Beautiful Thinkers: Ellen Lee, Curator

On Curation, Before It Was a Buzzword

Curation is everywhere today. From curated menus to curated subscription boxes, even at mass market retailers like Target. We curate our Instagram feeds, our Pinterest boards—our online selves really. I wanted to talk with someone who’d practiced the craft of curation long before it became a digital phenomenon, so I recently sat down with museum curator, Ellen Lee.

I met Ellen while working on a rebrand of the internationally renowned Indianapolis Museum of Art. For 45 years, Ellen has been a curator for the encyclopedic museum specializing in European and American painting and sculpture from 1800–1945. Her work for the museum and the city as a curator is truly extraordinary. I asked her about how her creative spirit has endured and evolved during her long stint at the IMA, now known as the IMA at Newfields.

Seurat painted “The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe” during the summer of 1890

How did you come to be a curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art?
I’m an Indianapolis native. I worked at the IMA as a summer job when I was in college. I was really just looking for something interesting to do. I was supposedly majoring in political science but I gradually realized I was enjoying the art history more than the politics. I saw art history as a way to see the big picture on things and also as a way to zero in on smaller things of beauty and genius.

By my junior year I thought maybe I should change my major. I always give my father credit because I called him one night and said, I didn’t know what to do. I thought he’d say, “Well you’ll figure it out”, but what he said was, “I think you should major in art history because no matter what you do with your life you’ll go to museums and you’ll look at things everywhere.”

As I was graduating from college in Massachusetts, the IMA offered me a post as a curatorial assistant, and that launched my career there

The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
The museum’s collection is strong in 19th-century European and American paintings, particularly Neo-Impressionism and the School of Pont-Aven

How did you feel about curating for an encyclopedic museum instead of one that was more specialized?
I loved it because it’s so stimulating for your visitors if you can make references to things in other cultures in other galleries. Say you have a portrait and in that portrait, there is a Chinese Ming porcelain vase on the desk. You can use that as an opportunity to say you’re welcome to go up to the second floor and see the real thing.

Is it common for curators to stay in one place?
It’s not normal. It’s much more common practice to see curators moving around the country. That’s certainly the norm. That’s a good thing too because you get fresh viewpoints wherever you go. It wasn’t like I started out saying I will never leave. It’s just that there’d be another show, another project, you know, that sort of thing.

Left: Seurat’s painting, “Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Phillippe”, 1890 Right: A photograph of the same site, 1990

You travelled to acquire art, but you also travelled to places where the artists lived and painted. Why?
It’s a desire to get as close as you can to whatever that creative spirit was that moved the artist. Especially with landscape paintings. When I was preparing an exhibition on the IMA’s Seurat canvas, The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe, I went to a tiny, tiny town on the northern coast of France where Seurat painted his famous views of Gravelines. I didn’t know at that point whether he imagined it or transcribed the locale quite closely. I was walking around a blustery day in March looking for the site. Nothing was clicking. I couldn’t find it. I went back in the afternoon. Due to the movement of the sun, a shadow that was very prominent in the painting, was now showing. It was one of those genuine epiphany moments when I realized I’d found it.

What do you perceive the role of being a curator should be?
Using your study of works of art to encourage other people to come into a museum. Essentially, you’re helping people use critical faculties of their own and then take that and see beauty elsewhere. I remember years ago, being in my boss’s office. I was looking down at the fountain below. There was a truck driving around the fountain and it was a perfect cube. It looked like stainless steel. He said, “Look at that gorgeous truck”. We see beauty in nature and that’s a good thing, a no brainer. But there’s also beauty in everything around us.

“Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait 1886–1904” Exhibition

Favorite exhibition you curated?
The last big show I did at the IMA was on Neo Impressionist portraiture. We were exhibiting late 19th century French and Belgian works. In Brussels there was this exhibition group called Les Vingt, which means “the 20.” These 20 artists were the notable artists of Belgium at the time—in the same way Monet and van Gogh pushed the envelope in France.

The wife of their impresario, wrote down specifics about every concert performed at their annual exhibition. I was tantalized by the fact we knew exactly what the people at the exhibition were hearing. I worked with the ISO artistic director and with pianist Marianne Tobias, to put together a series of concerts in the gallery. It put chills down my spine to hear this beautiful music and to know that we were communing with those artists in a way. Hearing music while you look at art really unleashes something. It’s catalytic.

Favorite story of a piece of art that you acquired for the museum?
Over the years, I built a relationship with a Swiss collector. I had even exhibited his Pont-Aven collection a couple of times. But when I called him to tell him I might have some funds from Lilly Endowment to acquire artwork from his collection, he was kind of stunned. He called back about a week later and said, “Why don’t you consider my Pont-Aven collection?” And I said, Because I never thought you would part with it.” I was negotiating with someone who felt like a father figure, so I had to tread delicately. And yet, I had to get the best deal for my museum and the endowment’s money.

It all came together, and now that collection is the best of its kind outside Paris. The comprehensiveness of this material—which has three Gauguins and a lot of very rare works— is like nothing else in the country. It was a wonderful fit for Indianapolis because the Pont-Aven people around Paul Gauguin were exact contemporaries of Seurat and his Neo impressionist followers. And you now have those two collections side by side in the IMA galleries.

1886 is a watershed date because that’s when Seurat first exhibited La Grande Jatte and everybody freaked out about it. At that time, Gauguin was still painting like an impressionist which was no longer the cutting edge. He was penniless and miffed and went to Pont-Aven to find inspiration and a place to live. There he developed his own style at the exact same time Seurat was creating his.”

Why is it important to visit the same museum over and over?
You see different things in them at different points of your life which is one of the great rewards of having a home base museum. It’s almost like you own those pieces.

How have the museum and Indianapolis changed since you started working there?
I’ve seen an amazing transformation of the city in the course of my life. And I feel this amazingly strong identification with the IMA. I feel it’s my museum. One of the goals throughout my career here was to try to attain for the museum the attention that I’ve always felt it deserved. I would always want to see the IMA have the chance to make the most distinguished acquisitions and be on the books for some of the most extraordinary exhibitions.

As someone who’s dedicated her life to curating art, how do you feel about the use of the word “curating” and how it’s permeated culture?Yeah, curating brunch, a curated playlist. At first blush, it’s kind of annoying, but then I step back and say, “At least the word is out there!” But yeah, I do sort of smile when I see something on the internet and it says: “Come curate your Sunday brunch.” In the end, it’s probably good. Never say the curators take themselves too seriously because I think it’s such a wonderful vocation. If people used that word as meaning making choices and discriminating in a good way, it’s ok.

I was reading an article that said curators used to be called keepers.
In England, they’re still called keepers.

I also found a definition of curator as “one who has the care of souls”
Oh, that’s wonderful!

What are the attributes of a good curator?
It’s kind of a connoisseurship question. It has to do with taste and discrimination. An eye for quality is fundamental. Having respect for other people’s points of view is important. I would also say curators aren’t ivory tower people. I certainly couldn’t be that way if I wanted to be. As a curator of a public institution, you have to have a desire to share what you know. It can’t be navel contemplations. There needs to be that outreach component.

The desire to share and interpret is part of being a curator. Being a “keeper” doesn’t sound so great because it sounds like you’re holding onto it. It doesn’t imply you’re doing anything with it. The idea of care of souls is sublime — like you’re looking out for that work of art, that human expression but you also want it to interact with other souls, other people.