Ingrid Schaffner: Sparking International Joy at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Interview by: Ilana Curtis

From film screenings and surprise postcards to in-gallery feasts and art you can take home, the Carnegie International, the second-oldest contemporary art survey in the world, continues to dazzle. Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the 57th International and Pittsburgh native, aims to inspire “museum joy” through the massive curatorial project on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art until March 25, 2019. With decades of experience as a curator, art critic, writer, and educator, Schaffner’s work and interests extend beyond the art world. While Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania, Schaffner lived in a Philadelphia home designed and inhabited by pioneering architect, Anne Griswold Tyng. Architecture holds a strong presence in the International through the works of participating artists including Saba Innab, Jessi Reaves, Postcommodity, and El Anatsui, whose pieces are rooted in spatial practice and draw on both the museum’s and Pittsburgh’s rich architectural history.

Schaffner first took the helm of the Carnegie International in 2015, and from there embarked on a three year international journey, in which she visited over twenty-three countries on five continents researching what it truly means to be “international” today. Over three years later this question is represented at the International through projects by thirty-two artists and one exhibition maker alongside five months of inventive public programming, within the museum and throughout Pittsburgh. Through this year’s 57th International, we might add, “what is museum joy and how do you feel it?” Schaffner explains the importance of this feeling to the International experience, the development of her curatorial framework, and what the legacy of the Carnegie International means for Pittsburgh and the contemporary art world.

Ilana Curtis: As a Pittsburgh native, what was your inspiration for this Carnegie International?

Ingrid Schaffner: The greatest inspiration was the honor of organizing the International. The invitation came from Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky in January 2015 and I responded with a resounding “YES.” And so has the International itself been a key subject, having made Pittsburgh a pilgrimage site for the art world since 1896. That said, the International is less known by the people of Pittsburgh than those in contemporary art. People retain strong, often cherished impressions of specific works: anyone who experienced Doug Aitken’s transformation of the museum façade into an outdoor movie screen has not forgotten the 2008 International.  (Who would forget seeing a mountain lion destroying a pillow in a Western motel room?)

For me, there was also a personal note, because this was my first museum. The Carnegie made me a child citizen of the museum world. My engineer father went to night school at Carnegie Mellon University, so my mother, sister, and I whiled away many a weekend in the art and natural history museums. Fast forward to the present moment and a desire to share my love of this museum and the International’s great capacity to make contemporary art accessible to visitors from many worlds.

Carnegie Museum of Art staff writing 2,018 postcards inviting households across Pittsburgh to the 57th Carnegie International. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

a long table with a variety of people sitting on each side writing postcards in a room with shelves full of books

As part of the marketing and outreach of the International, I am very intrigued by the postcard project you initiated. Prior to the opening, you and your colleagues at the Carnegie Museum of Art signed and mailed 2,018 postcards  to different addresses across Pittsburgh. What was the idea?

How does the International touch down in this city? A list of artists’ names, an exhibition title, even a single work of art doesn’t necessarily convey a sense of local relevance or intrigue. DING! That was the ding of inspiration to commission Pittsburgh-based artist Lenka Clayton to create an iconic image to message the International in Pittsburgh. It was a bit of a confluence—a perfect Pittsburgh word—of Lenka’s daily drawing practice and the idea to commission a local campaign for the exhibition.

Every day, Lenka makes a new drawing using nothing but a typewriter, a sheet of paper, and her own ingenuity at the keys. She’s drawn everything from an intricately decorated Chinese vase to her son’s eyelashes. The latter were represented by, yes, parentheses, “((((((((.” Pittsburgh being a city of bridges—with more even than Venice—we commissioned Lenka to type up one of the magnificent steel structures that span the Iron City’s three rivers. And now that we’re talking about it, I’m thinking of the nice added resonance between Pittsburgh’s industrial past and Lenka’s machine-made drawings. In any case, of the various ones she depicted, we selected the Smithfield Bridge: the longest lenticular bridge in the world, and paired it with our slogan, “Cross a Bridge to the International.”

We produced the souvenir postcards with a message to come and see the art from around the world. Recipients were a cross section of “art lovers” and/or “households with children” from across all zip codes. (The marketing department commissioned the list from a commercial mailing house.) Colleagues from across the museum spent a pleasant afternoon—fueled by Five Points Bakery cookies—personally signing 2,018 postcards for the 2018 International.

Close up of one of the 2,018 invitation with the Smithfield Bridge on the front. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

someone addressing a white postcard with a black and white line drawing of a bridge on the front

In your research for the International, you did quite a bit of travel, and documented the journey with your carefully-selected companions through the The Travelogue Series to open up your process. Did you send any postcards from the road?

Oh yes, I love to send and receive postcards. A trip to a post office and the purchasing of stamps can be an adventure in itself.

I appreciate how you can visit the museum multiple times and continue to learn and have new experiences through the five months that the show is on view. How do all of the different components outside of the gallery spaces—The Travelogue Series, The Guide, FEAST, and the forthcoming catalogue, The Dispatch, to name a few—enhance the experience and reach of the International?

The International is so much more than an exhibition! It’s public programs, publications, research, in short: a curatorial project. A challenge to myself has been to make this process part of the overall content so that the work of the curator—the craft—is both more transparent and integral to the visitor’s understanding of the contemporary. The general notion that a curator is someone who just “picks stuff” is pretty deficient when it comes to building culture. And now that you mention it, I see how the messaging was also integral to the content. Instead of an applied message, the postcard mailing really emanated from within the curatorial project. People recieved a little piece of the International concept.

And thanks to Lenka Clayton and fellow Pittsburgh-based artist Jon Rubin, at the museum there is actually opportunity to take a work of art home! People leave the museum everyday with unique works on paper, that must now be on view in homes throughout the city, and world.

In the International, Lenka is not represented by her individual typewriter drawing practice, but by a collaboration with the artist Jon Rubin. They created what is certainly one of the most beloved works in the exhibition. Fruit and Other Things transforms a gallery into a working studio/factory, where pairs of painters are at work daily. The paintings are the titles of art works that were rejected from past Internationals. Starting with the first International in 1896 and ending in 1931, when the process of organizing the exhibition changed, there are 10,632 recorded rejected titles to be transformed over the course of this International.  After a brief period of display on the gallery walls, they become available for visitors to take home. It was part of Jon’s vision of the piece, seeing people leave the museum with a work of art boldly tucked under their arm, as if having just taken it off the wall!

Installation view. Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin, 2018, 57th Carnegie International. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

white frames with individual words are on all the walls of a sparse gray room - in the center are two people at a table writing

Curatorially speaking, I wanted the museum’s lobby gallery—which is one of the first spaces visitors enter—to be an active experience. I also knew I wanted to work with Lenka and Jon, who are internationally renowned for their work in the field of social practice. Also, being based here in Pittsburgh, they bring a special sense of people and place to this site-specific project. An online component of the work allows visitors cum collectors to share pictures of their new acquisitions installed at home. Visit                                                                                             

So, the project puts a huge number of rejected artworks into circulation? That’s pretty special.

Yes! Circulation, that’s a nice way of thinking about the postcard mailing, too. In part, my work as the curator is to create different points of access—whether by way of curiosity, beauty, urgency, or relevance. Integral to every exhibition is the question of how to connect with visitors, potential visitors, peers, and publics. For a curator, Pittsburgh is a world of publics, with its many distinctive neighborhoods, shaped by hills and rivers, and legends of those who have never left their zip code, never crossed a bridge.

The neighborhoods here are integral to the city and the people. In your curatorial process you describe taking artists on “first dates” around the city to introduce them to Pittsburgh. Did you curate the city, in a sense, differently for each of the visitors?

Many artists came to Pittsburgh with an understanding of the city’s history of labor and industry and arrived interested in experiencing some elemental aspect of that history. We often went to Carrie Furnace, which stands as a historical site and ruin. Then we would go to nearby Braddock to see the first Carnegie Library and visit with our friends, Transformazium, who participated in the 2013 International, to learn about the amazing social practice work they’re doing with and through the library and local community. With the artist Zoe Leonard, who was interested in the rivers, we went for a ride on the Duquesne Incline to see the incredible view of the three rivers. Postcommodity’s interest in Pittsburgh’s jazz history prompted a trip to the Hill District; we were accompanied by an ethnomusicologist who guided us to the sites of the clubs where the music was made. We took Kevin Jerome Everson, whose film in a factory graces the Grand Staircase, to see the politically charged Maxo Vanka Murals in St. Nicholas Catholic Church.

Again, curatorially speaking, these field trips effectively grounded participants in Pittsburgh as one of the contexts for the International. In The Guide publication, associate curator Liz Park details these attractions as we explored them with artists.

Ingrid Schaffer (center) with Associate Curator Liz Park (right) and Curatorial Assistant Ashley McNelis (left). © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

Liz Park with short red hair, sitting in a blue dress, Ingrid standing center in a gray blazer, and Ashley McNelis standing in a black cardigan - all in front of a pale blue tiled art piece

Tell me more about the International publications.

The Guide is the first of two publications we are producing. It came out shortly before the exhibition opened to literally guide visitors to and through the International. With essays on each of the artists, sections on the lore and history of the International, amongst other features, I call The Guide the “Mighty Mouse” for packing a world of information into a very small volume! Modeled on a 19th century travel guide, it’s also conceptually apiece with the postcard mailing.

The second publication is The Dispatch, which will document the exhibition with beautiful installation photographs, and a series of commissioned essays. It is at the printer as we speak and will be available in the bookstore by mid-February. On the International’s website is a piece by Prem Krishnamurthy about the overall design of the International. Prem was part of what I dubbed the “Creative Team” of talented colleagues with whom I consulted to create design and editorial through-lines for every component of the International, from website to wall text, from publications to signage. The design has evolved over three phases, conceptually linked to bridge design, which brings us back to the signifying postcard once again!

What do you hope that visitors take away from the International?

Museum joy! That is the pleasure of being with other art and other people, doing the creative work of interpretation, inside a museum. I’ve spent a lifetime inside museums and they give me great joy. As does this International, which continues to unfold through a dynamic slate of public programs: there are daily activations in the galleries (including Vietnamese coffee every morning and jazz improvisation on most days), a series of Cinematheque film screenings, FEASTs prepared by local chefs, artist lectures, and creative drawing sessions to keep us all crossing and recrossing those bridges to the International.

El Anatsui,Three Angles, 2018, 57th Carnegie International. Photo: Bryan Conley. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

exterior of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh - the façade is covered with a collage of maps, an partially reflective mirrors

Featured image: Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the 57th Carnegie International in front of Sarah Crowner’s Wall (Wavy Arrow Terracotta), 2018. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

About the author:

Ilana Curtis (b.Boston, MA) holds a BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and will be pursing her Masters of Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in fall 2021. She is driven by design projects that connect community, people, and place, an interested fostered during her tenure at PLP.

Find Ilana on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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