Q&A: Traci quinn
By Jess T. Dugan | October 3, 2019
Traci Quinn is the Curator of Education & Public Programs at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. She received her BFA in Photography from New Mexico State University, a BA in Art History and Criticism from Metropolitan State University of Denver, and an MA in Art & Visual Culture Education from the University of Arizona. She also received her PhD in Art History and Education, with a focus in museum education, from the University of Arizona.
Jess T. Dugan: Hello Traci! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Your career seems to have taken many paths, beginning with your own BFA and including art history, museum studies, community engagement, research, and so many other things. When and how did you discover your interest in museum education, and what was your path to getting to where you are today?
Traci Quinn: When I first graduated with my BFA in photography my professors were encouraging me to pursue my Master’s, but I was not ready to jump directly into a graduate program. I took about a year and a half off of school to work and I started researching future paths for myself. I looked at everything art related and talked to people who held positions of interest to me. I talked to artists, educators, gallery owners, professors, curators, pretty much anyone that would give me time. I also volunteered at arts organizations just to get a sense for the work. I quickly realized that I enjoy the human aspect of art. I love connecting people to art and artists, and I love talking with people about art.
Understanding this interest was key for me, and I knew museum and community-based work was where I wanted to land. So, I applied to graduate programs that offered this kind of training. I ended up going to the University of Arizona where I got my MA and PhD in Art History and Education, with a focus on museums. During my time at the UofA I worked at various arts organizations, which allowed me to put my research into action. My current position incorporates everything I love about the field. I am at the intersection of art, artists, and the public. It is the best job!
JTD: Tell me more about that- you are currently the Curator of Education and Public Programs at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. What does your job entail? What does a typical day look like for you?
TQ: One of the things that I enjoy about my job is that I do not have a typical day. Every day is different depending on what is going on, who is visiting the Museum, and what we are planning. In one day I might go from facilitating a conversation with a visiting artist and university students, to hosting an intergenerational art making workshop for families, to meeting with a community partner. I am pulled in many directions – and I see this as a good thing (most of the time). I have to be thinking about my immediate schedule as well as what is going to happen six months to a year from now, which keeps my brain really active. I am not trying to romanticize my role too much, because as much as I love many aspects of my job, there is plenty of work I have to do that is not as satisfying. That is the case with most jobs, right? I spend entire days at my computer filling out reports, or sending emails, or confirming that invoices were paid on time, basically all of the tedious work that makes the exciting things happen.
JTD: You have written that your “current research explores trends in museum practice that emphasize and allow for greater collaboration among departments / with communities as a way to insure holistic and effective learning opportunities in gallery spaces.” I love this notion; I personally believe that the exhibition is the beginning rather than the end, that the gallery space really comes alive through programming. Can you expand on this idea and your thinking behind it?
TQ: I totally agree with you and see exhibitions as an invitation for more, and I am passionate about being able to to facilitate those moments of exploration. I see every exhibition as an opportunity to talk with and listen to our audience. When I say “holistic and effective,” I am thinking about the many different ways people enter a work of art or exhibition. Every group is unique and every individual approaches art in their own way, so operating with a one size fits all idea of engagement is limiting. I think about the fact that some people have emotional responses to work, some respond to material, some come to the museum with a lot of knowledge about art, some want to critique the work and the museum, some are interested in the social relevancy, some are in an art museum for the first time, some people are not really interested in art. It is important to be open to what people bring to the table. Of course, you still have to be true to the work on the wall and always facilitate a conversation that honors the artist’s intention, but the way you get there is more interesting and well-rounded if you include people in the conversation from the beginning.
I am also interested in expanding how people learn or interact with art in museums. Extended labels and tours are not always enough. I like to spend time with any exhibition and find multiple points of access as a way to open up the work to different ways of knowing or experiencing. I have had artists do demonstrations, I have invited dancers to respond to work in the gallery, I have commissioned musicians to interpret visual work and record original music for installation, I have invited families to write wall labels (a 4 year old’s perspective can bring a lot to an installation). Anytime I can bring people outside of the museum into the content and interpretation of work, the experience becomes richer.
Finally, I think the exhibitions we bring to our galleries provide an opportunity to connect with our community in deeper and more meaningful ways. For instance, when I knew that UNM Art Museum was going to host your exhibit To Survive on This Shore, I reached out to organizations that support Transgender and LGTBQ communities to brainstorm how we might utilize the exhibition as a part of larger conversation. We have an incredible line up of community programs in partnership with Transgender Resource Center of NM, SAGE Albuquerque, The Mountain Center, Adventure OUT!, LGTBQ Resource Center UNM, and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. The exhibition has become significant in the way that we have been able to work with these organizations.
JTD: The UNM Art Museum is part of a larger university system and is dedicated to teaching, active research, public programming, and community engagement. What is to be gained by a museum being part of a university campus, and – conversely – are there limitations?
Working at a university museum is really unique. Coming from a larger city museum in Tucson, I have definitely seen my work shift. As a unit within a university, the museum has a strong obligation to our students, faculty and staff. That is not to say we do not think beyond those audiences (we do), but University administration is always going to be interested in how we are engaging UNM. Being on a campus helps direct our exhibitions and programs in so many ways. We can see what is being taught across campus and respond accordingly – it is actually helpful to have that mandated audience. We can sit down with faculty and students over coffee, listen to their interests, and discuss ways the museum can support their teaching and research. Being in a larger state University, we have a goal to serve as many departments as possible, which also impacts what we bring to the Museum. It leads us towards more interdisciplinary and socially relevant content.
On the flip side to having strong university ties, the biggest limitations that we deal with have to do with perceptions of access to people beyond UNM. Universities often have complicated relationships with and are not always inviting to their surrounding communities. UNM is not immune to these dynamics. Because we focus on University constituents with such intention, people beyond campus do not always see us as a resource or place for them. That is where collaborating outside of the University becomes key. It is something that we are very aware of and work to build partnerships outside of UNM as often as we can.
JTD: So much goes into planning museum exhibitions and programs, much of which is never fully visible to the general public (or even, perhaps, to the artist). What advice would you give to artists who are planning, or want to plan, an exhibition in a museum space? What are some things they can bring to the table to help make their exhibition more dynamic and fully utilized?
TQ: From the perspective of an educator who is in charge of connecting an artist’s work to an audience, I think it really is important that an artist has clear goals for their work and a general sense for audience. It is great when an artist can tell what has worked in the past when it comes to programming and engagement. That is not to say I expect them to come to the table with everything figured out for me, but nobody understands their art better than they do. I know our specific audiences and can guide the conversation around that, but the artist’s investment in education is critical to making the exhibition more dynamic.
It is also helpful when artists research institutions and curators to identify suitable spaces. If an artist tells me why their work belongs at UNM Art Museum, I am immediately intrigued. It shows that they have looked at our University, are thinking about context, and are ahead of the game.
JTD: The mission of the Strange Fire Collective is to promote work by women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists, all of whom are woefully underrepresented in museum collections, exhibitions, and programming. How do you engage with issues of diversity in the museum space? Do you have any specific practices or endeavors geared specifically towards increasing diversity?
TQ: I think it is important to always have an awareness of who is at the table at every turn, from brainstorming to the implementation of projects. Whether thinking about exhibitions, programming, acquisitions, committee formation, or any other aspect of museum work – consistent conversations with a diverse group of people is key. Lack of representation in exhibitions, programs, and collections points to lack of diversity at every level. Museums just need to step it up. There has to be real intention and commitment from everyone involved.
Personally, I take steps to talk with people constantly and invite them into conversations about what we program. For instance, I curate UNM Art Museum’s Project Space and before anything comes to fruition I sit down and talk to faculty, students, and anyone else that is interested. Within those meetings there is always a discussion about diversity, whose projects are being represented, and what is needed moving forward to guarantee the overall programming is diverse – it is a requirement of that particular space. UNM Art Museum also recently initiated an art acquisitions fund to increase diversity in the Museum’s permanent collection. The fund will support ongoing purchases in all media by artists of color, women, and nonbinary, LGBTQ+ artists. All of us at the museum are very invested in these initiatives and I think it is a positive sign for our institution that these are the goals we have set for the Museum.
JTD: What are you currently working on, and what’s on the horizon for you?
TQ: I am incredibly excited about a Creative-In-Residence program that I am developing and testing out. This residency is organized around the idea of the artist as educator, and requires resident artists to engage with our students, faculty, and community through their artistic practice. It is a new model for us and I am so energized by what we have done thus far. The inaugural project was Deep Time Lab with Nina Elder. During her time here (Spring 2019), Nina worked with over twelve classes and a handful of graduate students (from various departments across campus) exploring how humans situate themselves within time. While Nina’s creative work is specific to this concept and how it relates to the environment, students brought a myriad of perspectives to the project and created something truly dynamic in the project space. Next spring, artist and educator León De la Rosa-Carrillo will be our resident, and will be engaging our students with notions of Remix as a creative form of research and artistic practice. The outreach potential for these projects is exciting and completely in line with our goal to be more inter-disciplinary and relevant to students throughout the University.
JTD: Wonderful, thank you so much Traci!