On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Walter P. Chrysler’s foundational gift that established the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Virginia, we spoke with Seth Feman, the Deputy Director for Art and Interpretation and Curator of Photography, about the institution’s mission and its vision for the future.
Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum, Photo by Echard Wheeler.
Dr. Feman has been with the Chrysler since 2012, when he joined the museum staff as Manager of Interpretation. A few years later, he became the Curator of Exhibitions and Curator of Photography and, in 2019, he accepted the role of the Deputy Director for Art and Interpretation. Prior to joining the Chrysler team, Feman was an educator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and taught courses in art history and material culture at William & Mary and Lewis & Clark College. He holds a PhD as well as an MA in American Studies from William & Mary and an undergraduate degree from Vassar College.
How would you characterize the Chrysler’s mission?
Seth Feman. The Chrysler’s official mission says it all: “The museum exists to enrich and transform lives. We bring art and people together through experiences that delight, inform, and inspire.” Our focus on people and their experiences has been a standout feature of the museum for decades. We were one of the first museums to establish a comprehensive visitor services program, and it has shaped everything we do at the organization. When you first arrive, someone from visitor services will open the door and greet you, ensuring visitors—and about 45% are first-time visitors—feel welcome. Then the well-trained staff is standing by in the galleries, ready to engage visitors in conversation about the art, answer questions, and provide security and assistance if needed. Most everything we do at the museum is characterized by the priorities of eliminating barriers, creating a welcoming environment, and encouraging people to connect with each other as well as with the art.
You manage the curatorial, conservation, registration and educational departments as well as the Jean Outland Chrysler Library. How do you see your role? What is your approach to working with staff across these diverse departments?
S. F. Most of my time is spent ensuring there is good communication and collaboration between these team members. Excellent ideas come from various team members, and I try to amplify those voices and make sure the ideas can be nurtured. For example, unlike many organizations our size, we have an open exhibitions proposal meeting. While curators traditionally propose exhibitions, sometimes great ideas come from other team members, and at this meeting we brainstorm widely, encouraging each other to share perspectives. Some our most successful exhibitions have come about because educators or visitor services staff have shared an idea that has been workshopped through cross-departmental collaboration.
What has been the museum’s strategy for expanding its online presence and digital features?
S. F. Our communications department revamped our website just a few years ago and more recently they developed a blog to share in-depth content. While expanding our online offerings in those ways has long been a part of our interpretation strategy, Covid has made this more urgent. We now offer an array of virtual content: self-guided tours, several talks related to exhibitions and collections a month, workshops, teacher professional development, yoga, picture book readings for kids and families, even game-like programs (we did a virtual murder mystery a few months ago). We’re now figuring out how to continue this virtual programming when it comes time to reintroduce in-person programs. We think people will be interested in a blended approach even after Covid is behind us.
You also serve as the Curator of Photography. What is currently on your agenda in that role?
S. F. Diversity. My predecessor did an extraordinary job of establishing the collection. Yet there is still a lot of room to grow. Women and artists of color are underrepresented in the collection, and the overall focus has been Western European and American work from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. That said, there are under-studied gems already in the collection by underrepresented groups, and I have been working to highlight and reexamine those works while making strategic acquisitions. We have also benefited quite a bit from local collectors in the past, but many of these collectors have moved on. My second priority is to encourage community members to collect photography—there’s so much good work to enjoy.
What are some of the areas in which you hope to expand the Chrysler’s holdings in the coming years?
S. F. The museum collection largely consists of Walter P. Chrysler’s foundational gift, and while he had significant holdings in certain areas, other areas are somewhat thin or even nonexistent. This year is the 50th anniversary of his gift, so we’ve been taking a critical look at how his gift has shaped the development of the collection ever since he made his donation. For several years, my curatorial colleagues have focused on broadening the collection and diversifying it. Work by women and artists of color continue to be priorities, as do works that offer a global perspective. In every case, we think about how the new works add dimension to the collection. For example, Walter Chrysler collected several Washington Color School (ed/ A group of American painters based in Washington, DC, who from the mid-1950s responded to Abstract Expressionism) works—largescale post-painterly abstractions, often made on raw canvas. With this in mind, we’ve added newer largescale abstract works by an array of artists from around the world including contemporary textiles and works made from recycled electronics and wire. Chrysler also had a substantial glass collection (about one third of our collection is glass), and while he focused on traditional and studio-based works, we’ve recently acquired glass works by artists who do not come from the studio tradition.
What are a few of your favorite objects in the collection or your favorite recent acquisition?
S. F. There are too many to mention, but it’s interesting to think about how one area leads to another. For example, we recently acquired an enormous abstract cyanotype work by the contemporary artist Meghann Riepenhoff. The work was made by submerging cyanotype paper into the ocean and capturing the physical impression of a wave. While this work is certainly one of my favorites, it led me to reexamine the other cyanotypes in the collection, and lately I’ve been spending time with a book of cyanotypes made around 1893 by Emily K. Herron, an administrator at Hampton Institute, not far from the Chrysler. The non-professional photographer had an extraordinary eye and was interested in poetry, and I’ve enjoyed thinking about how she used photography to convey a sense of everyday life in our region.