Raphaela Platow brings fresh ideas and energy to the Rose Art Museum
BY TAMARA WIEDER
RUMOR HAS IT that a young Raphaela Platow walked into Brandeis Universityís Rose Art Museum last year, stood before museum director Joseph Ketner, who had an open curator position to fill, and said, "You should hire me."
Upon hearing the tale, Platow throws her head back and laughs; the story is, apparently, a bit of an exaggeration. But not entirely: Platow wasnít yet 30 when she arrived at the Rose, fresh from a three-year stint as international curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, to review the Waltham museumís Roxy Paine show. Something about the museum spoke to her, and by the end of the day, she had indeed inquired about the curatorial position. In August 2002, Platow was named curator of the Rose ó a significant step in a career path that has included stints at the Kunstforum München and the Projektraum Berlin, both in her native Germany.
Now, with a year as the Roseís curator under her belt, Platow reflects on the Boston art world, her goals for the museum, and her favorite local bars.
Q: I heard a story that you basically just showed up at the Rose and said, "You should hire me." Is that how it happened?
A: No, no, no ó it was not that glamorous! But it was a little bit that way. After three years in North Carolina, my husband had moved here a year before I did, so I was commuting, and I just thought that three years in North Carolina was enough, so I thought, okay, letís move on, letís move to a bigger city. I really wanted to work at an institution with a collection, that was really important, and the idea of being at a university also intrigued me greatly, to have all this knowledge around you and be able to work with different resources and different departments. So I was once again visiting my husband, and I was writing for a lot of art magazines, and I wanted to review the Roxy Paine show [at the Rose], and I had heard from a colleague of mine that the Rose was looking for a curator. So I called the director, who was also the curator during this period of time, and said, "Iím coming to review the Roxy Paine show," and I really didnít think about anything else but reviewing the show. When I walked in here, I thought, wow, this is really great. And Joe [Ketner] and I had a long conversation about Roxy Paine, and then I just asked him ó I said, "Iíve heard that you have a position open," and he said, "Yeah, we do," and then I applied. And this is how it worked out.
Q: What was the first year here like?
A: It was very exciting and very busy. Exciting because it was great to come here and plunge into the Boston art community, to also learn a lot about Brandeis, which was important to me. I tried to learn as much as I possibly could about this great collection that Brandeis has, which is really incredible. So it was exciting, but also exhausting, because the Rose didnít have a curator for a long time. I think in total it was like two, three years [without a curator]. Iím the kind of person who likes to look at the institution, at the context, which was new to me [because] itís a university, and I really wanted to make a lot of connections to the different departments ó I donít want to be this self entity sitting on the hill. I wanted to come up with a program that suits the Rose, as a physical entity but also as a place that has a specific identity as a museum and an institution. So I just went through a lot of files and tried to find out what they had done before and where I wanted to go. So it was really a lot. And then, you know, you have all these administrative duties, and everyone wants to meet you, and God, I was just close to collapsing.
Q: What are the biggest differences in working at a university-affiliated museum?
A: I think one of the biggest differences is the community you serve. The whole organization is different. That influences how graphic design is done, how fundraising is done. Itís really a different institution. But for me personally in my work, itís mostly how you try to relate shows specifically to the Brandeis community. At other museums, you do a lot of community outreach, and we try to do that too, but really the first place where we try to find not only our resources but where we really also try to make our connections is Brandeis. The first thing I did, since I like to work with artists, since I like to bring them in and have them create works that are more or less related to the museum, is to establish an internship program that involves two studio majors every semester, so they can work with the artists and really be integrated into that process, and they also create a diary so that people who see the show later can go back to the information and learn how it all happened. Because another question that I always ask myself is, we talk about the process all the time and say the museum is a laboratory, but in the end, the viewer, or the visitor, is not necessarily integrated in that process. So that was important to me, to really bring the fine-art students in.
Q: Does Brandeisís being a Jewish university affect the collection or the museum in any way?
A: No, not at all. There is another place here on campus, the womenís-studies center, and they really serve both the female and Jewish communities. But we are nonsectarian, and we function like any other university museum. Otherwise I wouldnít be here, as a German Catholic!
Q: How does the art culture in New England and the Boston area differ from the other places youíve worked?
A: Boston in general, I think it doesnít differ that much. I mean, you have a lot of artists, you have a lot of great studios, you have interesting galleries. Maybe there are not as many alternative art spaces. I donít see them as present in the community as in other places. One thing that I find interesting, especially having lived in Berlin and in North Carolina, is that the artwork that is done here tends not to be that large-scale. Itís smaller and more object-oriented. Thatís kind of interesting to me, the difference in scale.
Q: Have you spent much time in other Greater Boston museums?
A: Not that much. I love the Fogg. I like the List Arts Center. I really like Mass MoCa. I think these are my three favorite places right now.
Q: Do you see similarities between those institutions and the Rose?
A: I would say that programmatically, the List and the Rose are probably closest, other than [the List doesnít] have a collection, but they have these fabulous commissioned artworks that are all over campus. The Fogg is an entirely different institution, thereís no comparison.
Q: Is there much dialogue between university curators in the area?
A: We dialogue a little bit. I think like with every human relationship, you either click with someone or you donít. And very often it takes a long time; we are so incredibly busy. The museums here are so, I donít want to say spread out, but there are so many. But we talk about our programs and what weíre doing.
Q: What are your goals for the museum?
A: I think really integrating the Rose more into the Brandeis community would be important, and very actively bringing professors and students in here, both on committees and into the process. Also, the Rose has a tradition of showing local artists, but to me it has to happen very naturally. There has to be a mix of local people, national people, international people. So maybe one of the goals is to have a platform where all these people can meet in a way that makes sense. And I would probably be the one who would choreograph it a little bit! But I think thatís a goal, or thatís something that I want to emphasize more. [I want to] fill some gaps in the collection, come up with a way to go forward, and come up with a way that makes sense in the 21st century. Like, one thing that Iíve been [thinking] a lot, just looking at how museums collect, is that we still collect in categories. How can we somehow blur these categories within the institution? How can we do that, especially since artists are working in diverse media, and you donít have these boundaries anymore? [I want to work on] making the Rose more visible and getting more people out here.
Q: How do you do that?
A: I think it has a lot to do with advertising, and we donít have a lot of money to spend on it. Probably more community outreach; I mean, thatís something that university museums usually donít do. And then hopefully the programs will be so exciting that people will just come, because they want to see what weíre doing. Itís such a tricky question, because you wonder, do I serve the international art community, which is just informed in a different way, or, do I do all these big-name shows that draw people automatically, like Warhol. Itís a really tricky question, and I personally donít think that attendance figures reflect the quality of a museum. Itís hard with contemporary art, because itís like experimental film or literature ó not everyone is interested in it. You canít make everybody love contemporary art. You can only try to build enough bridges and try not to alienate people, and try not to be elitist or arrogant. Hopefully we can provide a good foundation, a lot of entryways. But in the end, if basketball is more important [to people], what can you do?
Q: When youíre not around art, what are your other hobbies?
A: I think somehow my life is art! But I do yoga occasionally. I love to go for long walks. I love to hang out with friends. I would love to go to clubs, but I havenít found one in Boston that I like. I like to cook, so I do that. I like hanging out in bars.
Q: What are your favorite bars?
A: There are several. I like the Enormous Room, I like Central Kitchen. I like the Franklin Café in the South End. I like places where you can just sit at the bar and listen to good music ó what I consider good music, which is like electronic sound or soulful hip-hop. I like being in places with a lot of people. I also like going to coffee shops. I think Iím just an urban dweller!
Q: Do you feel sort of like an anomaly, an art curator who likes electronic music and hanging out in bars? Do you find a lot of curators who have those interests?
A: I have a few friends who do the same thing. I think in the contemporary scene, yeah. I mean, Iím not a medieval scholar.
Q: For somebody who doesnít know what a curator does, how would you define the role?
A: It really depends what period you work with, for what kind of institution you work. I think you try to have a good understanding of whatís going on in the art world, what artists are doing. I personally talk a lot to artists; I think theyíre the main source for me to inform myself. I read a lot. I do a lot of studio visits. I donít know that thereís a definition; I think everybody does it differently. There is definitely an intuitive aspect to it. You write a lot of letters, you read a lot of things, you work with the students, you work with the trustees, you prepare your proposals, you write your grants. Itís a lot of administrative work. And then on the side, you have to do all the creative parts as well. Itís a lot of talking. I use the telephone a lot! Sometimes I wonder how to do it all. I have these lists of things to do. Itís a lot of different things that all happen at the same time.
Q: You never have a boring day.
A: No, no! This is what I like most. Itís very varied. Itís not boring at all. I love what I do.
Q: Isnít it nice to be able to say that? So many people canít.
A: Yeah. I really donít know how people do it. Itís a waste of time. How can you be good at something if you donít love it?
"Painting4," "Abstract Impressionism," and "Bad Touch" are on display at the Rose Art Museum, in Waltham, through December 7. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com