Words and Photos by Kayla Renie
I walk through the entrance of the Georgia Museum of Art, my heels click, click, clicking against the floor. The evening sun streams in through the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows and bathes the room in soft glow. The museum’s latest show, the Brooklyn Bridge exhibit, has not yet opened to the public, and for a moment, all is still and quiet.
Catherine Huff, the museum’s art curator intern, greets me warmly and ushers me into a side office where we sit on a velvety couch and conduct the interview.
An Indiana native, Huff transferred from Indiana University last year to complete her undergrad here at the University of Georgia. She is currently a senior studying art history and romance languages.
What brought you to UGA—what was it about Athens or maybe the art school here that attracted you to come to Georgia?
I was originally at IU for the first two years of my college career. Indiana is where my family’s from, but as soon as I started my undergrad at IU, my parents moved to Atlanta for my dad’s job. Those first two years were hard. I loved IU, but I wanted to be close to my family and getting the HOPE scholarship was an added bonus. I looked into the art school here at UGA, was really impressed and became sold on coming here. I didn’t really know anything about Athens, but now I love this city. It really fosters a creative atmosphere, which is something I really like. I never expected to come to such a cool place. I’m happy.
What initially sparked your interest in art?
I’ve always loved art, even from a young age. According to my parents, I was like four or five and they would take me to museums, like the Smithsonian, and other kids would kind of be running all over the place, but I would just look at paintings and be completely enamored by them. I think it’s just part of my personality; I’ve always liked things that are aesthetically pleasing, and I really like the elegance art has to offer. When I first started college and was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I never thought about art history as something I could study because, you know, people are like, ‘There are no jobs in this field; you won’t make any money.’ Art history is honestly like a joke to a lot of people, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just decided to go for it. I love museums. I love pretty things and I like writing and history and research, so art history—here we go! And it’s worked well ever since.
Describe your role at the Georgia Museum of Art and how you got involved in helping create the Brooklyn Bridge exhibit.
I am a research assistant to Sarah Kate Gillespie; she is the curator for American art. I started here as an intern last year. She offered me an opportunity to curate a side exhibition to her Brooklyn Bridge exhibit, which is very unusual because most curators would not let an intern do that. I was really lucky though – she is all about helping her interns learn and experience things for themselves. Overall, this has been a really big, fun learning process because this is something I want to do in the future. Even though my show is only fifteen works, it’s still a really big deal to me because this is my first show with my name on it.
What were some of your responsibilities? What does your job all entail?
First, I don’t think people realize how work-intensive the process is, to actually put together an exhibition starting by just trying to find a theme. I deviated a little from my boss’s work in the sense that none of my works include the bridge but are of the actual city, such as the skyline or Manhattan. Then you have to think about the medium: sculpture, painting, photography, etc. I decided to go with works on paper because the Georgia Museum of Art is lucky to have ample supply due to the fact that they are easy to store and many people donate pieces.
There were thousands of works. I spent a lot of time just sifting through and narrowing down countless files and data bases, pulling anything that could possibly work in my show. Most of the works are from 1880-1940s.
You have to pick pieces that are interesting and relevant for your viewer. You need to pick an artist that will be fascinating to people, because your viewers come from all different walks: students, experts, enthusiasts, and people who know nothing. I picked a piece by Lamar Dodd, which was cool, because here we are, at the Lamar Dodd School of Art.
After you pick your works, then you deal with the actual space. I had to pick colors for the wall and write captions and explanations and wall labels, which is a work of art in itself because it has to be so precise. You have the lighting, the hanging of the work. I had to take into account the input, opinions, and expertise of my boss, the preparators . . . it’s a big process.
What have you learned as a result of being a part of this process?
I’ve learned to be more creative and take to heart the input of others, which has truly helped me expand and develop my ideas. I think I’ve always trusted my own opinion a little too much, so definitely asking for help and listening to other people and outside sources are things I’ve learned as a result of being in this position. It’s really about team work; you can’t depend on yourself all the time.
What do you think has been the most challenging part?
I feel like in one sense I’ve kind of being handed this position of curator—like this is a kind of serendipity that happened. As an intern, people keep telling me, ‘Oh you totally have the freedom to do what you want with this show,’ but then at the end of the day I still have to ask permission. I don’t really know what my boundaries are yet. It’s just little stuff like am I allowed to say, ‘I want the walls to be blue instead of gray’? I’ve learned I’ve been given some creative control, but to answer your question, I guess it’s been a challenge to see how far my control stretches. Also, I’m totally inexperienced at this, so it’s scary to make decisions that are going to be so public.
Do you think being so young has impacted your art career in any way? Being ahead of the curve already and on your way to being an art curator, has your age affected your experience?
I think only being twenty-one-years-old and already having such a good experience so far has made me very optimistic. If I was maybe thirty and this stuff was happening I would think, ‘Okay, I’m in a pretty good position, but there’s already people who are curators.’ But because I’m so young and have been given the title of curator and if I’ve done this at twenty-one I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to see what I can do when I’m thirty.’
It’s really just optimism that my age has given me. Because like I said previously, an art history major is so looked down upon sometimes. Now I can be like, “Ha, look what I did,” when everyone was telling me I couldn’t do anything with my major. I’ve achieved a lot I think, and I’m very excited to see where life will take me during the next few years.
Leading into that, where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, because just getting an art history undergraduate degree is usually not enough to become an art curator in a museum. I need experience, and it’s almost mandatory to get a PhD these days. So, finishing up my master’s degree and working on my dissertation is what I see myself doing in the next few years. I am really excited about school and the possibilities though.
Who inspires you? Your mentors?
My parents, it’s a given. They are ones who always told me to do what you want to do in life. My mom and my grandpa have supported me especially in my goals to pursue working in a museum. In the museum world—my boss has been a huge mentor for me. She taught me everything I know.
Do you have other hobbies or passions outside of the art sphere?
I do, but a lot of them are still artsy though. I’m very into ballet. I didn’t do ballet when I was young, so I’m not very good, but I really like it nonetheless. I love things that are pretty. For instance, I like yoga because I find the poses beautiful and interesting. But honestly, I consider myself an old lady; I love to knit and cross stitch. I love taking pictures of my dogs.
Lastly, do you have a piece of advice for budding artists or just young people in general who are in the process of pursing their dreams?
It sounds cliché, but dream big and just go for it. Don’t let something that sounds pessimistic in society be something that will halt you from pursuing something. Pursuing a degree that most people are skeptical about is something I’m proud of myself for doing. If I’d played it safe, I’d probably always be thinking of the what ifs. So, my piece of advice: of course make good decisions that hopefully set you up for a good future, but ultimately you have to do something that you love, even if it’s not necessarily going to end up with a giant paycheck because that’s how you’re going to end up happy.
As for what’s immediately next for Huff, she is going to continue her internship with the Georgia Museum of Art and begin independent research with CURO next semester. Now that you know a little more about the person who helped make the Man’s Canyon’s exhibit possible, why not visit the Georgia Museum of Art and see the gallery for yourself? Be sure to follow the Georgia Museum of Art on Instagram here to keep up with the current exhibitions and events.