Inside The Guggenheim Museum: interview with Carmen Hermo

By Anna Savitskaya - Sunday, November 2, 2014
Inside The Guggenheim Museum: interview with Carmen Hermo

The previous interview, and our first, was with Fred Bidwell, director of The Transformer Station Museum, Ohio, USA, who told us about the museum and named one of his favorite artworks - Hiroshi Sugimoto's ‘Henry VIII’, which happens to be in the Guggenheim collection. Now Carmen Hermo, the Assistant Curator for Collections at the Guggenheim, and curator for the Young Collectors Council acquisition committee, continues our chain interview project by telling Art Dependence Magazine about the curatorial practices and acquisition policies of the Guggenheim, the Young Collectors Council and ways of promoting the museum’s collection such as blogging and apps. Following an established tradition, Carmen also names one of her favorite works.

Inside The Guggenheim Museum: interview with Carmen Hermo

The Guggenheim Museum was first established as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and adopted its current name after the death of its founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim, in 1952. The Foundation’s collection started from the Guggenheim’s private holdings of non-objective art, combined with several more collections: those of his niece Peggy Guggenheim, Justin K. Thannhauser's, and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. Today The Guggenheim can be proud of a richly layered, international collection dating from the late 19th-century to the present. Much attention has been paid to the younger generation through the organization of the Young Collectors Council (YCC) as well as the support provided to young artists. The museum is the site of many important and celebrated exhibitions, and is home to a unique collection, which ranges from impressionism through to contemporary art. The museum building, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1959, is in itself an exceptional architectural landmark of New York.

The previous interview, and our first, was with Fred Bidwell, director of The Transformer Station Museum, Ohio, USA, who told us about the museum and named one of his favorite artworks - Hiroshi Sugimoto's ‘Henry VIII’, which happens to be in the Guggenheim collection. Now Carmen Hermo, the Assistant Curator for Collections at the Guggenheim, and curator for the Young Collectors Council acquisition committee, continues our chain interview project by telling Art Dependence Magazine about the curatorial practices and acquisition policies of the Guggenheim, the Young Collectors Council and ways of promoting the museum’s collection such as blogging and apps. Following an established tradition, Carmen also names one of her favorite works.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Restoration Completion
Photograph by David Heald

© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Artdependence Magazine: Prior to coming to Guggenheim you worked with the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Why did you finally select the Guggenheim Museum and what does the Guggenheim Museum mean to you?

Carmen Hermo: I have been very fortunate to have had all these wonderful experiences with these three amazing and very different collections from each museum. MoMA was the first of my experiences and it was almost encyclopedic in its range. It focuses on modern and contemporary art but its content ranges, as you know, from design to video work and there is incredible depth in its collections. This was a very immersive experience, I worked there as an intern in the Drawings Department and so I could see it from the perspective of works on paper.  It was just incredible to have access to the wealth of that collection. Then at the Whitney Museum I had a different experience. The museum also has a very large collection, but of course focuses on purely American art so that was actually a new learning experience for me. I was there for two years and I learned a lot about modernism and contemporary art, but through an American lens, of course. And coming to the Guggenheim, I think it's just such a singular institution because it has such a unique collection. It doesn't have the depth of MoMA’s collection across the entire board from modern to contemporary, but instead it has expertise in certain really interesting corners of new fields of art. Since the Guggenheim was born as the museum of nonobjective paintings, curators today try to continue carrying that torch and think about abstraction, what abstraction means today, looking of course at conceptual art, especially the conceptual photography and conceptual paintings of today. What I really enjoy about the Guggenheim is that after having these two previous experiences with very wide ranging collections, now I have access to something more unique. I just love learning more about the collection. 

AD: Carmen, you work as a curator for the Young Collectors Council acquisition committee. Please explain what the Young Collectors Council is. And why was such a Council created in the Museum?

The Young Collectors Council, which we call YCC here, is actually one of many councils that we have at the museum that were specifically formed to acquire art. The Young Collectors Council specifically serves the Guggenheim as a leadership group for young professionals aged 21-40, people who work in art, or who are just interested in learning more about contemporary art and culture. Members connect with contemporary artists, prominent collectors, and leading figures in the art world through the many educational programmes and social events that are held at the museum.

One interesting thing about Guggenheim-- which is unique-- is the way that the YCC is not just a social or development endeavour, but also has its acquisitions committee branch. This is a very unique opportunity for members to actually vote on acquisitions presented by the curators. In fact, the curators carry out all this research to determine what works would be interesting to acquire and the collectors’ council gets to vote on that. Specifically in the YCC, we are looking at emerging artists and the works of emerging artists who are still at an early stage in their career.

Installation view of RUSSIA!, 2005. Photo: David M. Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

AD: As part of the Council’s activity you support the acquisition of new works by emerging artists. What is the Museum’s policy in respect of acquiring the works of emerging artists?

There isn't a settled or determined overarching “policy” as you put it, but there is kind of a vision that is being pursued by the group of curators with different backgrounds. Actually, that is another way the Guggenheim  is again very different from MoMA and the Whitney. Rather than dividing up the curators by fields, for example in terms of paintings, curators or video curators, it’s actually one department and we are all part of the same group and so everyone of course has their own kind of expertise that they bring to the table.

Working with emerging artists in the YCC is an especially fascinating and focused activity. As you may know, our collection is much smaller than that of the MoMA and the Whitney. We have only about 7,000 objects in the New York collection, but this is not just about pulling everything in, it’s a lot more focused and a lot more strategic in terms of how artists identify themselves, what significant discoveries the artists have made or what significant body of work one artist has created that is promising to the curators and to other artists. Such an artist may rise to the level of someone who should be in Guggenheim collection, and can help to enrich the contemporary art collection. We hope we can help contemporary artists who are just at the beginning of their career.

AD: And, of course, it’s not only for American emerging artists?

CH: No, of course, not. It’s a very international programme.

AD: On the site there is a notice saying that everyone can make a gift online to the Young Collectors Council Art Fund. Gifts are 100% tax-deductible. Please tell us a bit more about the procedure.

CH: This actually refers to monetary gifts, not gifts of art. The funds are 100% tax-deductible but any gift fund that is made to YCC Fund goes to the Art Acquisition Fund and we will not using it for our other activities. So any donation that is made to the Arts Fund is used specifically for these art acquisitions that the Guggenheim brings into its collection through the YCC.

Installation view: ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York,
October 10, 2014–January 7, 2015. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

AD: Are the names of donors to the YCC Fund specified anywhere?

CH: Oh yes. It actually depends on the donor. If the donor is giving more than 500 dollars towards the specific work, then his or her name is in the permanent credit line that appears on the artwork label. This also goes on the website. If we loan the art work out to another institution the credit line must carry the donor’s name. I just want to make it very clear that the curator's vision comes first, and then we have excellent recommendations from a lot of our members who are very involved in the art world.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Photo: David M. Heald, © SRGF, New York.

AD: What is the purpose of your blog on the museum’s site? What information do you post there and how does it correspond to the museum’s activity?

CH: I love the blog, actually. It’s a lot of fun to write and I think that the concept behind it really suggests opening up the way people experience the Guggenheim: not necessarily just as a collection, but also complementing the exhibitions and initiatives that the museum does in many different fields. For instance, we have very wide ranging UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, which is a multi-year cross-cultural collaboration in support of art, artists, and curatorial talent from South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, where the Guggenheim works with guest curators from specific regions and internationally. Right now we have a show of Latin American contemporary artists on view. The curator Pablo León de la Barra travelled across Latin America and did some amazing research, but a lot of information doesn’t make it to the wall labels or to an exhibition catalogue. Instead, this information becomes a wonderful blog post and I think a lot of our readers enjoy getting this sideline view or insider’s view on how, for instance, Latin American works were discovered by this curator, how he visited the artists’ studios and talked to the artists. There is a comment section there and one of our staff members Caitlin Dover, who focuses on the blog, is always responding to the comments, interacting with visitors and answering their questions. If you are not able to go to the museum you can still get a sense of what is going on through photo and video posts. It's a nice way to make the Guggenheim come alive. Check the blog here.

AD: Since December 2010, you have been researching and promoting the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. What means do you use for such promotion?

CH: Of course, the blog is one of the informal ways to do it. Personally I do a lot of research for the collection on confirming or finding out new information about works that have been in the collection for many years or new works that are coming through YCC; I also work on catalogue raisonne research into specific artists and specific works. This includes what pieces we have in our collection, their history, where they have been shown and where they have been published.  Also, helping the institutions involved in exhibitions to get access to the fullest information about our works is part of promoting our collection. Furthermore, we now have 1500-1600 highlights of our collection online. Also, the Guggenheim app, which I worked on, was launched last year, and that is also a part of promoting our collection. This highlights collections and exhibitions, provides special guides with audio stops and videos and images you can really zoom in on and also contains many interesting facts about the building of the Guggenheim museum.

AD: As you may already know, our magazine is working on a chain of interviews, the idea of which is that our interviewees tell about their favourite artwork (in a public collection). We then examine this institution and try to get an interview with a representative. Our first interviewee Fred Bidwell, the director of Transformer Station Museum, Ohio, is also on the Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Museum of Art and named Hiroshi Sugimoto's ‘Henry VIII’ (1999) in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum his favourite artwork. Do you know this work and how does it fit with the museum’s collection?

CH: I love the Sugimotos in our collection. The work ‘Henry VIII’ from 1999 is part of a larger group of artworks that he made by photographing wax figures, which were commissioned by the Guggenheim together with the Deutsche Bank in Berlin. The Guggenheim and the Deutsche Bank had a museum in Berlin for 18 years and they commissioned many major artists to create new bodies of work, including Sugimoto. In 1991, he was well known but he was certainly less than he is today and that partnership and the commission enabled Sugimoto to create this enormous group of works. We have 28 pieces in our collection from this wax figures group and I think it’s just fantastic. The details in the photographs are so sharp and so overwhelming and on such a large scale for photographs! I think that this is a great artwork in the Guggenheim collection. And the fact that it was actually made by Sugimoto in partnership with the Guggenheim indicates that this body of work of wax figures has become very iconic for both the Musuem and for Sugimoto. We do have other holdings of other works of Sugimoto that are not from that series, including some from his beautiful theatre series where the time lapses and the screens appear blank. It’s just fantastic! And I was really happy to hear that it is being referred to as a favourite work of Fred Bidwell.

AD: Please name your favorite artwork in a public collection and explain why you find it so special.

CH: I am going to cheat a bit and name two works, though they are related. They are works from the collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art. It's hard to name my absolute favorite, but one of the works that struck me is the large sculpture by Sherrie Levine: La Fortune (After Man Ray: 4), 1990. She often creates conceptual works with controversial contexts, for instance asking the viewer what it means to photograph somebody else’s photograph or what it means to change somebody else’s art work. In this case, the work is actually is a giant pool table on bulbous legs, finished wood and green felt but it has only three pool balls on it. There are no cues, no pockets. When I first saw this work in the Whitney storage, it seemed a little too sharp and perfect, but it really made you wonder what this work may be about, who she is calling back to. However, the reference to Man Ray in the title gives you a certain hint. And that will be my second art work: Man Ray’s La Fortune (1938) has a dramatic view of a weird surreal pool table rising to the confused crazily coloured clouds; that work is also in a the Whitney collection. So I think that it is such a beautiful way to think about how collections can make connections across time. The comparison leads you to think about1938 and 1990, how completely different these moments in US history were, especially in New York. I love the fact that these two beautiful artworks are both now in one collection, as if in fact the same artwork has been presented or examined by two different artists. 

Installation view: La Fortune (After Man Ray): 4, (1990) by Sherrie Levine and La Fortune, 1938 by Man Ray.
(Full House: Views of the Whitney’s Collection at 75, 2006).
Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins

AD: Thank you, dear Carmen, for this interview. Success!

More information about The Guggenheim Museum is here.


Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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