while my husband works. We’ve been doing conference calls with family and friends and sometimes virtual “happy hour” while we prepare dinner. 

At night we are just really tired! I have all these movies I want to watch, but I usually just watch about half-an-hour of a show and then work a bit more before bed. It looks pretty good on paper (laughing). We certainly have “days.” My son is super social so we have done Facetime playdates, and immediately after he is happy, but later on he gets a little sad. When that happens we kind of refocus and find another activity—recently we made blueberry muffins as a way to shift the energy of the day.

A living room featuring a couch and decor in neutral colors, with a laptop and some notebooks laid out on the coffee table, which has been turned into a makeshift home office
Kook-Anderson’s improvised home office/Image courtesy Grace Kook-Anderson

How has all this affected your curatorial practice? Do you have any shows in the works?

We are all kind of trying to figure it out. One of the biggest questions for PAM [Portland Art Museum] is how do we become a museum from home? There are a lot of museums trying to navigate this right now. For curators, we are trying to figure out how to display or talk about our collections, utilize our social media. We’ve been posting lectures to YouTube and promoting some of our recent programs. We have collectively found some appreciation when museums have spoken about what works of art mean to them. You’ll be hearing more of that personal voice from PAM in the future. 

How do we collaborate? How do we promote artists? We are all doing this from home so there are practical challenges. We are also trying to keep in mind what the year ahead is going to look like—trying to balance the immediate with long-term plans. 

Obviously the economic fallout from this crisis is massive and is affecting everyone, but the art world may be particularly vulnerable. How has PAM weathered this storm so far, and what’s the plan for the coming months? What have you seen/heard/experienced in terms of how Covid-19 is affecting the arts and artists in Portland at large? 

I think one thing that I’ve realized is how fragile our systems are and how much we (in the arts) haven’t been supported on a national or political level. It’s not a surprise, but it’s sad. I think we all already knew this in the arts, but you can really see now how important art is. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of our structure and on the other hand the need for culture. 

Economically speaking, PAM is following the lead of a lot of other institutions and Governor Kate Brown’s orders in closing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, announced they will be closed until at least July, and a lot of other institutions are doing the same in order to prevent the spread of the virus. We are thinking along a similar timeline, which is really difficult. And we have more difficult decisions coming up to be made for the museum and the film center [Northwest Film Center]. We are lucky we have been able to compensate our staff through April 15, and to continue medical benefits through April 30. That may change depending on what the federal government decides in terms of what additional social benefits it’s going to provide as part of its economic plans. We’re looking at assistance options within the stimulus package to care for our team and the survival of the museum. [Since this interview, PAM has been able to extend staff pay and health benefits through the end of June thanks to federal relief funds and emergency support from several trustees and foundations. Layoffs are likely if the Museum and NW Film Center are unable to reopen in July.]

There are some great emergency relief programs specifically for artists that have been started up. What are your thoughts on what the arts community needs right now?

I feel so much for artists. So much of Portland is based on a gig economy model, and I feel so much for everyone going through this right now. It is hard to come to terms with all of this and to accept that the best thing is to stay home. It’s kind of hard to figure out in some ways. I think the most important things in the immediate are sharing information and knowledge. To share whatever you find out (about opportunities and assistance), and not just assume everyone knows. For instance, I was surprised to find out that the Thomas Kinkade Foundation is offering emergency assistance to curators. It’s kind of an odd thing to discover that they are offering this assistance in a system that hasn’t always accepted his work. But they want to help and I think that’s great! People should know about everything that’s available to them right now. Arts workers’ lives are pretty unpredictable and we don’t always know where our next funding will come from. 

Dana Lynn Louis’ ambitious Gather:Make:Shelter project accomplished a lot and raised money above and beyond her goals, and I think the spirit that her project embodied is important. In some ways our world feels so much smaller right now, in part because we are all at home and online. I love seeing what other museums are doing and how museums and galleries and venues are adapting. I think promoting and celebrating that is something important. I hope as a result this might make PAM more open to collaboration than we have been in the past. Our budget is frozen right now, so it’s really hard to think meaningfully about how we could do that.

Two women in business-like semi-formal attire smiling and posing with arms on each other's shoulders in front of a projected video
Kook-Anderson with artist Avantika Bawa at the opening of the exhibition the map is not the territory, 2019, image courtesy Portland Art Museum

As the curator of Northwest Art at PAM, you have a unique perspective on our region’s arts community. Do you foresee a particularly Northwest response to this time in art? Are there any (even minute) precedents in terms of Oregon artists making work in response to a large-scale crisis?

There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. I would hope that it brings attention to all the amazing talent we have here. But also with the world feeling smaller thanks to digital connectivity, our talents could be acknowledged in a larger platform or context. There’s always been a great amount of talent and thinking differently in this region. The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation. 

From a purely curatorial perspective, how do you think this experience will change the way you approach your work going forward? Or do you think it will have an effect on your practice?

I hope so! I think one thing that our director has really emphasized is that we have our specialties but we should also have a general knowledge too, so that we can curate for diverse audiences. I hope this helps us find more compelling and dynamic ways to reach and connect with the public and not make the museum feel so elite. Behind the scenes we’ve been doing a lot of that work, and I hope our sincere efforts in that direction will become more apparent. That might come through in the voice we use to talk about artwork or in using social media. This sincerity will help us educate audiences about the art, and also connect with viewers about deeper moments of appreciation.

When this is all over (hopefully soon), what will you take away from this experience personally? What do you hope the rest of the world will take away? 

I don’t know… I think I will feel, and I’m already feeling, much more passionate about the importance of the arts. This situation just reaffirms that. I hope that value will be recognized not just by our citizens but on a governmental level. It shows how misplaced our values are and I hope it helps us refocus where our true values are. Our educators, our doctors, our cultural institutions. The people and places that really deserve the most value are often overlooked, and I hope that will change as a result of this experience.

Do you think the role of art or the way arts communities and institutions function will change permanently?

I think it definitely has to change. I think all of our museums will change for the better. I think we have perhaps a better understanding for ourselves too, of the value of culture and how we can reach people. That’s going to be in the forefront of our minds moving forward.

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