Q&A: dorothy moss

By Jess T. Dugan   |   September 8, 2016


Dorothy Moss is the Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and Director of the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. She serves as one of the curators of the ongoing “Portraiture Now” series and is currently developing an exhibition on Sylvia Plath. Moss is co-curator, with senior historian David Ward, of the upcoming exhibition, Sweat of their Face: Portraits of American Working People, an examination of portrayals of anonymous workers in the United States from the 18th - century to the present, scheduled to open in 2017 in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery’s fiftieth anniversary. 

Jess T. Dugan:  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.  Let’s start at the beginning.  How did you discover your passion for curating, and what led you to your current position at the National Portrait Gallery?

Dorothy Moss:  My passion for curating emerged early in life with my love of assembling collections of objects- whether those were things I found in nature such as shells or autumn leaves or manufactured objects such as marbles or art supplies or later posters on my dorm-room walls- really anything. I have loved to arrange things creatively ever since I can remember. If I had to point to an exhibition that sparked my love for art museum curating I would say it was Marc Simpson's exhibition Uncanny Spectacle: the Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The show was on view when I entered the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art in 1997 and I was immediately struck by the stunning juxtapositions of works and the carefully argued and compelling narrative Simpson constructed with text and image. The research that went into the interpretive text was thorough and fascinating and allowed the viewer to see the works on view through the lens of Sargent's critics writing in the late nineteenth century. It remains one of my all-time favorite exhibitions. I am also inspired by the projects of activist curators like Helen Molesworth, whose exhibitions are multimedia and interdisciplinary, shedding new light on a community or artistic movement through combining sound, performance, and video with more traditional objects.

Dorothy Moss

Dorothy Moss

JTD:  Tell me about the Outwin portraiture competition.  How did this competition and exhibition come to be and what is its history thus far?

DM:  A former Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery volunteer named Virginia Outwin Boochever had the creative vision and philanthropic capacity and generosity to create a competition loosely based on the NPG London's BP Award. Brandon Fortune, who was curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian NPG when Mrs. Boochever proposed a gift, worked closely with her to conceptualize and realize this extraordinary project. Now in its fourth iteration, the resulting exhibition is one of our most popular exhibitions. I am thrilled to watch artists gain international exposure through the exhibition and forge lasting personal and professional connections through the community of participating artists. The exhibition also gives me and my colleagues a remarkable window into the dynamic ways artists are approaching the art of portraiture today.

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today , National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

JTD:  As a full disclaimer, I’m honored to be a part of this year’s exhibition.  Initially, when I saw the call for entries in 2014, I was very excited to see that the outside jurors were diverse in terms of gender, race, sexuality, location, and medium.  How were the jurors selected?  How conscious were you of including a wide range of voices and points of view in the selection process?

DM:  I am always conscious of forming a group of experts who represent a variety of experiences and backgrounds. A lot of research goes into the jury selection process. I want jurors who are at the top of their professions, who have a track record of thinking critically about portraiture, and who represent diverse perspectives. What is often most fascinating about the first meeting of the jurors is watching how their concept of portraiture develops. The 2013 jurors were very interested in how artists were experimenting with and mastering materials such as wood, thread, rice or video, while the 2016 jurors were concerned with the emotional and psychological bond between the artist and the subject and how that connection is conveyed and extended to the viewer.

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today  , National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

JTD:  Perhaps not surprisingly, the 43 works in the exhibition are diverse as well, both in terms of the identities of their makers and the identities of the subjects.  The Outwin 2016 directly addresses issues of identity and does not shy away from some of the most significant issues of our time including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, immigration, ability and disability, family, and community.  What role does this exhibition play both within the history of the National Portrait Gallery and within our culture at large at this particular moment in time?

DM:  Because the work must be created within a three-year window we see a snapshot of that time period in the selection. The most pressing political issues always surface and because of that the exhibition gives our visitors a space to think through those issues in new ways. Standing before a portrait and considering the effects of homelessness, for example, is quite a different experience from hearing a news story or watching a political debate. What our visitors find here is connection to another's lived experience and in that connection empathy emerges. I see this exhibition's goals as two-fold 1) encouraging the art of portraiture and 2) social activism through portraiture.

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today  , National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

JTD:  What has the reaction been to the exhibition thus far?

DM:  The reaction to the exhibition has been wonderful. I often wander through the galleries to look at how people are interacting with the work. I have seen every emotion surface, from tears to debate to meditative silence to exuberant laughter.

JTD:  Throughout the duration of the exhibition, you are bringing several of the included artists to the NPG to give monthly afternoon gallery talks and host discussions.  Is it your hope that the exhibition acts not only as a survey of contemporary portraiture but also as a jumping off point for dialogue about the critical issues of identity being addressed throughout the show?

DM:  Absolutely. It is important to me that museums exist as places where people can come together to debate and discuss ideas. The artist talks are always inspiring in that inevitably people of varying political persuasions find themselves in a circle around an artist having an open and honest discussion about a range of topics. The sense of community formed in those moments is profound.

Dorothy Moss and Outwin 2016 first prize winner Amy Sherald

Dorothy Moss and Outwin 2016 first prize winner Amy Sherald

JTD:  For the first time, the Outwin 2016 is traveling to several other museums throughout the country.  How did the idea to travel the show come about?  Do you anticipate different reactions to the exhibition in different parts of the country, especially parts that may be less progressive than Washington DC?

DM:  NPG director Kim Sajet made the traveling of the exhibition a strategic priority. I am thrilled that three museums across the country- the Tacoma Art Museum (Washington), the Kemper (Missouri), and the Museum of South Texas (Texas)- will host the exhibition. I do anticipate different reactions as the show travels and my hope is that perspectives will be challenged and visitors will be open to new ways of thinking about the human experience and ultimately that people will feel inspired by something they have seen that makes them think or see differently than they did before entering the exhibition.

JTD: It is no secret that the art world lacks diversity in many ways and that many exhibitions and publications are made from a predominantly white, male, straight vantage point.  As a curator, how do you view your role in changing this bias?  What are some tangible ways of increasing access for a wider variety of voices?

DM:  I am dedicated to increasing inclusion and diversity in all the projects I am working on currently. When my daughter visited me on one of my first days at work back in 2012, she declared the museum "a boys' place" based on her impression of the installation of eighteenth and nineteenth-century portraits. She was only five years old and I couldn't argue with the impression she articulated and it has served as a call to action for me. Our team of curators, historians, and educators has been working hard to bring multiple perspectives and a diversity of experiences into the museum through strategic loans, new acquisitions, performance art, and exhibitions that offer institutional critique. It is an exciting time for us to plan exhibitions that reflect on the history of the National Portrait Gallery and pave the way to future goals as the museum approaches its 50th year in 2018.

Dorothy Moss in conversation with photographer Dawoud Bey, one of the jurors for  The Outwin 2016

Dorothy Moss in conversation with photographer Dawoud Bey, one of the jurors for The Outwin 2016

JTD:  The National Portrait Gallery plays a very significant role in defining portraiture and identifying important artists and works throughout history.  How do you balance the dual- and sometimes competing- challenges of collecting and showing the history of portraiture throughout the past several centuries while also embracing contemporary, boundary-pushing work?

DM:  You have hit on what makes working as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery so exciting. We are constantly time traveling.  I find some of the most exciting, boundary-breaking work happening in portraiture today to be artists' use of critiquing the past to address historical absences or erasures. Artists such as Patricia Cronin, Titus Kaphar, and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons are just a few of the artists working in this vein whose work we are showing or commissioning.

JTD:  What’s next for you as a curator?  What projects are on the horizon?

DM:  I have several projects in the works. I curate NPG's new performance art series IDENTIFY. On November 5 Sheldon Scott will perform a commissioned work reflecting on his heritage in coastal South Carolina and the techniques enslaved Africans used to produce rice there. Next summer I will open a small, focused exhibition on the ways Sylvia Plath constructed her identity visually as part of the NPG's One Life series. In the fall of 2017 an exhibition I am co-curating with David Ward titled In the Sweat of their Face: Portrayals of American Working People will open and will be the NPG's first exhibition to examine how artists have portrayed work over time from the eighteenth century to the present. And I am already looking toward the 2019 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and thinking of a dynamic panel of jurors to invite!