In advance of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s traveling exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land, coming home to roost this month, a new director of curatorial affairs, Cody Hartley, has arrived. Hartley, recently the director of the Gifts of Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, brings to the O’Keeffe his expertise in working with collectors and curators to identify and pursue additions to a museum’s collection. Hartley arrived at the MFA while the museum was building its ambitious Art of the Americas wing, a project that was completed in 2010 and includes 53 galleries spanning several floors. He was instrumental in bringing significant works to the museum, including collections of West African art, modernism, photography, and African American art. The MFA boasts one of the finest Asian art collections in the world as well as large holdings of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art from antiquity and extensive collections of textiles, photographs, paintings, prints, furniture, and decorative arts.
Hartley spoke with Pasatiempo from Boston. He began his position at the O’Keeffe Museum on April 29.
Pasatiempo: How closely were you involved in developing the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing?
Cody Hartley: I was brought here toward the tail end of construction and worked with the entire team of curators in the Art of the Americas department to plan the installation of those spaces, and once the site was turned over to us, worked to get those artworks into the galleries. It was an amazing project covering everything from the ancient Americas, Mesoamerica, up through the 20th century and even some 21st-century artworks. We combined paintings, works on paper, sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts throughout our galleries. We dispensed with the notion of a paintings gallery and instead went for period, context, and detail.
Pasa: Was the MFA working solely with existing collections then in storage or did the new wing necessitate gathering new acquisitions?
Hartley: Over the course of the campaign to raise the funds to build it, there was an aggressive effort to build upon the collection, the MFA already having one of the finest American art collections in the country. Being in Boston certainly helped. Native sons like John Singleton Copley and Paul Revere did us well, but there’s always room for improvement, so we pushed really hard as we began to understand what our gallery spaces would look like. We thought about where there might be gaps and weaknesses in the collection and worked really hard to fill those.
Pasa: How might your experience with the Gifts of Art program at the MFA be of use in a museum like the Georgia O’Keeffe, which has a much smaller footprint?
Hartley: There are other O’Keeffes out there, and there’s work related to O’Keeffe out there in her period of American modernism. I expect that we’ll be working hard to reach out to collectors and make the case that the O’Keeffe Museum is really the national repository for her work. I want people to think of it as the best place possible to care for, share, and interpret her work. I will certainly be employing the Gifts of Art model developed at the MFA to be very active in pursuing great additions to the collection.
Pasa: So the focus won’t just be on artworks made by O’Keeffe — it will be somewhat broader than that because of her legacy?
Hartley: Yes. Works that respond to her own, that are from her time and context, that help us better understand the milieu she was working in, the artists she was in conversation with, and that she was responding to. American modernism is an amazing time in art history, and she’s such a pivotal figure in that moment. It’s great to have her as a compass and explore from that point into the broader circle.
Pasa: Despite being at an East Coast museum, you’ve been drawn to the Southwest at various times in your career.
Hartley: I think you know how Santa Fe and the Southwest tend to get into people’s systems, and they keep coming back to it one way or another. Generations of my family have spent time in the region, and it’s been significant to them in different ways. After hearing stories about Santa Fe from my grandparents, I started making annual trips there when I was in college and eventually went on to write my master’s thesis on a topic related to Robert Henri, the American realist painter, and the portraits he painted in Santa Fe. Beyond that, I wrote my dissertation on the Museum of New Mexico and its emergence at the beginning of the 20th century. I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand what made Santa Fe so unique and how that community used the arts and museums to really establish itself and make itself a cultural destination well before anyone was talking about creative commerce.
Pasa: Did you see Santa Fe as significant in the greater context of 20th-century art?
Hartley: I went to school on the West Coast, and there was always a sense that American art happened on the East Coast. It was all centered on New York. I started looking at Santa Fe and realized that everyone passed through it. It just seemed like every artist of any note spent at least a summer in Santa Fe or stopped there on their way to see Mabel Dodge Luhan up in Taos. But they all wrote about it and created works there and were inspired by it. By all rights, it was not an easy place to get to.
Pasa: In your new position, will you be curating your own shows? What direction might they take?
Hartley: I’ll be looking forward to developing my own projects, and moreover, I’m looking forward to facilitating projects from a whole range of scholars. I love the notion of the museum being a place for multiple voices to be heard. And O’Keeffe is so iconic. No one owns O’Keeffe. She wouldn’t have had it that way. There are lots of ways to understand and interpret her story and her legacy. I want to help the O’Keeffe Museum become a force in facilitating great projects that help us renew and understand what her art meant in its own time and what it continues to mean. She’s still got legions of fans, and artists continue to respond to her work. I’ve always been fascinated because it’s as if she had multiple lives. There’s the young Georgia, the Georgia in New York, the Georgia that discovers the Southwest, the Georgia that makes Abiquiú her own, and her life beyond that.
Pasa: What kinds of challenges do you face in narrowing your focus from the encyclopedic scope of the MFA to the O’Keeffe’s obviously less-expansive concerns?
Hartley: You don’t want to get into a pattern. There are only so many Georgia O’Keeffe works in the world. Even if every one of them is shown, that’s not enough to sustain you, so that’s where it requires creativity and originality. Working in a place like the MFA, where you have a vast collection, it seems like anything is possible, and the challenge is to focus in on one coherent thread. Working in a museum like the O’Keeffe, you have these very natural parameters to work with. You can almost draw a parallel to poetry, where you have a very tight structure, but within that you have enormous potential for creativity. I think there are an unlimited number of possibilities ahead for thought-provoking, original shows. ◀