Photography is a Language That We All Speak: An Interview with Lisa Sutcliffe
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Lisa Sutcliffe is the Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. She came to Milwaukee in 2013 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she had been Assistant Curator of Photography since 2007. Lisa holds an MA in the history of art from Boston University, where she specialized in the history of photography, and a BA in art history from Wellesley College.
I spoke with Lisa about her work, the museum’s photography collection and about the particular generosity of local couple Richard and Ethel Herzfeld, whose legacy led to the museum’s recently opened Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts. A 10,000-square-foot space devoted to photography, film, video installation, and media art, the Center is unparalleled in size and scope in the region.
Tim Greyhavens ‒ Let’s start with your background. How did you arrive at Milwaukee Art Museum?
Lisa Sutcliffe ‒ I was always interested in art history, and I always knew I wanted to be a curator. I got my graduate degree in art history with a special focus on the history of photography and modern and contemporary art. I had a curatorial fellowship at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park and then was hired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to work as an assistant curator in their photography department. There I worked very closely with Sandra Phillips, who has had a thirty-year career at SFMOMA and is just retiring this year. It was exciting to work with and learn from her.
Now you’re one of a relatively small group of museum curators who specialize in photography. Does your group have a secret handshake?
Ha ‒ I would never tell. The nice thing about the museum photography world is that it is relatively small, and we know each other well. We have a couple of conferences and fairs that we attend and it’s nice to catch up and see each other. It always feels like going back to family when I see my photography colleagues.
Is there something you wish someone had told you about being a curator when you were in grad school?
Grad school is good preparation for being a curator, but it wasn’t until I was actually working in a museum that I felt like I was learning the real skills of the job. So much of the position is working with people and working with the audience; those are very practical skills that you don’t learn in graduate school. I’d say internships are a best way to get hands-on experience.
If you were addressing grads today is there anything you’d want to tell them about getting into the curatorial world?
You have to be very passionate about this field because there aren’t very many jobs, and it can take a lot of time working as an intern to find a position.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has a long and impressive record of collecting and presenting photography, especially in the context of new technology. You’ve personally spoken about how we’re trying to translate our experience in photography into a digital world. Was there this common interest that brought you here?
Every curator brings their own background, and that’s what makes individual departments unique. What made Milwaukee interesting to me was that there is a long history of photography having importance at the museum. We collected our first photographs in 1957 when we bought six pictures by Edward Weston. That was before many other museums were collecting, so I knew there was both an engaged community and an engaged group of patrons. I was especially excited about the opportunity to open the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts, which unites photography with other light-based and digital media.
One of the things that really interested me in Milwaukee’s story was the long history of the Herzfeld family and photography. They’ve been involved in supporting a photography program there for many years. Do you have an idea of how their interest in photography began?
Richard and Ethel Herzfeld were very active in the Milwaukee community and contributed significantly both in time and resources to enrich the cultural life here. Richard had been a photographer and so I’m sure that was a part of why they became involved with sponsoring photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In fact, they began supporting photography at the museum in 1985 when their foundation donated the first acquisition and exhibition funds. Richard and Ethel are no longer alive, but their foundation continues to be major sponsors of our photography program. They generously supported the building of the new center that now bears their name, so they have really made it possible for photography to thrive at the museum.
Do you know if there was a particular photographer who motivated either one of them personally?
It’s possible that it was self-motivating. I know that Richard took a photograph that won first place in a competition. It’s of a sailboat, and the foundation still has it framed in their office. He was very much involved in the spirit of innovation that the medium of photography embraces.
The Herzfelds are the name that’s most associated with photography there, but there must be other major donors who support the photography program.
We have a wonderful group of donors here at all levels. We have a robust Photography Council, and just last year we created a new group called Friends of the Herzfeld Center. There are twelve founding members who are dedicated to photography here at the museum, and they’re a very active group that’s passionate about photography.
I know you have an interest in exploring the future of photography in the context of our current society’s unprecedented volume of image production. How’s the Herzfeld Center going to address the exploration of that topic?
The exciting thing about the space is that we can integrate media throughout so you can look at photographs, videos, and other image forms and see them all side by side. It’s interesting to think about the fact that at the same time video became an accepted field of contemporary art media distinctions became obsolete. Contemporary artists are more interested in exploring ideas and less wedded to a specific medium, so they may work across various media to convey a single artistic concept.
This same concept applies to many classic photographers as well. One thing I’m particularly excited about is a show we’re planning on the work of Helen Levitt. We want to show her photographs and slides as well as a film that she made all in the same space. It will be a rare chance to experience a living understanding of how she worked.
At one point you said some of the best photography shows are site-specific ‒ that place is important in terms of connecting people and experiences. Do you have a special interest in promoting local photography?
I’m definitely interested in the region both historically and currently. Not every museum can be MOMA, and so your collection should reflect the interests of the region and the history of the region. One of the things I am excited to start is a commission program to engage artists in making pictures that relate in some way to this area. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be local photographers, but they will become involved in the local and the regional.
The overall photography scene right now is anchored on one end by this endless flow of Instagram images and on the other end by this increasingly exorbitant auction scene. It’s not unusual to see certain photographers sell for a million dollars or more on a routine basis. How does your museum compete in this market and what does that mean for you as a curator?
I like the idea that photography is not just an art medium but is in fact a language that we all speak in some way. There are vernacular photographs that we can look at that tell us fascinating things. I have a responsibility to reflect a broad spectrum of photography through shows that tell us something about our world or about the medium itself. As an example, right now I’m showing Penelope Umbrico, who mines the internet to show us the ways in which technology shapes how we make pictures and how we share them.
What is your biggest challenge right now as you think about the near future?
I like to think of challenges as ways to come up with new methods of working. One of the challenges is that we are now so saturated with images, so how do we sift those pictures and also communicate that coming to see work in person is a valuable experience. Engaging the community both inside and outside of the museum is something that I find exciting.
There’s a growing effort by museums to digitize their collections and put more online. Is there an inherent conflict in terms of wanting to make collections accessible but also trying to engage people to come and actually view prints in person?
Most of our audience, which is now national and international because of our online presence, is actually accessing the collection through the Internet. At the same time, I think that making the collections accessible makes people want to come to see great works of art in person even more. There are exciting things we can do to engage viewers online so that the lure of coming to the museum is almost irresistible.
One of the issues I’ve heard about from other museum curators is the growing challenge of acquiring giant prints that occupy a lot of wall space. In some situations, two or three prints now take up now the same space that perhaps fifteen or twenty might have taken up a few years ago.
It’s not just wall space ‒ it’s also archival cold storage, which is essential for preserving color images. Then there’s the question of massive photographs that begin to compete with places where paintings have traditionally hung. It’s a growing problem, and not every museum can or will want to include really big prints in their collection. It’s not like you can acquire fifty photographs and put them in a box anymore.
Recently I did some research on the most expensive photographs ever sold, and I was struck that of the top twenty-five photographs 15 of them are really big prints. The market now seems to support the idea that big size means big value. Is that another factor in acquiring big prints?
My job is not to assign a monetary value, so I tend to shy away from those discussions.
But wouldn’t you say that by displaying certain works in your museum you are assigning value to them?
I would say that we’re assigning historical importance or creating dialogs that suggest historical conversations. The way I see my job is to decide which works have value for the public audience rather than for someone who might buy them.
One of the things I find interesting in museums is the balance between representing photography as an international art form but also as a regional vision. Is there a Milwaukee school or a Midwestern school, either formally or informally?
Ray Metzker was from Milwaukee, and recently the Herzfeld Foundation helped us acquire a number of Metzker prints. The Foundation is very excited about American street photography in particular but also about pictures of the developing American West. Wisconsin at one time was as an original frontier, and Milwaukee is a town built on industry. We’re very interested in those elements as part of the diverse history or our city and state.
It’s interesting that one of the first popular books that featured vernacular photography was Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Are you thinking about continuing that legacy?
Yes, and in fact, I’m planning an exhibition on that book. It’s one of the first subjective histories from a historical archive and an important book in terms of its lasting influence. Lesy not only showed us the value of vernacular images, he helped us understand the importance of context when looking at images. Right now that exhibition is slated for 2018.
And you know, I wouldn’t be able to plan this kind of show without the legacy of support the Herzfeld Foundation has given us. They and other foundations make a difference in smaller cities like Milwaukee because their continued support has allowed for the development of an important photography program here. The fact that they’ve been able to make a mark on this museum is something for which we’re all extremely thankful.