Curtis L. Carter was the founding director of the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. He is a professor of aesthetics at Marquette and an arts consultant. Curtis has written widely about dance and its intersection with the visual arts. He has written about “Invented Worlds: the Photographs of Waswo X. Waswo.” I first became interested in Curtis’ work after reading his introduction to “Faces of Modern Dance: Barbara Morgan,” which he curated for the Haggerty Museum.
Curtis also has curated “Romanticism and Cynicism in Contemporary Art” (“a coda to the East Village art movement of the 1980s”), “Keith Haring: Artist of the People” in Milan, Italy, “Hockey Seen” and “Jean Fautrier.” He is currently working to curate “Wifredo Lam in North American Collections,” which opens in Milwaukee in October; the exhibition will also travel to Miami, Long Beach and Saint Petersberg.
Wayne: Can you talk about what spurred your interest in visual arts and dance? What is it about the combination of the two that appeals to you? Which artists have most inspired you?
Curtis: My interest in visual arts began through visiting museums in New York, Chicago and eventually across the world. Although I am a strongly verbal person, the visual languages of photography, painting, especially video have always seemed essential means of understanding the world. They are “ways of world making” that expand the mind in ways that extend beyond the domains of word and text.
As for dance, it has been an important part of my being from childhood on. I enjoy dancing and this interest eventually led me to pay attention to dance as a form of art. This interest began with ballet, but as soon as I saw modern dance the interest expanded immediately to embrace the works of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and many other variations. The conceptual elements of post-modern dancers such as Meredith Monk, Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch were compelling in a different sense. Their incorporation of theater, concept, and movement with a social edge was especially attractive to my philosophical interests.
A more serious interest in writing about dance occurred when I saw the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage around 1970. This prompted me to be curious about how to write about dance. I knew how to write criticism for theater and film and visual arts, but was baffled by dance. Nevertheless, I wrote some reviews. A chance meeting with dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado in 1971 at the American Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting led to the opportunity to receive a Critic’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I asked Cohen, who was the leading authority on dance criticism, aesthetics, and history how one goes about writing on dance. She replied by asking if I had ever written about dance. I sent her my reviews and she asked me to join her Dance Critic’s Fellowship group at Connecticut College that summer. The Workshop took place at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival where the major modern and contemporary dance groups of the time performed. Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin, Jose Limon, and others. The resident critics included Marcia Segal, Deborah Jowitt, Clive Barnes, and others. We wrote and discussed each others’ works and attended classes in criticism, movement, dance history with Cohen, effort shape, and had sessions with the choreographers. Once, while having lunch with Anna Halprin she invited me to sit on the stage during her group’s performance of a wild piece called “Animal Ritual.” I accepted and sat amidst the ritual dance which included nude dancers and wrote the weekly review for the New London newspaper. The other critics in the group declined to join me, but were envious of the experience. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal from the experience.
The Belgian artist Jan Fabre, who works in performance, contemporary theater pieces and the visual arts provided an important bridge for me between dance and visual arts. I met Fabre in Ghent, Belgium at a conference on “Art in Culture” in 1980. At the time Fabre was doing visual arts in various media, solo performace works in the anti-art mode of Marcel Duchamp. He moved on to theater pieces including dance and theater with an edge. His choreography was decidedly anti-choreography, but had a compelling force. His ability to move with great originality and aesthetic power across the various media made me see better the connections between the various art forms and helped form a link between the visual arts and dance.
My meeting with Barbara Morgan in the mid 1980s occurred at the retirement party of New York Times dance critic John Martin. Martha Graham, Morgan, and most of the luminaries of the dance world were present. Morgan was more interested in talking philosophy than the ceremonies. She invited me to join her the next day at her studio in Scarsdale. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until her death. Morgan was a close friend of Martha Graham based in part on their mutual appreciation of the culture and the land of the South West Native Americans. They shared an aesthetic that allowed them to transfer the energies of bodily movement emerging from actual bodies transformed by Graham’s choreography into the visual images of Morgan’s photography.
Wayne: How did you come to curatorial work, and how did you first become involved with the Haggerty Museum?
Curtis: The Haggerty Museum began as an idea in my head. I was the initiator of the museum from the planning stages in the late 1970s and participated in funding and planning efforts leading to its opening in 1984. I served as Founding Director and Chief Curator from 1984 to 2007. I have always believed that the arts have a central role in education. It seemed to me that a university education ought to include access on the campus to visual experiences made possible through the development of a permanent collection and a challenging exhibition program bringing contemporary arts as well as older art forms to inform the students and the community of the many riches available through art. The museum thus served as a base not only for visual arts but brought performance art, dance, music, and theater performances to the campus. The format was widely encompassing and included many international artists as well as artists reflecting cultural differences. One of the themes that interested me was the role of art in social change. A forum bringing together community leaders in the arts with public officials, corporate leaders became a regular part of the museum’s annual program.
Curating appeals to me as a creative experience that draws upon such a wide range of conceptual and visual skills. A visual exhibition, like a book, is a vehicle for ideas. If accompanied by a catalogue, it has the potential to affect both visual and verbal audiences. Curating is especially appealing because it encompasses such a wide range of skills: research, writing, design—including organization of the works, color choices, lighting, diplomacy in negotiating for loans, communication with the press, and even fund raising, because it is likely to be read by a much broader range of people than an academic text. It has the potential to communicate on many levels. All of these present interesting challenges.