Art Professional Spotlight | Visual Arts

Alisa McCusker: The Museum Curator in the Age of Decolonization

Alisa McCusker, UMFA’s new Senior Curator, Curator of European & American Art, gives a tour of selected works from the permanent collection to the UMFA board members (courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts).

Because exhibitions are scheduled months, if not years, in advance, it may be a while before we see the curatorial hand of the Utah Museum of Fine Art’s new senior curator. But, with the goals she has set, Alisa McCusker has plenty to keep herself busy behind the scenes.  

A Minnesota native (she did her undergraduate work at Hamline University, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul), McCusker studied art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve (M.A.) before earning a doctorate degree in art history at the University of Texas, Austin. Focusing on Northern Renaissance Art, she specialized in the portrait drawings of Hans Holbein the Elder. She comes to the UMFA after seven years as curator of American and European art at the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology in Columbia. 

She was attracted to the UMFA position because of the nature of the collection — “[it] is broad but it also has some depth to it with 20,000 objects … areas that are really rich and interesting,” she notes — as well as the job description: “It was very clear that this was a place that was committed to issues of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility,” she says. “And also to doing something about the issue of decolonizing the museum.” In interviews for the position, McCusker says it became clear “[the museum wasn’t] just doing lip service to those ideas and issues.” They were looking for actionable ideas. 

Decolonization is showing up all over the cultural radar. The loudest ping in recent months has been the Benin Bronzes, works outrightly pillaged by the British during what was called the “punitive expedition” in 1897. One British museum recently returned the works in their collection, prompting a vigorous debate on the future of the works, including an article by David From in The Atlantic. For his HBO series Last Week Tonight, John Oliver aired a segment on decolonization and questionable museum practices, focusing on the Bronzes.  In the wake of the Benin debate, Egypt has called for the return of the Rosetta Stone, also in a British collection. Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back. These are not arcane issues relegated to art historians and curators, but intense flashpoints fueled by international politics and broader cultural debates. In the United States, the cultural heritage of Indigenous tribes is at the forefront of this debate.

But don’t expect McCusker to be packing up items in a Fedex box anytime soon. “It’s incredibly complicated,” she notes. “Where do you draw the line? How do you demonstrate [ownership] adequately? Who does the research? Do we set up national boards, state-run boards?” To start, she’ll be getting to know the collection, anticipating a great deal of detailed research, and reaching out to stakeholders. Decolonization is not simply about opening the floodgates, as some might fear. “Even though we’re thinking how important decolonizing is and we really want to address this and think about what that means, what we’re doing is opening it up to conversation … We’re not suddenly saying, ‘Repatriate everything.’”

In the meantime, there’s a museum to run. Most immediately, McCusker is working on the upcoming install of Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, an exhibit sponsored by Art Bridges and co-curated by the Smithsonian Museum of American Art with four museums in the West. It has already shown in Idaho, Washington and Oregon and will fill the UMFA’s downstairs galleries in February.  “It’s a big show with some really big objects,” McCusker says. She’ll also need to arrange a new exhibit for the salt gallery, where Horacio Rodriguez has been exhibiting since the beginning of the year (McCusker recognizes that the salt series’ focus on contemporary art is not her specialty and accepted her position at the UMFA with an understanding that another curator would be hired to fill the role previously played by Whitney Tassie).  

As senior curator, McCusker is responsible for broad visions and is thinking about ways some of the galleries might change. For one, she’s considering opening up the salt gallery for additional uses: maybe works on paper (her speciality) or photographs (one of the collection’s strengths). She’s also reconsidering how to use the galleries devoted to the permanent collection. “One thing that I would like to do is to start integrating the collections more.” Traditionally the works have been presented in an encyclopedic way, based on periodization. “I would like to start working on exhibitions or even more permanent installations that are more thematic and show our shared humanity.” 

Adriaen Isenbrandt (ca. 1481-1551), “The Madonna Nursing the Infant Christ,” ca. 1530-1535, oil on panel (courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts)

One such thematic show could be centered around McCusker’s favorite work (so far) in the museum’s collection. It’s a small — and therefore easily overlooked — piece by Flemish painter Adriaen Isenbrant, currently hanging in the European galleris. McCusker remaks that it has “a kind of quintessential netherlandish landscape,” and beginning, ever so slightly, to geek out, she begins to talk about the possibilities of using technologies to look beneath the paint layers and see how the work was constructed. The image of the Madonna nursing a baby Jesus also has personal resonance for McCusker. “I see things a little bit differently after motherhood,” she says. A Renaissance painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac now can bring her to tears. 

McCusker and her six year old son have found a home in the Marmalade district of Salt Lake City. He’s been excited for the move, and especially the opportunity, as a Texas native, to discover winter sports. And they’ve both enjoyed the opportunity to explore a new landscape. “It’s amazing to live somewhere that’s so beautiful and different,” McCusker says. Whether in the museum’s basement storage areas or hiking in Salt Lake City’s foothills, McCusker says she’s excited to be here. She’ll have plenty to keep her busy and engaged as she navigates the unchartered territory of museum curator in the age of decolonization. 

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  1. It’s so great to have a Senior Curator who shares my enthusiasm for the Northern Renaissance. In addition to the wonderful works of German artists and those of the Low Countries, painters from Venice interacted with them and gave Italy a different perspective from that of Florence and Rome. I’d also like to call attention to the extraordinary Dance Around the Maypole, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. He’s best known for copies he made of his far more famous father’s works, but UMFA has one of his rare original compositions. If fact, time spent in the European and American galleries will disclose a number of treasures. Welcome to Salt Lake, Alisa!

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