Curator Interview: Saint Louis Art Museum American Art Curator Melissa Wolfe

By Margie Fuchs

How do you become an expert in American art? For Melissa Wolfe, it’s all about questions. While at the Columbus Museum of Art, Wolfe questioned assumptions of value and beauty by acquiring the Philip and Suzanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art for the Museum. “This young, bold curator saw the importance of the collection as a whole and the value of keeping it together,” gallery founder Jonathan Boos says. “Fast forward in time, and Melissa was so right!”

Now the curator of American Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), Wolfe views inquiry as a fundamental feature in presenting a diverse collection within an encyclopedic museum. Known for its comprehensive collection of works spanning over 5,000 years from all corners of the globe, SLAM also possesses an impressive wealth of artworks by local and national artists. In overseeing the re-installation of the Museum’s American galleries, Wolfe worked to ignite new conversations about American art and its relationship to works from around the world.

Ahead of The ADAA Art Show, for which Wolfe wrote the gallery’s catalogue essay on Psychological Realism, we spoke with the curator about her background, expertise and the importance of dialogue in 21st century arts institutions.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you come to study art history?

My background is not one from which you would expect people to go into art history. I grew up in a very, very small town in Nebraska and although I went to an honors art school every summer in high school for studio art, I’d never really been to a museum before college. I went to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri on an academic scholarship and was initially a piano performance major. At the time, I didn’t know that art history existed as a field – or potential profession! – but I took a lot of humanities courses. In one of them, a professor showed one of those old faded reproductions of Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and said that it was the first truly ‘modern’ painting. To me, the painting was so ugly that it just didn’t make sense, but trying to figure out why it didn’t make sense to me got me hooked! So, I guess I started my study of art history as a skeptic full of questions. It all came from being curious and having something put in front of me that I didn’t understand. When I was teaching at The Ohio State University, I would tell my students that it’s all about questions, and whenever that odd what’s up with that moment happened was the point where the inquiry for scholarship begins.

Years after that humanities class, I went to see the Cézanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I’m pretty sure that time I got it!

So, I had started moving into the humanities in college. It was taking an independent study at the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archeology that really cemented my move to the museum world.

Aside from Cézanne’s "Mont Sainte-Victoire," what other artworks had a significant impact on you early on?

I want to give a shout out to my mom who sent me to Europe in high school. This was back when you could stand close to Michelangelo’s Pietà and see every detail of the folds in Mary and Christ’s robes. I was dumbstruck by how beautiful it was. I knew nature as being beautiful from the sunsets back home in Nebraska, but I couldn’t figure out why this sculpture captivated me the way it did and how something created could be so beautiful.

American Galleries Reinstallation, Saint Louis Art Museum.
American Galleries Reinstallation, Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.

After receiving your PhD in Art History from The Ohio State University, what inspired you to pursue curatorial work?

I started out working in museums before I knew that I wanted to be an art historian. I loved the public element and engaging with visitors from around the world, as well as being close to these objects and artifacts. I also loved teaching. At Ohio State, I taught quite a bit while developing my curatorial skills. After I had kids, I felt I had to decide between curating, writing, and teaching because I couldn’t do them all and be a mom too. It pained me to give up teaching, but I couldn’t give up working directly with artworks. That was just too central to the kinds of questions that I find fascinating.

To me, curators are public art historians. It’s that connection between something that’s very real to me – an object, artwork – and people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m an expert in my field, but I’m not an expert for what someone else brings to this. I love where the two meet.

What sparked your interest in American art?

This question always brings to my mind the proverb “pride comes before the fall.” One of the professors from my high school arts program would ask the seniors what they were going to study in college. One of the seniors said art history, which I had never heard of, and I remember thinking well that’s because he didn’t draw as well as the rest of us. I went on to work at the Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Missouri and would tease one of the Americanist graduate students about how provincial I thought paintings by American artists like Thomas Cole looked. This is funny, and quite appropriate to the proverb, because now, years later, I’m not only an art historian but an Americanist as well.

I didn’t know much about American art before applying to graduate school. When I was filling out my applications, I kept thinking about this group of Native American portraits by Elbridge Burbank at the Butler Institute of American Art, where I was working at the time. I was completely fascinated by these works. I started school at The Ohio State University and was thinking of either specializing in American or Northern Renaissance art. I ended up writing my master’s thesis on the portraits and working with a wonderful Americanist professor.

American Galleries Reinstallation, Saint Louis Art Museum.
American Galleries Reinstallation, Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.

What are your top two favorite collections of American art?

Off the bat: the Columbus Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, but that’s because I learned how to become a curator at Columbus and am continuing that work at SLAM. You learn so much from and become so attached to objects when you work directly with them. At Columbus, I loved having the work of George Bellows at my fingertips. I felt really strongly about acquiring the Schiller collection, even though there was some pushback because the works aren’t conventionally pretty or canonical, and it was very expensive. One of the most satisfying things about that acquisition though was the complete, institution-wide buy-in to acquire it — it was a shared belief in its importance.

I also love going to Boston and Philadelphia because their institutions give a sense of how rich American art is, from the founding of the United States until now. The acquisitions and the way in which Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has been challenging the conventionality of the field of American art is also really powerful to me.

As the Curator of American Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, you managed an extensive reinterpretation of the museum’s American art galleries, which opened in 2016. What drove the institution to reinterpret its permanent collection?

In 2013, SLAM underwent a major renovation and added on the east building [designed by David Chipperfield]. Before that, there were about two and a half galleries dedicated to American art; now we have about 12! I joined the Museum right after the addition and had a year and a half to re-install the American art collection. As a curator, there is nothing better than taking a fresh eye to a fresh collection and having a clean slate about how and where it could be installed.

But first, I needed to learn about the collection. I spent hours in the Museum’s basement viewing works. I pulled different pieces out of storage in order to shift them around each other so that I could find different perspectives and shared dialogues I hadn’t thought of. Twenty percent of the works that I ended up including in the final installation hadn’t been displayed for over a decade – some since the 1980s. I found amazing Works Progress Administration paintings by Charles White and Allan Crite, as well as great folk art by local Missouri artists. I wanted to bring as many of these pieces to light as possible because, when placed next to the better-known ones, they brought a host of new questions with them. I strongly believe that when pieces fit into a dialogue, they not only look better, but they can more readily bring a viewer into their conversation.

In displaying the collection, I wanted to provide a chronological view of American art, with each gallery also revolving around a specific theme. These themes were pulled from my time in storage with the objects. Although the American department consists of painting and sculptures, I also added other media types, including photographs, works on paper and textiles, into rotation throughout the galleries to provide a more holistic picture.

American Galleries Reinstallation, Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.

SLAM’s collection spans over 5,000 years of history and culture. What perspective does American art add to this?

I think American art adds a local perspective within the global context of the Museum. One of the things I like about SLAM’s galleries is that American works are located so close to pieces from around the world, rather than being siloed like they would be at a larger, more expansive institution. You can easily move between American and Native American, New Media, and Egyptian art and get a sense of the global evolution of artmaking.

Although American art is often dropped off of the must-see list at museums, I think that people are often surprised about how historical American art can say something so pertinent to our contemporary experience, fears, anxieties, joys, and even world events.

You wrote the essay on "Psychological Realism" for The Art Show. How do you define ‘psychological realism’ and how does this vary from other branches of realism, including magical realism?

I think we have two realities – the lived physical and lived psychological reality – and both of these are just as important to how we understand our experiences. Psychological realism uses realistic techniques to deal with an inner life of anxiety and unrest. The power of psychological realism is that its content is timeless. The works that I addressed in the essay, which were done in primarily from the 1930s through the 50s, have a powerful and complicated emotional content that can still speak to us today.

An African American family gathering around the table for breakfast on Sunday morning.
Horace Pippin, American, 1888–1946. Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943. Oil on fabric. 16 × 20 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Funds, Friends Fund; and Bequest of Marie Setz Hertslet, Museum Purchase, Eliza McMillan Trust, and Gift of Mrs. Carll Tucker, by exchange 164:2015.

Tell us about your approach to acquisitions.

One question I ask myself is how do the acquisitions I bring into the collection not just add a voice, but work to change the narrative in my museum? While it’s very important, I’m not a big fan of trying to fill a collection with big names and works by marginalized voices, because I think that is a very conservative move. You’re abiding by the existing art-historical canon and simply forcing other voices to fit in it. I would hope that at this point, what we want to do – and certainly what I want to do – is to think about how to make a systemic change to this canon with our acquisitions. Am I just fiddling a bit with the narrative that excluded these artists in the first place? Or, am I genuinely asking the questions and forming the narratives that make the work of marginalized artists and art forms not just add-ons but central players? Artistic sophistication is artistic sophistication, so we need a canon that embraces complexity and contradiction rather than flattening it. And, as curators, we need to create museum experiences for the public that do the same.

I do not think a museum is a place for an art history lecture. That is an old and outdated way to shape the experience of an actual object and the power that object has to say something to every person. In thinking about the SLAM installation, I considered what works I had available and what questions they could answer exceptionally well. Then I think about what new works would enlarge this conversation and make these dialogues smarter—and those are the works I look to acquire. It’s like creating a dinner party. Who are you going to invite to have the best discussion possible? I want people to walk into a gallery and go what’s going on over there? and then join the conversation.

Could you provide an example of an acquisition at SLAM?

Six months into my role at SLAM I purchased a work by Horace Pippin, in part to add another African-American voice to the Museum to better reflect St. Louis’s large and dynamic African-American population. When I saw the Pippin, I saw how it could draw the modern and folk art pieces in our collection into an interesting visual relationship that had been hard to realize before. We also bought a Benjamin West history painting, which gives an important context to three of the most iconic paintings in our collection, George Caleb Bingham’s Election Series. The West gives a voice to the Series’ ambitions to move its everyday genre subject into the elevated realm of history painting. If we didn’t have the series, it probably wouldn’t have been as imperative to me to acquire the West.

A mahogany sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett of a woman seated.
Elizabeth Catlett, American, 1915–2012. Seated Woman, 1962. Mahogany. 22 1/2 × 13 1/2 × 7 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund Endowment; Gift of Edward J. Costigan in memory of his wife, Sara Guth Costigan, by exchange; The James D. Burke Art Acquisition Fund, Eliza McMillan Trust, Funds given by the Alturas Foundation, and Museum Purchase 75:2019; © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Jonathan Boos helped us with our most recent American acquisition, an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that just does so much great work in the galleries. It creates a dialogue that reaches back to our Zenobia in Chains by Harriet Hosmer, across to our carved wooden Cat by Alexander Calder, and out to our African and pre-Hispanic collections. Maybe because it’s the newest, but it’s also a work that I could just sit in front of for the entire afternoon.

Cover image: Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art, Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Saint Louis Art Museum.