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'The Year of Heather': Curating at the Dallas Museum of Art

by Jerome Weeks 12 May 2010 7:00 AM

Museum curators are some of the more invisible arts managers, yet their jobs demand they be diplomats, scholars and set designers. Associate curator Heather MacDonald has become a major presence at the DMA, helming (or co-helming) three shows, two of them now running, and the third, perhaps the DMA’s most significant show this year. It has already opened to acclaim in NYC.


10252_Andre_KerteszAndre Kertesz, Martinique (gelatin silver print) 1972

At the Dallas Museum of Art, this is ‘the year of Heather.’ KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that out of a dozen or so exhibitions, associate curator Heather MacDonald is in charge of three this year, including one of the most important.

  • The Lens of Impressionism review
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

The term curator comes from the Latin, curare, meaning to care for. That, literally, is a curator’s basic job, just taking care of the museum’s collection, researching it, preserving it, presenting it. Heather MacDonald has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in French 18th century art. But at the DMA — officially, as the Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator — she’s in charge of caring for European art from 1500 to 1945, a sizable piece of art history.

But then there are the exceptional times when a curator puts on an exhibition. A major exhibition is one of the most complex endeavors in any art form: negotiating the loans of million-dollar artworks, arranging secure (and temperature-sensitive) transportation, laying out and assembling the galleries, scheduling public lectures and all the accompanying events. The skill set required extends from diplomat to scholar to set designer.

MacDONALD: “There’s even an element of horse-trading sometimes and a lot of legwork, a lot of conversations because there’s just an amazing number of moving parts that go into a temporary exhibition.”

Richard Brettell is the former head of the DMA and a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

BRETTELL: “Heather brings an incredible knowledge of art history, a great practical sense of what can and cannot work in an institution and she has a real sense of the intellectual importance of the exhibitions.”

So far this year, MacDonald has opened two exhibitions, The Lens of Impressionism, still running at the DMA, and Coastlines: Images of Land and Sea, which just opened. But her most important work won’t be seen here until October.

at the dma 2It’s The Mourners — which has already opened to acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  (Wall Street Journal: It “casts a magic spell that is as sublime and compelling as anything you are likely to encounter in any museum this season.”) The Mourners is a series of 40, doll-sized, alabaster statues from Dijon’s Musee des Beaux Arts in France. They ring the tomb of John the Fearless, the 15th-century Duke of Burgundy. They’re masterworks of late medieval art but are not better known because they’ve never left Dijon — and never will again. The statues can tour now only because the tomb is being cleaned and renovated.

The  actual home of the seemingly glowing little figures is a series of Gothic cathedral-like niches in the tomb, making the entire set look like a funeral procession in a church. Not only is this tour the first and only time the figures will leave France, but — having been removed from those niches — it’s also the first time they’ve been visible fully in-the-round. You can see them online in 360-degree splendor, thanks to the Mourners Photography Project.

The Mourners are also able to tour because of FRAME – the French Regional and American Museum Exchange. Richard Bretell helped create FRAME in 1997. The exchange cuts out New York and Paris to let a dozen museums in the rest of America (and Canada) connect directly with a dozen of their counterparts in France.

BRETTELL: “There’s nothing like it. There’s no bilateral coalition of regional museums like it in the world.”

The Mourners tour is also rare for its ambitious length: It will travel to seven American cities (most tours these days have only two or three destinations).

And the FRAME member in charge of the entire tour is the Dallas Museum of Art.

phprxF0gOPMMacDONALD: “The Mourners is sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So it was a major logistical challenge to keep the communication circulating at all times between Dijon and the FRAME office and then all the seven venues.”

As the co-curator of The Mourners, MacDonald has been working on those logistical challenges for three years.

[murmurs and echo-y footsteps]

WEEKS: “It really does make a difference — with the things up on the wall.”

MacDONALD: “Right, yeah, I know. There’s that moment when you’re like, ‘Ah, there it is.’”

Lately, MacDonald has concentrated on installing Coastlines. It’s a new DMA show of seaside paintings and photos. Coastlines is a case of a museum, in these financially trying times, doing more with less by dipping into its permanent collection and figuring how to re-package things.  Coastlines re-thinks long-established works in the museum’s permanent collection by putting them up alongside previously unrelated works, including some borrowed ones. Essentially, it creates a new ‘genre’ — or expands a tradition.

MacDonald, for example, has not gathered together just seascapes, which are already a genre, of course. Coastlines features seascapes and sunbathers and working ships and landscapes and tourists and lighthouses, the entire cluster of activities and environments that happen where sand, sea, sunlight and swimmers meet. Even something as powerfully abstract as one of Richard Diebenkorn’s famous Ocean Park paintings finds a place here, evoking bright sky and water, windows and buildings along the California coast — all this through the use of just big, bold rectangles drenched in blue.

So — voila — these 66 works now have a new context, although a pretty loose, diffuse one. Only a few of these works were created with any of the others in mind, so juxtapositions can feel imposed. And some of the works remain stubbornly disconnected, off by themselves (like Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl’s Seaside Cemetery, a case of Caspar David Friedrich Goes to the Beach and Brings Along His Broody, German Mysticism. It’s nowhere near as weirdly kitschy as Hiremy-Hirschl’s other paintings, but that’s probably because he couldn’t think of a convincing way to drape despairing nudes everywhere).

MacDonald has also expanded her context into other media — by attaching selections from poetry, journalism and memoir to individual works and by showcasing the sound installation created by faculty and graduate students in the Arts and Technology (ATEC) program at the University of Texas at Dallas — with the help of students in Toulon, France.

For what it’s worth, MacDonald has arranged a DMA first, an entire exhibition with a soundscape. There’s an overall sound design, but several individual works have their own audio works as well, which are indicated on the floor by circles of carpet.  A visitor can actually step into and out of different soundscapes.

Such audio augmentation may strike some as distracting and gimmicky, a way to prop up an inferior show or artwork with a bit of theme-park novelty. This kind of multi-sensory approach is more common in European museums, where it can get rather clever and sophisticated. In the Barcelona City Museum once, I was following an exhibition that traced the path that Don Quixote took through the city when he supposedly visited it in 1615.  Standing in the spot designated as the old city marketplace, I could smell spices and hear the squeak of wooden carts.

Given the omnipresence of Muzak today, we may prefer silence. But research shows many people find a quiet place off-putting. It’s too much, in fact, like a museum. Children are hushed, we’re left  alone with our thoughts. It’s akin to church — minus the singing.

Yet in a museum, most of us don’t stand there Contemplating Art. We speed past, spending only a few seconds with any work. So as much as they may ‘augment’ our experience, MacDonald’s poetry and soundscapes are meant to extend it, make us linger, possibly really seeing (studies show our senses work best in consort — we hear better when we see clearly and vice versa).


It worked in my case — at least, curiosity did lead me to try out all the individual soundscapes. And I was initially fascinated by the audio clips. But by the end of Coastlines, I wished the noises would stop — especially in front of the mesmerizing quartet of Hiroshi Sugimoto photos (left). Perhaps it’s the purity and austerity of the Sugimotos: They dispense with almost everything that concerns the rest of the exhibition. Waves aren’t crashing, no seagulls squawk, no ships foghorn away in the distance.  There is only water and sky and a barely-there horizon. What were polarities and defining marks in other works — vanish. The four images have a profound emptiness that is at once bleak and utterly beautiful.

Coastlines is clearly devised as a summer diversion, giving North Texas the beachfront property it’s never had. Just as clearly, it draws on different skills from MacDonald than The Mourners. With Coastlines, she more or less assembled the context, manufactured the environment we can splash around in. With The Mourners, on the other hand, she has to recreate much of what is already in place in France — not the specific tomb-setting but the history and religious resonances that most French visitors know walking in. The first exhibition required a multi-media show-woman; the second, a knowledgeable translator.

With any exhibition, a curator’s goal is to create for the visitor an entire little world in a box. MacDonald says there are only a few moments before it opens when a curator can get a sense of the whole show she’s imagined for months or years: when the gallery walls go up, when the paintings are first mounted, when the technicians install the lights. It was only a few days before the Coastlines exhibition opened and MacDonald was indulging in what she called one of the great pleasures for a curator: tweaking the details that can bring the entire show to life.

Edward Hopper, Lighthouse Hill, (oil on canvas) 1927

[murmurs and echo-y footsteps]

MacDONALD: “It’s always that little bit of uncertainty until things come together. And then when it does, it is a really wonderful, complete experience.”

MacDonald was especially pleased with the freshly painted walls, with her choices of blue-ish greys and blue-ish browns, meant to chime with (and bring together) the different paintings and photos.

That’s right. After all the big things — wrangling with wealthy collectors, overseeing schedules, laying out the galleries and writing the catalog — the curator must choose the color this little world gets painted.