Portrait of an Artist: Deborah Martin Kao

Allie Stote

Deborah Martin Kao serves as the Chief Curator of the Harvard Art Museums during a time of great change—with the anticipated opening of the Fogg Museum in 2013, the university’s art museums are currently undergoing a renovation that may change their very role at Harvard. Kao recently spoke to the Harvard Crimson about her job, the Fogg renovation, and some of her favorite pieces in Harvard’s collection.

The Harvard Crimson: Before you became the Chief Curator of the Harvard Art Museums, you worked in several curatorial positions in Harvard’s photography department.  How does the position of Chief Curator differ from these jobs?

Deborah Martin Kao: I’m still involved in the photography department, but the biggest difference is being immersed solely in your area of expertise versus taking a more global view. It has been fascinating for me these past couple of years to get to understand the full range of my colleagues’ work in the institution. It is really a matter of taking a different vantage point.

THC: How do you think the Harvard Art Museums are changing at this point in time, especially with regards to the Fogg renovation?

DBK: I’m almost tempted to ask in what way aren’t we changing. It is really an extraordinary, once-in-a-career opportunity to be part of an institution that is undergoing the kind of dramatic change that the Harvard Art Museums are undergoing. We have a lot of ambitious and overarching goals, but I think primary among them is a desire to create a museum for the 21st  century, one that is fully integrated with the curricular ambitions of the university.  We [also] want to create a range of new kinds of spaces where teaching and learning can take place. [This] is a unique opportunity that you have in a museum; [creating spaces] is different than seeing a projection of the work in a PowerPoint presentation or a streaming of it on the Internet.

THC: You have spoken a bit about the intersection between the curriculum and the art museums.  Do you think Harvard students are taking advantage of the resources they have in these museums?

DBK: It is an excellent question, but in a funny way it is a hard question to answer because part of it depends on the way art museums have been used in the past. What we see today is a [renewed] interest in the use of the museum for a broad range of interests. You can see an example of that in the exhibition that we have installed right now, “The Print and the Pursuit of Knowledge,” which is all about the intersection of science and art in the 16th century. This was the brainchild of our print curator [Susan M. Dackerman]—but in collaboration with [History of Science Professor Katharine Park], it also featured the thorough participation of students.  Over 15 students actually wrote for the [exhibit’s] catalogue.  In some ways, you could see that exhibition as a kind of model for where we want the larger institution to be by the time we reopen. It is about making sure that, from soup to nuts, all of the programs we do are connected with opportunities for learning, exchange, and collaboration with undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, [and] visiting fellows.

THC: With that in mind, where do you see the Harvard Art Museums in ten years?

DBK: I think that our vision for ten years is the same as our vision for reopening. It is about an institution that is fully integrated in the curricular life of the university and participates in the need for the arts at Harvard to be relevant and important to the cognitive life of our students.

THC: Could you share with us some of your favorite pieces of art in the Harvard Art Museums?

DBK: Some of my favorite works in the collection are the very early photographs.  There is a wonderful full plate daguerreotype portrait of John Collins Warren, a 19th century Harvard surgeon who was involved in the earliest use of anesthesia.  The portrait itself is so sensitive—you feel as if you can almost read, etched on this man’s face, that experience of having been a physician before the age of ether, and what that must have meant.  There is a way in which early photographic portraiture can see into the soul in a way that must have been incredibly affecting for people of its time.  For me, it still holds that.

THC: What is your favorite part of being Chief Curator?

DBK: It is really about having the chance to work so closely with all of my colleagues across disciplines in this collaborative exercise of reinvention that we have engaged in with [Thomas W. Lentz], our director.  It is a privilege.