Elizabeth Neilson Armstrong
Curator of Contemporary Art
Head of the Contemporary Art Department
Director of CAMP (Center for Alternative Museum Practice)
Department: Contemporary Art
Elizabeth arrived at the MIA in 2008 as its first curator of contemporary art. She previously spent 14 years as a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she organized, among other major exhibitions, the groundbreaking In the Spirit of Fluxus, in 1993, on the avant-garde interdisciplinary artists of the 1960s. She helped the Walker acquire one of the show’s signature pieces, “Living Sculpture” (1962), the display window in which artist Ben Vautier lived for 15 days in a London gallery. She was then senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and acting director, chief curator, and ultimately deputy director at the Orange County Museum of Art before returning to Minnesota. She has long been interested in connecting art to contemporary life, and began the Center for Alternative Museum Practice (CAMP) at the MIA to explore new, engaging ways of curating and displaying collections. She restarted the collecting of contemporary art at the MIA, including many of the pieces in Until Now: Collecting the New (1960–2010), her first major exhibition at the MIA. She has also commissioned major art installations for the MIA, including Jennifer Steinkamp’s projection of asteroids, now animating the rotunda ceiling of the Target Wing, and Mark Dion’s “Curator’s Office as Period Room,” which has become one of the museum’s most discussed works.
Q: When did your ideas about art as a window onto culture begin to form?
ELIZABETH NEILSON ARMSTRONG: I grew up in rural New Jersey, about 50 miles outside New York, and we would occasionally go to museums in the city. But it was when I went to Hampshire College, the experimental school in Amherst, that I began to think about art history differently. Hampshire was a wonderful free-for-all: there were no requirements, no grades, and you prepared the questions for your own exams. So you really had to think, Why am I here? What am I doing? I created my own major, a blend of art history, sociology, and cultural studies. I left college thinking of art as a very open field that can meaningfully connect to just about everything in contemporary life: science, history, politics, nature, and religion.
Q: Sacred is one of the yearlong exhibitions you’ve facilitated in the Target Wing, assembled from many different corners of the collection. What’s the goal?
ENA: I’m interested in connecting art across time and cultures to intersect with people’s lives today. In most parts of the museum, we present art history in a more linear fashion within a specific style, culture, or genre. The goal in the Target Wing is to experiment with other ways of presenting the collection that pull new power and meaning from the art, reshuffling works from every corner of the earth around themes that are both timeless and timely.
Q: You’ve also been juxtaposing contemporary art with historic pieces. What’s the idea there?
ENA: One of the unique things we can do at an encyclopedic museum is show contemporary art in a historical context. We’ve called these pairings Art ReMixes. When you have contemporary art providing a link to history, it can really open minds and spark curiosity—about the past and the present. A contemporary painting by Kehinde Wiley in the Baroque Gallery, or a photograph by Cindy Sherman with a portrait of a 17th-century Dutch girl—juxtapositions like these can really draw you into the collection.
Q: The contemporary art market is notoriously high priced. How does this affect the museum’s collecting?
ENA: A lot of work is beyond us, no question. But we can’t be an encyclopedic museum if we stop collecting, and I think the community understands that. To jump-start the process, I organized a “wish list” exhibition—Until Now: Collecting the New (1960-2010)—of artworks that would enhance the museum’s collection and could still be acquired. Working with MIA Director Kaywin Feldman and trustee Eric Dayton, we were able to acquire nearly a third of the show, bringing 25 outstanding contemporary works here in one fell swoop. It was a major step toward building a significant collection of contemporary art for the MIA.
More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness, New York and Minneapolis: DelMonico Books/Prestel and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2012.
Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, Munich and Newport Beach: Prestel Publishers and Orange County Museum of Art, 2007.
Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone, Munich and Newport Beach: Prestel Publishers and Orange County Museum of Art, 2007.
Villa America, American Moderns, 1900–1950, Newport Beach: Orange County Museum of Art, 2005.
Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art, San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2000.
David Reed Paintings: Motion Pictures, San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 1998.
Double Trouble: The Patchett Collection, San Diego and Santiago de Compostela: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and Auditorio de Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 1998.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In a Restless World, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, in association with Serpentine Gallery, London, 1996.
In the Spirit of Fluxus, Minneapolis and New York: Walker Art Center and D.A.P., 1993.
Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1990.