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Tosha Grantham talks about her new role as the Virginia Museum's assistant curator of contemporary art.

Contemporary Curator

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Tosha Grantham remembers visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a lot when she was a kid growing up in Richmond. In fact, that's where she probably felt her first emotional response to a piece of contemporary art.

Unfortunately, it was fear. Artist Duane Hanson's eerily lifelike sculptures gave her the creeps. "I can remember that they didn't really read like wax people to me," she says. "They read like dead ones. Very scary."

Luckily, Grantham didn't need therapy. Instead, the museum's newest assistant curator of modern and contemporary art ended up with degrees in art history from Georgetown and Howard University. Not to mention an itch to find and present all kinds of late 20th-century artists. She even turned her apartment in the artsy Adams Morgan section of Washington into a makeshift presentation space. "The first time we did a show, we only had 15 people," she recalls. "The next time, we had 65."

At 29, she's a published writer, a visual artist, guest curator and a great hope for those of us who really do love it when gigantic erasers, clothespins and Brillo soapboxes become hot art. From the Virginia Museum's permanent collection, Grantham lists Anselm Kiefer's "Landscape with Wings" ("I love the space it occupies. It's very bold and very tactile."), Francesco Clemente's "Pinxit" (a series of small works written on old Indian paper) and Rene S Erzulie's "Dreams" (a figure of a woman's torso that sits upon a cabinet) among her favorites.

Style recently caught up with Grantham to talk to her about how she plans to open minds and build bridges with art.

Style: What was the big draw for returning to Richmond in this job?
Grantham: The chance to do direct, hands-on curatorial work. And just the general attitude among the curatorial staff here, especially as expressed by the new director [Dr. Michael Brand] about how we can take a strong position in the globalization of art. That means we're not looking at art only in an ethnic context. So, if we're looking at African art, we're going beyond traditional sculpture, for example. Instead, we're starting to look at what contemporary artists do. New work isn't necessarily based on an ethnic identity. People move around. We have the Internet. Things change. People have multiple affinities and multiple identities. The art that is created now reflects that.

Style: The contemporary wing of the museum has lots of work by living artists. Do you prefer working on projects by dead artists or living ones?
Grantham: (Laughs) Well, dead ones can't talk back at you! But there are so many times [as a curator] you wish you could ask the artist a question…. With living artists you get that opportunity. You can get into a dialogue about the work. And from the standpoint of presenting work, it's important to ask those questions about what they meant. That's especially true in contemporary art because the work isn't giving you it's exact meaning, necessarily. It's not like looking at a Monet and saying 'Yes, this is a landscape.' People come to the work with varying degrees of exposure or experience. Part of the job in presenting work well is helping the audience be able to understand or access the idea of the artists, ideas that aren't always apparent.

Style: In terms of public reaction, is Richmond harder to coax toward contemporary art or about the same as elsewhere?
Grantham: Well, I'd have to say, I'm not sure. I've only been back here two months now. But, I'd also say, I'm really impressed coming back after being gone for 13 years. The breadth of the collection and what we have is really wonderful. Being between Washington and Atlanta, we have a big responsibility to the community to present and engage them with what's out there in terms of contemporary art. With Richmond being a notoriously conservative community, it makes it important to get and show the challenging work that's out there.

Style: What impact do recent political brouhahas over controversial exhibits have on you when you consider new exhibits for the museum?
Grantham: It's a hard issue. It puts us in a position of needing to be aware and sensitive to all of the factors. First and foremost, the first thing lost in these conflicts are the facts. People respond on a very emotional level, in this [Sally Mann] case whether they saw the work or not. And there was confusion. People thought the work was on display in the museum, when the images were shown in a slide show. It didn't hang in the museum. So, we're talking about pages and pages of press dedicated to slides that were on a screen for 5 seconds. For the museum, the staff wasn't aware of the content beforehand. It was untested work. Everybody was surprised. But on the other hand, art is notorious for provoking emotional response. It asks questions; it presents material that people feel strongly about. With all of the values out there, people feel differently about different things.

Style: What is it about curatorial work that you especially love?
Grantham: I really enjoy all of it. I love learning what people are about. And I love the artwork itself. Deciding where things are going to go. Also standing back from it and being an anonymous spectator, watching people respond, love, or hate it. From beginning to end it is great. You take a couple of pieces of art and put them together and they sing. It's like creating music. They are individual pieces, of course. But combined they make a new statement.

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