A Q&A With Anne Wilkes Tucker
Not too long ago the photography collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was nonexistent. But thanks to curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, it is now considered one of America's best. Here, she discusses her career, photography and being a woman in the field.
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texasmonthly.com: When did you first become interested in photography? What attracted you to the art form?
Anne Wilkes Tucker: I wanted to join the newspaper at college (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) and the only position available was photographer. The next two years I was the yearbook photographer. I was an art history major and wrote my senior thesis on Alfred Stieglitz. I continued to study photography because (and this is still true) what we don’t know about the history of photography is still greater than what we know. This makes researching the history challenging and fun.
texasmonthly.com: How did you become the curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston?
AWT: I received my masters from SUNY Buffalo, studying with Nathan Lyons and Beaumont Newhall. My mother had remarried and moved to Houston years before. Then my husband got a job in Houston. The day my mother found out we were moving to Houston, Beaumont was giving a lecture at the museum. Mother told him I was moving here and he turned to the director, Bill Agee and said, “You said you wanted a photography curator. One of my students is moving here.” The museum had just gotten a grant from Target stores to purchase photographs. They hired me part-time to do that, and I have stayed for 26 years.
texasmonthly.com: What exactly does your job entail?
AWT: Acquire, exhibit, publish, educate, conserve. Those are the duties of a curator. I recommend acquisitions to the museum trustees and often raise the money for approved acquisitions. I prepare exhibitions and catalogues both from works in the collection and for objects borrowed for specific shows. Some of these shows take hours to prepare and others take years, even a decade. Exhibitions range from small surveys organized by media (collage, color), genre (still life, portrait, landscape) or period (between the wars, contemporary), to single artist retrospectives. I have also organized a few large historical surveys such as the one opening in March: The History of Japanese Photography. I’ve also published two dozen catalogues. Additionally, I work with the education department to prepare wall texts, lectures, and others publications and programs that inform the public about the works in the collection and on display.
texasmonthly.com: The photography collection you have helped put together is ranked among the best in the country. How would you characterize it?
AWT: The collection began with a concentration on American works, primarily post WWII. Then we began to collect European pieces, especially those made between the two wars. I used to joke that when we started, one could throw a dart at Newhall’s history and wherever it landed we needed that photograph or a photograph by that photographer. Slowly, we acquired great photographs by great photographers, and we also began to acquire the work of certain photographers in depth. Now we also have works by photographers from Africa, Latin America, Australia, and Asia. We have also begun to acquire select 19th century works. Then last year, we committed to purchase the Manfred Heiting collection of 4,100 photographs from 35 countries made between the years 1840 and 2000. Added to the 16,000 photographs that we already owned, it placed us in the top ranks of museum photography collections worldwide.
texasmonthly.com: What do you look for in a photograph?
AWT: I ask myself what does the photographer want me to think? What does he/she want me to feel? Have they chosen the best craft to express themselves, i.e. should it have been in color, not black and white, should the print have been larger or smaller? What do I learn, what do I remember? It is important to me that I remember a picture days and weeks after having first seen it.
texasmonthly.com: How has Houston’s collection changed over the years?
AWT: The collection has changed as the medium has changed. As more photographers choose to work in color, we acquired more color. When photographers began to prefer digital negatives and ink jet prints, we began to collect those. The photographers lead the field. We try to respond to the most compelling new works.
texasmonthly.com: What was your greatest coup? What pieces are you most proud to have in your collection?
AWT: The first “coup” was acquiring a complete set of Robert Frank’s photographs The Americans. We had been working closely with Target stores to purchase photographs with their support. When a set of the 84 photographs in The Americans came on the market, Target and others helped us acquire them. This acquisition set our collecting policy of acquiring the work of certain photographers in great depth. It also began a close relationship with Robert Frank that continues in the present. A retrospective of his work from our collection will be shown at the Austin Museum of Art in March. Frank recently gave to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a collection of photographs that other photographers had given to him.
texasmonthly.com: What projects are you currently working on?
AWT: On March 2, the exhibition The History of Japanese Photography opens with a 380-page book published by Yale University Press. It is the first survey of this subject in a Western language. I am also preparing a number of exhibitions from the Heiting collection that we recently acquired. Selections of photographs made of New York City are on display now. Then simultaneous with The History of Japanese Photography, we will show photographs in the Heiting collection by Japanese photographers.
texasmonthly.com: Time magazine named you America’s Best Curator. What do you think makes you the best?
AWT: Best is an odd designation in the arts. I have many peers who could just as easily been named. I think one of the factors that gave me an edge was that most of the others were hired where collections were already well established whereas I founded the department in Houston. Time also recognized that I have curated many books and published many books and articles as well as built a collection.
texasmonthly.com: How has being a woman affected your career? Have you experienced discrimination or obstacles on your climb to success?
AWT: Being a woman was more of a factor in the early years. Sometimes, it felt as if it would have been easier to negotiate contracts or perhaps to raise money if I had been a man. It was sometimes hard to know what discriminations were at play. When I was in New York, I sometimes felt that being from the South caused more people to disregard me than being a woman.
texasmonthly.com: Is there a strong female presence in the field of photography?
AWT: Because becoming a photographer did not require entrance to an academy, one only had to read the manual that came with the camera, there have been women photographers since photography’s beginning. Their work has not always been appreciated. When I wrote The Woman’s Eye in 1973, very few women photographers were accepted in the elite of the field. That is no longer true. Photography has also had many important women as photo historians and curators. Nancy Newhall, Alison Gernsheim, Giselle Freund, and Grace Mayer were some of the important early women historians. I knew Nancy Newhall and Grace Mayer and admired both very much.
texasmonthly.com: What advice do you have for young women hoping to achieve great things?
AWT: Don’t limit yourself too early. Get a wide range of experience in your chosen field. If you are invited to do something that might seem “below your perceived rank” but that would open up a new realm of experience, go for it. As Flip Wilson used to say, “Just do it, honey. Just do it.” It’s the doing that’s important and the pride you take in the doing.