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Portrait of the Curator: Matthew Witkovsky

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Continuity or change? That is the question that Chicago’s photography community is asking as Matthew Witkovsky settles in as the new chair of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute.

Under his three-decade reign, Witkovsky’s predecessor, David Travis, built up the Institute’s collection, expanded its exhibition space and added facilities for scholarship; but he also played it safe and emphasized connoisseurship, leading to a staid approach that kept the department at several removes from the waves of experimentation that have broken over photography during his tenure.

Having come to his new position from stints as first assistant and associate curator at the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Witkovsky is no stranger to the arts of diplomacy required of an arts manager in the big leagues. He is not easy to pin down when it comes to finding out the direction in which he intends to take his department.

Affable and engaging on the surface, with a steely determination just below, Witkovsky is the model of today’s manager. When queried about his plans, he stresses his “openness”—to all the forms of photography that are generally considered to be “art,” to the myriad relations that photography has to the other visual arts, and to the various ways in which photography has been displayed through its history. Aware that he has cast a capacious net, Witkovsky quickly adds that he is “not directionless.” When he is asked about the theoretical influences that have shaped his perspective, Witkovsky demurs; he does not wish to be slotted.

That is not to say that Witkovsky lacks proclivities. When asked whether he will continue the tradition of connoisseurship, he replies that it is not one of his “highest values,” although it is essential if taken in the sense of “education”—particularly broad historical context—rather than confinement to “formal aesthetic” qualities.

The goal of “education of the eye” turns out to be Witkovsky’s passion and what distinguishes him from his predecessor. He becomes animated when he speaks of the need to mount exhibitions based on “solid new scholarship.” That emphasis is more than welcome; the greatest failure of the Photography Department has been its reluctance to provide visitors to its galleries with the context necessary to allow them to appreciate the works on view. If Witkovsky remedies that weakness, he will have provided a signal service.

Reluctant to become too expansive, Witkovsky suggests a look at his maiden exhibition currently in the new photography galleries, “Photography on Display: Modern Treasures,” which “is as programmatic as I will get.”

The show is a blend of continuity and change, combining the department’s timeworn “treasures” approach to mining the works in its collection with some of the best wall text that any major venue in the city has offered.

Visitors who wish to gain a deeper appreciation of photography will contemplate the images and read the text; their eyes will be educated. Perhaps there is virtue in eschewing programmatic definition. (Michael Weinstein)

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