Christina Olsen recently began a five-year appointment as UMMA’s new Executive Director. Most recently, she directed the Williams College Museum of Art where she built a national reputation around critically acclaimed exhibitions, publications and new and innovative forms of faculty and student engagement. Olsen holds a bachelor’s degree in history of art, with honors, from the University of Chicago, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. Current caught up with her to talk about her vision for UMMA over the next five years.
You’ve said you want to “create exciting, ambitious exhibitions that matter right now.” What role do you believe art can play in terms of what “matters right now”?
Art of all kinds—visual art, music, theater—has the capacity to distill, interpret and amplify what’s occurring in the world around us, and what we’re preoccupied with. Some artists do that very directly and others more obliquely. More than many other places, Michigan is grappling with these dramatic cultural, political and environmental changes of national and global scale. UMMA’s programming has to reflect that, in order to have currency right now and in order to stay abreast of what artists are concerned with.
You’ve also said university museums “should be the bleeding edge of the field of museums; doing and trying things other museums can’t.” Can you offer some examples and what would you like to see UMMA try?
In general, university and college-based art museums have abilities and responsibilities other museums often don’t. They’re a part of higher education, and thus should hold the same values as their parent institutions: to produce and disseminate new thinking in their sphere of expertise—museums and art. They are also usually free, so they aren’t dependent on admission, and therefore can program more freely, without worrying as much about what will drive attendance. Altogether that means they should be as experimental and articulate as possible about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
At UMMA, I’d like to make exhibitions and installations that are about ideas and that surprise visitors—by way of their subject, or their point of view, or forms. Installations that upend your expectations, or draw new connections between ideas and works of art, or between disciplines.
What role do you believe UMMA plays in Ann Arbor?
UMMA should give people exposure to what matters right now nationally in the art world. It should make the world bigger and more interesting to a wide array of people in Michigan. It should offer the community a window onto the university—allowing people to participate in the university’s deep wealth of ideas, expertise, and resources. And it should collaborate closely with other institutions and campus entities to offer a compelling vision for the centrality of the arts and artists on campus and in contemporary culture.
So far, what are your favorite things about Ann Arbor?
I like how warm and relaxed people are here, I like the diversity of people and backgrounds, and I like the way Ann Arbor looks–the age and variety of the trees and the river and the ways it winds through the town. I love the burgeoning food scene and how much terrific music there is.
I’m thrilled to be in a larger town again. There are many things to love about New England and Williamstown, where I previously lived, but I’m so grateful to have a greater mix of people, ethnicities and languages around me and to have Detroit so close.
What inspired you to be part of the art museum world?
I love art, and its history, and thought for a long time I’d become a professor. But I turned toward museums because I really felt that was where art could continue to meet the present, and new generations of viewers. You know the old notion of museums was that art went there to be preserved forever, unchanged and fixed. But humanities scholarship and an understanding about people’s experiences in museums have shifted that. I think of museums today as kind of brokering the relationship between objects and contemporary viewers, and recognizing and supporting the ongoing, developing set of meanings that art can have over time. I also really believe the best and most progressive values that museums and libraries hold at the core: that they are for the public, and their collections and resources are held in the public trust, for our benefit, education and pleasure.
I’m looking forward to making UMMA into one of the most exciting museums in the country, where a diversity of people go to see really significant works of art and exhibitions. It’s nested in the best public university in the country, in a state grappling with some of the most urgent issues of our time, so the museum should be really ambitious about its role and impact!
For more info about what UMMA is up to these days, visit umma.umich.edu