INTERVIEW: “An Interview with Therese Mulligan, Curator of Photography, The George Eastman House, Rochester, NY” (1998)

An Interview with Therese Mulligan (1998), Curator of Photography, The George Eastman House, Rochester, NY

By Richard Leslie

Interviewer’s Statement

Therese Mulligan, Curator of Photography, George Eastman House , is unable to participate in ASCI’s upcoming panel “Collectibility & the Digital Print.” However, she graciously answered a number of questions developed from informal consultations with several ASCI members. As Ms. Mulligan clearly states, the art world is multifaceted and she speaks as a curator for a specific institution. The interview was conducted in early August, 1998.

Richard Leslie: Is there a restraint on the collecting and the general insertion of the computer graphic/digital print as a visual art medium into the art world? Assuming there is, what specific reasons have you observed or been told exist for such restraint?

Therese Mulligan: It is not, I believe, “restraint” that is the byword for the current perception of digital work in the art world, but acceptance. First, the art world is many different things, ranging from the gallery to the auction house, from the museum archive to the university classroom. While understanding and practice of computer and digital technology is commonplace–at times required–within photographic higher education, this can not be said for other art institutions. Why is this so? Primarily, it is because computer or digital technology is still new and evolving. What it is today will not be what is it tomorrow. The very nature of the medium begs a new understanding and vocabulary of the process and the finished print. For example, among galleries and auction houses the digital print is still an unknown quantity. That is, how will the digital print shape or be shaped by the marketplace? Since digital technology in the arts has such a short history how does one address its place within the scope of historical and contemporary image-making? How should digital prints be discussed and evaluated—as a photographic medium? as a printmaking medium? or an amalgam of both? While these questions will continue to abound over the next decades due to the rapidly changing nature of the digital medium, entities like galleries and auction houses are moving towards a greater acceptance of the medium. This can be seen in a recent Christie’s sale in which a portfolio of work from Nash Editions was offered and bought.

For museums and galleries, acceptance of the digital print is also gaining ground. The number of exhibitions dedicated to digital technologies are steadily growing as are the types of museum venues willing to participate in this important dialogue. Beyond the alternative gallery or museum, these exhibitions are slowly finding their way into more traditional venues. This is an important change for it attests to greater acceptance of the medium as well as to acknowledge and meet professional and public interests. Of course the next step is to move from the exhibition wall to the museum archive. In making this step — one that perhaps many see as slow in coming — museums and their curators, staffs, and acquisition committees take into consideration many factors, several of which I mention above. But beyond the concern of the medium’s relative newness and the unknowable future of a dramatically changing medium, there are other fundamental questions brought to bear on collecting digital prints.

Question: What do you feel will be required to have the collectibility of digital prints develop? Are the issues any different than for other media and artists?

Therese Mulligan: In my experience, the issues involved in collecting digital prints are not very different from those involved in other artistic mediums, in this case the graphic arts and photography. I mention these two in particular because it is in the museum department or specifically-aligned museums, like George Eastman House, dedicated to these two mediums that the collectibility of digital prints is being addressed. Again, the newness of the digital medium plays an important role as museum professionals first come in contact with digital printmaking and then gain an understanding of its role in contemporary image-making. But perhaps I get ahead of myself. Let me begin by saying that curators and their acquisitions committees abide by the overarching mission of their institution in collecting any work for their archive, whether it be historical or contemporary work. Second, using the current collection as the touchstone, curators and committees acquire in order to strengthen their particular collections, fill gaps, or to comment on contemporary and future developments. In this day of the dwindling acquisition budget, curators and committees must strategize when it comes to collecting new work so as to insure its place and subsequent role in the museum archive as a whole. These are important considerations and are utmost in my mind when I acquire for my institution. Collecting digital prints by museums, then, in my experience, must fulfill the institution’s mission and enlarge the scope and depth of collections.

It is only a matter of time –and time here is the important factor when the collecting of digital prints will more fully develop. This will be based on greater public exposure, an expanding dialogue between artist, printer, and curator, and most importantly, the digital print itself—its quality and character both technically and aesthetically. For in the final analysis, it is the digital print as a fully realized artistic work that will determine its collectibility by the museum and public alike.

Question: What is the role of longevity/archival quality of computer prints? Are there other physical concerns that function, correctly or incorrectly, as limiting factors? As factors that will change the nature of the art market?

Therese Mulligan: The role of the longevity and archival quality of digital prints is something you hear a lot about these days, from the artist to the printer, from the gallery to the museum. You could say, in part, that these concerns go hand in hand with your question of the collectibility of digital prints since it seems that both issues have paralleled and driven each other in recent years. Yes, longevity is a concern but not one that keeps me up at night because for me it is not the determining factor in whether or not to acquire a digital print. As the digital medium develops and more artists wish to use it, and more printers establish digital workshops, and more people and institutions collect it, you will see — and are seeing — great strides being made in insuring its longevity. If you care for a digital print like you do any other work on paper, thinking in terms of preservation when storing or displaying a work, understanding all of its physical attributes, then you can be pretty certain of its longevity.

Question: Are there any misconceptions about digital prints to which you want to speak?

Therese Mulligan: To your question of prevailing misconceptions about the digital print medium I make two comments. The question of longevity seems to me to obscure, in part, the real discussion that needs to take place in regard to the digital medium. While, yes, longevity as I mentioned is an important issue, it should not be so paramount as to take our attention away from addressing the present and future role of the medium; that is, we must take up issues concerning aesthetics, use, and to look at the new kind of pictures that this new technology offers. For me, digital technologies are like any other medium in the hands of an artist. They are another way to get at a picture. And it is the picture that should be utmost in our minds.

The second misconception that is probably the most pronounced is that digital technology is something so radical as to be totally new or unrealized in history. One only has to look to the beginnings of photography as a vehicle of communication and information to see an antecedent for digital technologies and its uses today. Digital prints and the technologies that make them do have a history, even if some see it as a pre-history, in photography and the graphic arts.

Question: What are your experiences and expectations for changes that will occur due to the use and development of new distribution channels for digital art?

Therese Mulligan: I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer the question concerning “distribution” channels for digital art. I can say that on-line sites dedicated to digital art offer rich venues to artists looking to present their work. It is exciting for me to see how these sites open up the world in terms of reaching a greater public beyond the traditional museum or gallery venue, deal with a diversity of themes and issues, cross continents, and embrace cultural concerns. As far as I can see the expectations for digital art is limitless in view of distribution. The better question from my perspective is how do we archive, catalogue, and display these sites for future generations—again, a question of preservation. While I know this has begun, this is an important subject to address as well, especially in light of what possible role museums or collecting institutions may have in the future of digital art.

Question: I understand you no longer refer to “photograph” but use the term “digital print” as a field designation. Could you speak to the philosophy behind this and its limits, if any?

Therese Mulligan: For cataloguing digital works on paper, like IRIS for example, we do use the designation of digital print rather than photograph. (In fact, the word “photograph” is rarely if ever used in cataloguing.) While photographs may be used initially in creating a digital work or scanned, the end result is ink on paper support. In cataloguing, we are specific as to process taking into account the work’s physical features. Thus, our designation of digital print speaks to the final nature of the work and the process used, just as when we catalogue—let’s pick a well known subject –“Moonrise over Hernandez” by Ansel Adams as a gelatin silver print.

Question: I understand the George Eastman House was the first institution in the USA to begin collecting digital prints. Could you speak to this, as to when, why and the repercussions? What are Eastman House’s criteria for collecting digital prints?

Therese Mulligan: The first digital print acquired at George Eastman House was a work by Joyce Neimanas around 1993 and was one of the first digital prints to enter a public collection. While I had yet to join the museum as curator of photography, I can say that the acquisition of this work met the requirements I mention above in regard to institutional mission, building on collection strengths, and the qualities of the print itself as a significant acquisition. For us at GEH, collecting digital prints falls within our mission because as a museum dedicated to photography, motion pictures, and technology, we are charged to preserve the histories of these media and educate the public. So you will find digital prints in the photography archive and digital cameras in the technology archive.

Today we like to think in terms of imaging rather than the more rigid and hieratic designations of photography, motion pictures, and technology. This is important because the museum realizes that with the advancement of technologies, including the recent digital revolution, image-making involves much more than traditional or conventional processes. We have attempted to keep abreast of any and all developments related to our collections either through acquisitions, exhibitions, publications, or education. In these ways, we illustrate and hopefully illuminate the continuing histories and interrelations of our collections to the world beyond our walls.

Today, digital technologies and art resonate deeply not only within the museum but in our particular community. In 1998 we dedicated the entire year to exploring contemporary art and the issues that challenge and confront artists and photographers working today. All of our exhibitions contained a great number of digital prints, in particular IRIS prints. This presentation of digital prints was in many ways determined to meet the need of our immediate community to initiate a conversation about the developing realm of digital art and technology. This was important on several fronts: Rochester, NY and its surrounding communities have been long associated with the advancement of imaging technologies. One only has to look at the industries here such as Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and numerous printing companies to realize that the region is an industrial and technological center. Add to this mix area universities and institutions like the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester who encourage the digital arts and conduct and develop advanced imaging processes with lasers, in optics, printing, and preservation. Then there are the many practitioners of the digital arts who either study or reside in the region. Because of these factors, Rochester has long been in the forefront of imaging technologies. Thus, it is important that as a museum George Eastman House engage the digital concerns of its immediate community as well as our larger national and international audience.

Question: Given that Kodak has an economic interest in encouraging the sale of digital imaging products, does that effect the collecting at Eastman House in theory or in practice?

Therese Mulligan: As for the reference to Kodak, I have supplied a fuller view to that question taking into account the community at large. It is a misconception that the museum is somehow a “Kodak” museum either in sum or part. While they are supporters, as they are with other photo-related institutions, they do not influence museum practice in acquisition or presentation. I do not take issue with the question, only that as far as Kodak is concerned it is only one of several factors (as should be clear from my answers to the other questions) that draw the museum’s interest to engagement with digital imagery.

Question: What are your general experiences with other institutions towards the collection of digital prints?

Therese Mulligan: That is an answer best left to those institutions.

Question: Which are your favorite digital prints; do you collect yourself and if yes, whom?

Therese Mulligan: While I would love to collect digital prints I cannot collect due to my position as a curator. It goes against museum ethics for a curator to collect in the field in which they work and acquire for an institution.

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