Towards an Equitable Museum: Michelle Millar Fisher on Curating Critical Conversations

Interview by: Ilana Curtis

Michelle Millar Fisher is rethinking the acquisition and narrative of contemporary art, architecture, and design objects in the museum context. Thanks to Fisher’s work, Creative Commons symbols, the recycling icon, and power symbols are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) and universally recognizable items such as the hoodie, white t-shirt, and burkini have been exhibited in its halls. For Fisher, objects like these that—while unconventional in the museum setting—can send a profound message about the role of the museum and who it speaks to.

Fisher has worked in several major museums, and is nearly finished with her PhD in architectural history. She also happens to be the first person in her family to pursue higher education. At MoMA she delved into the dark side of design with Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli in Design and Violence and collaborated on This is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good, From The Collection, 1960–1969, and Items: Is Fashion Modern. Fisher brings a fresh and positive energy to museum curating with exhibitions that match design with conversations on contemporary social issues; two of her upcoming collaborative shows Designs for Different Futures (with colleagues at the Walker Art Center and the Art institute of Chicago) and Designing Motherhood (with design historian Amber Winick), have already built a loyal following and are sure to break boundaries when they open in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Since 2018, Fisher serves as the Louis C. Madera IV Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Design at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) where she is working to make a more equitable museum experience and change how we view familiar objects. Here, Fisher offers insight on the challenges and opportunities of curating in a large institution, her curatorial role models, and ways to encourage accessibility in the museum.

Fisher with Curatorial Assistant Luke Baker at MoMA with works by firm Superstudio for the 2016 exhibition From The Collection, 1960–1969. Image by Claudio Papapietro, courtesy The Wall Street Journal.

You’ve been at Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) for about a year now. How is your role as a curator in the European Decorative Arts and Design Department different from your previous roles at the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)?

At the Guggenheim I was in the education department, at the Met I was in the Arms and Armor department, and at MoMA I was in the Architecture and Design department. So now here at PMA, the difference is that the span of chronology is much larger. I’m responsible for European Decorative Arts and design transnationally, from 1800 to the present.

My approach might be considered—at least in an encyclopedic museum—non-canonical. I like to start with the contemporary, with an idea, and then work my way back to the object. I’m interested in what (MoMA curator and former boss) Paola Antonelli used to call “humble masterpieces,” which are areas of design that have not been prioritized because decision makers have either been predominantly male or white, or the canons have been the predominant focus of collections rather than thinking about specific issues or ideas. At PMA, I’m finding that colleagues from the top down are really interested in rethinking canons. Understanding how I can support them, even divergently, through the lens of contemporary design, has been—is—a kind of continuing conundrum and focus.

What do you have coming up at PMA?

One of my next co-organized exhibitions, Designs for Different Futures, argues that everybody, as part of the human condition, thinks about the future. The project examines certain historically-specific things, like technologies of our moment, by which we understand or shape our futures. While, in the 19th century, for example, mass production was understood in a very different way than it is today, and human impact on the environment was understood differently, there are also great parallels and connections to be drawn. When you look at an Impressionist painting, you might often spy looming industrialization in the background of the beautiful, pastoral landscape in the foreground, and I think we share many of the same anxieties and concerns now. There are ways to continually make connections between the way that humans have historically understood their place in the world through design or through material culture, and how we understand this today. Though this will be a contemporary-only loan show, one of the joys of being in a collection like this is you can continually marry past and present and bring them into relief with one another.

Your background in education really shines through in your curatorial practice. What feels most pressing to address in your exhibitions and projects?

Access feels really important to me. Accessing higher education is not a given anywhere really, but there are many barriers to it in the US especially; it’s more expensive, it’s much more hierarchical. I have experienced this a lot of times watching people contemplate resumes. Especially in art history, if you haven’t chosen to follow particular pathways in terms of your training, you’re nearly discounted, which seems bizarre and cruel. How is anyone ever meant to advance and explore in a system that is so narrow?

For Designs for Different Futures, my hope is that anyone under the age of twenty-one would be able to come in for free with one accompanying adult. Children and young people really are, quite literally, the future.  And so, I’ve started to ask my colleagues in education and interpretation and our director what it would look like to say that anyone under the age of twenty-one can come in? Then we’d really be having a public discussion about these larger ideas on the future of design, and it’s not just lip service with a ticket threshold in front of it. We’ll see if it works!

Items catalog cover. Courtesy MoMA.

I love how your curatorial practice teeters on the edges of art, architecture, and design. While at MoMA you collaborated with Paola Antonelli on the fashion exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, which wasn’t explicitly about architecture at all. How did your backgrounds in architecture complement each other on this show?

Paola’s trained as an architect and I’m an architectural historian, so I don’t have the practical background she has. It was really wonderful to watch how her training governed her ability to create a space for visitors. She intuitively understands sight-lines and how to make something look wonderful. Paola is not afraid of thinking about aesthetics while thinking about meaning, but she’s not discounting the latter part. I am working with someone else who has this brilliant sensibility just now, curator/architect Maite Borjabad at the Art Institute of Chicago.

My experience in architecture is guided by social histories and my interest in exploring something that people experience on a daily basis that is immediate and political. I’m always really interested in points of access. As before, this goes down to thinking about the price tag of getting into a museum–it’s twenty-five dollars here, the same at MoMA. No matter what kind of wonderful things you’re trying to say about contemporary design or architecture in either place, it immediately falls flat because we exist in a country and society where we don’t guarantee free entry, especially for a ton of people who could really benefit from having access to public collections. Though I shout-out to so many museums and colleagues who do much more work than I do to really try to change this. I’m from Scotland. I was lucky to grow up with free access to public collections.

Items and Design and Violence at MoMA both had outside-the-museum outlets of access through blogs and publications. Do you feel that these types of outlets have helped provide additional exposure outside of the museum?

Accessibility appeared, in a profound way, through public programming for each exhibit. The Design and Violence debates were free and live-streamed. With Items we did the Abecedarium, the A-Z of Fashion, with the great design historian Alexandra Midal, and these were also free and live-streamed. There was a real public interface with designers with interesting practices.

What was so great about Items specifically is the objects were so recognizable–you could look and say, “I’m wearing that!”

Totally. And it makes people look slightly differently if they walk into a museum and see a hoodie or a pair of jeans, or something that they own. What does design then mean if it implicates the visitor directly? And what do museums mean if they have something that you also have in your home?

I Will What I Want at Muca Roma Mexico City in 2018. Courtesy Michelle Millar Fisher.

You’ve worked with major cultural institutions in addition to in smaller galleries, most recently, I Will What I Want, which opened at Parsons’ Aronson Gallery in New York before traveling to muca-Roma in Mexico City. How do you feel about working at big versus small institutions?

It’s nice working with smaller institutions because you can be more nimble, you don’t have to ask for as many permissions as you might have to otherwise, but you do have smaller budgets. The collaboration I did at Parsons and at muca-Roma with (Mexico City-based design curator) Jimena Acosta was good reminder that—while I love and respect it—MoMA is not the be all and end all of the design world, and that—while I adore it—New York is not the be all and end all of the art world. Removing myself from the geography of a space that I operated in for a long time, and also respecting someone’s greater expertise in the geography and cultural space that they exist in felt great. Outside of big or small, it’s nice to just be able to respectfully collaborate cross-culturally.

Who are the curators who inspire you?

Besides Paola, the other person at MoMA I love is, Juliet Kinchen. She is the modern design curator at MoMA and was my teacher at the University of Glasgow. She’s brilliant. She’s curated Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen with Aidan O’Connor and Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye with Luke Baker. Juliet is really a consummate scholar and works in this beautiful cross-disciplinary way, yet makes things accessible.

Nancy Spector at the Guggenheim, who I think is incredibly politically grounded, has also done seminal things from her work with Felix Gonzalez Torres, to the theanyspacewhatever show in 2008. I really admire the way she’s been willing to test out things that are not always guaranteed to succeed. I think that’s a really good, brave approach.

I love this year’s Carnegie International, Ingrid Schaffner and Liz Park did a really successful job of connecting past collections with the present special exhibition. I was really proud to see Alex da Corte’s beautiful work along with several other Philadelphia artists represented. Their artist roster was very thoughtful.

Fisher with Gilbert Baker, creator of the Rainbow Flag, at MoMA in 2015. Courtesy Michelle Millar Fisher.

Tying back to access, what do you hope to see regarding women and minorities in the field?

So much. I’m the first in my family to receive a university education, actually the first to graduate high school so to have access to education in design, architecture, and art history is a huge privilege.

On every intersection this profession needs to change. In the museum, most curators that you talk to will be white women. If it’s the chief curator then it will be a white man. Then, the majority of security officers will be people of color. Class, gender, disability—there are so many interlocking factors that create an immediate divide and hierarchy. Most people in the museum, unintentionally or not, will see this as part of a pyramid. It’s never a horizontal landscape because the power differential is real.

I’d really like to see change in who has the reins of power, and that starts early with the accessibility of entry-level fellowships that provide real mentorship—and are paid! Being honest about it too—you need to have museum directors making these opportunities a priority. For example, when you’re hiring for a coaching leadership position in the NFL, there’s the Rooney Rule and the proposed Mansfield Rule, where you always have at least one person of color or, with Mansfield, a better representative percentage within the final lineup of candidates. Within museum hiring, working towards this should be a no-brainer happening across the board.

Your involvement in MoMA’s acquisition of the rainbow flag in 2015 and then helping organize the PMA’s celebration of the flag’s anniversary is a really wonderful example of taking action. What was the process of acquiring and then putting on display this well known and symbolic object like?

There was a deep collaboration between the public programming team and curatorial members at the PMA for the rainbow flag celebration. My colleagues made the idea ten times better than I ever could have on my own, it was a nice back and forth. I often find, in my world at least, that it’s museum education colleagues who are able to really touch the social connective fabric that bring them to audiences and can make these ideas reality.

Design is a powerful engine for speculating, for different imaginations and visions. Part of what I see today is this culture where you call out problems, sometimes in 280 characters, but there’s not very much constructive discussion or solution offering, and that frustrates me a great deal. With the rainbow flag it wasn’t just about acquiring an object, but actively working with it to be the change you want to see. So as a curator, I’ve learned we can be conduits for ideas, but seeing ourselves at the top of a hierarchy isn’t really conducive to acting on the values that design and designers espouse. For my part, I put a slice of my paycheck towards supporting a diversity internship at our museum.

Fisher at the PMA celebration of the Rainbow Flag in 2018. Photo by Emma Lee, courtesy Michelle Millar Fisher.

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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