What Makes a Curator Tick? – Photographs by various artists | Interview by Magali Duzant

From making her own photographs and starting a gallery, to leading a museum into its embrace of online possibilities, Crista Dix has worn many hats in the art world. Her current role is Executive Director of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts, a non-profit dedicated to photography in all of its many forms. At the heart of all of these roles and activities—whether curating, doing portfolio reviews or sitting on juries—Dix is invigorated by communicating and collaborating with artists.

The Griffin celebrated its 30th year in 2022 in a very different climate to when it was founded—a photographic landscape irrevocably marked by the pandemic and shaped by our new digital viewing habits. Like many others, the institution faces the challenge of navigating both global and local photography communities in our ‘new normal.’ As a curator and photography dealer, Dix understands the ins and outs of project development and successful presentation, creating a vision for the future of the museum that faces the online/offline puzzle in a thoughtful and multilayered way.

In this interview for LensCulture, she talks to Magali Duzant about the strengths of working serially, the joys of finding community, and the importance of sticking to your vision.

From the series “Buzz Goes” © Crista Dix

Magali Duzant: You’ve worked across the many different realms of photography. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you arrived at the Griffin Museum of Photography?

Crista Dix: I came to photography through a very circuitous route. I have a degree in geology and a minor in theater. I worked for the park service, where I worked with both commercial and professional photographers. When I was getting my degree, I loved going out and shooting for my papers and research. And I thought, you know, I could do this. I started out with the idea of being a photographer, and then realized that there were far too many photographers who were better than me.

But I also had a business background. So I decided to open my own gallery in 2005. It was called Wall Space and it was located in Seattle. The space existed up until 2020, when I moved across the country, from California to the Boston area to work as the Associate Director at the Griffin Museum. With Paula Tognarelli’s retirement in December of 2021, I took over the role in January of 2022. So I am about 10 months into the position of Executive Director now.

Exhibition view of Photography Atelier 35 at the Griffin (2022)

MD: The Griffin has always seemed a special place; small but influential, local but also global. Can you sketch out a portrait of the institution? What has this first year in the position been like?

CD: It’s been very interesting. This is our 30th year and with a new administration there are always new plans. I have some dreams. Our previous director left a really solid, creative foundation for us. She had been with the organization for 20 years and had really put the Griffin museum on the map as a place for emerging and mid-career artists.

The Griffin was founded in 1982 by photographer Arthur Griffin, as a home for his archive, and to showcase and highlight photography in all its forms. In the early 2000s, they began to incorporate more creative photography. It has always been an incubator space for creative artists that go on to great things. We’re in a small town called Winchester, about 15 minutes north of Boston and we also have a number of satellite spaces. At one point, there were six satellite spaces, but Covid pretty much wiped that out.

We have a membership community, we provide educational programming and we also host events within the museum as well as online. We also host the online New England portfolio reviews. Right now I’m in the process of applying for a number of grants to set up an artist residency program at the museum. We hope to have a robust artists residency program in 2023, bringing three to five artists per year to either do installation work or site specific work, as well as outreach to the Winchester community and the greater New England community of photographers.

MD: How did the pandemic shape the course of the museum’s activities?

CD: One thing that we certainly learned from Covid was that we could draw from our community. We are enhancing our online exhibition program. We have an international membership community here at the Griffin—when we have online events, we have people dialing in from South America and Europe. We can really bring together a sense of community. And I really am fascinated at how we are consuming photographs. We’re trying to make our online presence as visible as possible. So we’re in the process of updating, changing, and sort of navigating what the new normal looks like.

“Polarities,” 2022 from the 28th Annual Members Exhibition (2022) © Caroline Dejeneffe

MD: I love how this jump into the online space extended community around the world, but also, brought it back to a local sense. What are the difficulties in managing this expansion?

CD: The hardest part right now is trying to navigate what we need to do in person and what we need to do online, and how we connect both communities. I mean, we don’t want to give up our New England roots by just being completely online. But I think in giving New England artists an opportunity to be online, or bringing artists from online here to the museum, we have a way to create a larger mix of opportunity, and certainly of creativity. When I was in California, I would get the Griffin newsletter every week. And I would think, I’d really like to be there for that. Now I can be at almost any museum every week. There’s always something going on. And the problem that I have right now is just the sheer volume of things going on.

MD: The position of Executive Director sounds glamorous but I’m sure it includes focusing on the brass tacks as much as the creative vision. Is there a part of your work that you are most excited by?

CD: There’s a lot of creativity that bursts forth from all these ideas I have and things I’d like to do. But then of course, I spend my day with spreadsheets. The majority of my day is spent on the administrative side, and making sure that we keep the building open. It’s the support system that keeps things going. My favorite part is really working on our vision and who we’re showcasing and the ideas behind that. The creative side is the fun part that propels me forward and keeps me in touch with artists.

I just got back from Review Santa Fe after having done Photolucida in April, and Filter Photo Festival in Chicago and FotoFest in Houston in September. It’s just so nice to be out there and see what everybody’s making. I love what I do. Even on the hard days, because I get to put beauty, passion, stories, and ideas out into the world. I mean, how can that be bad, even with a spreadsheet day? Those spreadsheet days make the better days possible.

“Celeste” from the exhibition the series and exhibition A Facefull of Mangos (2022) © Justin Michael Emmanuel

MD: You ran Wall Space for 15 years before arriving at the Griffin. What was your experience owning a gallery and what did you take from your time there into the museum setting?

CD: The reason I called it Wall Space was because it was never about me, it was always about my artists. I wanted them to be front and center. Having that experience for 15 years of working directly with artists and helping them get into collections was really important to me. Not only did I love photography, because I used to shoot and worked as an assistant for various photographers, but because I love the idea of a photograph as an object. Most of the work that we showed was object oriented in some way where the artist intervened or impacted the photo—digital collage, physical collage, alternative process. But it was also narrative and documentary type work.

I tried to span and embrace all of it. I was passionate about every form of photography, but, as a commercial gallery, you really have to think about what’s going to actually sell. You have to keep the doors open. And I want to make sure that my artists are well compensated for the work that they put into their images. So in some ways, running the business of Wall Space was incredibly helpful for me to move into the nonprofit space. I’m not afraid of reaching out to donors, I’m not afraid of finding foundations. The business of running a gallery is not so far off from running a nonprofit—you just have more people involved, you have a board all of a sudden, that you didn’t have before.

Exhibition view of Twenty Eighth Annual Members Juried Show

MD: How would you describe the working relationships between a curator and an artist?

CD: It’s a collaboration. What I want to do at the Griffin is to find and navigate what is next in photography. So I’m always looking ahead, we program 12 to 24 months in advance. We’re looking at artists who are timely, creative, and innovative. Being collaborative with my artists is a way to make sure that we produce the best possible exhibition that we can.

MD: Is there anything that defines and guides your personal taste in photography? What is it that you find yourself gravitating towards?

CD: I believe that my heart and soul lies at the intersection of science, technology and creativity. So what I love about photography is that it’s a noun and a verb. We as photographers have a responsibility to show the world around us, in whatever form that it’s in. A really great photograph is one that disturbs me, in a way that can be either good or bad. A great photograph is something that I can continue to look at, and have questions about. It is something that you can look at from edge to edge and think there’s room for beauty, for question, for wonder, for the unknown. So for me, that photograph can be pretty much anything, it can be documentary, or it can be impacted or intervened upon.

From the exhibition |an end and a beginning” (2022) © Alyssa Minahan

MD: How do you take those feelings about photographs into jurying? Or into portfolio reviews? Do you have a list of considerations that you hold onto when you’re looking at work?

CD: A portfolio review is about really connecting with the artist on a level at which we either have questions for each other, or we can connect and talk about creativity or the trajectory of the process. That moment is literally about the conversation, about how do we do this? So the portfolio review is definitely a back and forth that I love and thrive on. Because I almost always learn something new about myself and about creativity, about how we visually comment on the world around us.

But jurying is different. Jurying is something that I think about, that engages me or makes my heart skip a beat. When people would ask me “why did you highlight this particular artist at Wall Space?,” I would say because the work made my heart stop or I saw something in it that was so impactful that I could not wait to get it out into the universe and show other people. As if I was given a gift, and I wanted to make sure that you see too. And I think when you’re jurying, and especially in a pool that you have no control over, you have to look for patterns and ideas.

MD: What kind of challenges do you face as a juror?

CD: I do a lot of open calls for jurying and it’s really complicated because people will span genres. You really want to span ideas, you want to pull up the best of the best of what was submitted. You have to kind of navigate this water of what rises to the top. A lot of people say, well, it depends on what the day is like, and to an extent, it does. It’s the same thing when you’re printing, right? Depends on your humidity and the temperature and whether you’re in the darkroom for the whole day, or you’re in there for 15 minutes, and how fast you shake your tray.

A lot of times I’ll find work that may not fit. But I write their name down and do a screen grab of their work, and save it for later. Because I may want to use it for something else. So never give up on submissions. I would say be judicious with your submissions, because those entry fees can definitely add up. You need a full budget for those. Look who you’re submitting to—is that someone that you want to put your work in front of? I find all kinds of things that may not make it this time but I remember and use them later for something else.

“Breughel’s Breakfast,” 2020 from the exhibition My Favorite Things | Still Life (2022) © Stephanie Shih

MD: Sometimes an idea can gain strength over multiple images, building narrative and emotional heft. How would you describe the advantages of working in series as an art photographer?

CD: You always have to make sure that every single image is your strongest image. But in truth, they only grow stronger as a whole. A series creates a visual thread. I love when I’m walking down the street and I look into a window and see a photograph, and I know exactly who made that. Because there is visual continuity between the way that they photograph—not necessarily the subject matter, but how they see. If you work in series, it pushes you to develop a unique style and vision so that one always knows that you are stepping up and creating an impactful, personal photograph.

MD: In terms of what exists behind a photograph, what is your view on the place of either an artist statement or a project statement?

CD: Both of them are super important. I hate writing, but I write all the time. I hate asking for artist statements, but they are important. If I don’t understand what I’m looking at, I go straight to that artist’s statement to fill me in and then I can look again with new eyes. Text is incredibly important to help me navigate the work. As a photography dealer, or as someone here at the museum, if I’m in the galleries, and someone asks me a question, that artist is not going to be standing next to me to actually talk. I have to have as much information as I possibly can in order to represent that artist, and that work to the best of its ability. The artist statement is critical in helping me understand exactly what I’m looking at and exactly how I can represent it to anyone else.

So if I’m super passionate about a project, I will drag people in and say, you’ve got to take a look at this work, or ask them what their favorite image is. Oh, this one is my favorite. And here’s why. This comes from the totality of the submission: the images, the statement, and what the artist is working on. This includes a bio or knowing what is next for that artist. If what you’re submitting is a completed project, it doesn’t hurt for us to know what you’re working on next, or if there is a continuation of this project. That helps me understand that it’s not a one hit wonder.

“Racing the Storm,” 2019 from the exhibition “E. caballus: The Domesticated Horse” (2022) © Landry Major

MD: You mentioned that you have gone to a number of portfolio reviews this year, is there anything you’re seeing in photography that you’re particularly excited about?

CD: About 10 years ago, as grandparents started dying, all of these artists from younger generations were looking at objects because they’d never seen them before, like rotary telephones or toasters, things that were up in an attic or were stacked away in a closet. And as they were cleaning out these houses, all of these objects started coming up as photographic subjects. Now fast forward a decade, and we’re actually looking more deeply at things. They’re trying to see who we are alongside these images, which I think is really wonderful.

People are exploring family archives; they’re looking at anonymous photos and creating stories. I think it’s really getting personal in ways that are quite affecting. We’re now actually digging deeper. And I think Covid has a lot to do with that. I think we are all trying to determine what is most important in our lives, what we’re willing to do and not do, how we want to see things, how we want to move forward. Imbuing those personal narratives into photographs really helps all of us grow as humans, because all of a sudden human experience really is about the totality of experience, seen with an objective newness.

“Untitled #1,” 2017 from the exhibition Veiled Actualities (2022) © Philip Sager

MD: Do you have advice for young photographers? Is there something you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

CD: Well, as much as you may hear it and roll your eyes, do what you love. Start from your soul. We know, as curators, when you’ve created a body of work and you’ve crafted a statement just to try and match the work. One of the things that I always ask my artist is: What is more honest, the statement or the work? Be true to yourself. Show what you think is your best work. Don’t try to go overboard. If you only have five pictures, you only have five pictures. Don’t make it ten because you think you have to submit ten. If there is work that is not as good, we’re going to see that and wonder what the focus of the work is.

So my suggestion to artists that are submitting is: love what you do and show us that you’re passionate about the work. Tell us why it is important for us to see it and what you want us to walk away with after viewing it.

MD: It seems so obvious and yet, I feel that is a very hard lesson for people to learn and accept in their own way.

CD: I think the word ‘competition’ is always really complicated. Everybody believes that they are chasing someone else, when in fact art is an open, giving community in so many ways. You’re not necessarily ‘competing’; you just have a different vision. And having different visions is great, because all it does is expand ideas.

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