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Meet Robin Jaffee Frank, New Curator At Wadsworth Atheneum

Yale Veteran Will Bring In Show About Coney Island To Hartford Museum


February 23, 2012

Many years ago, Robin Jaffee Frank was working at the BBC in London, as part of a crew making documentaries about art and artists. One day while on a shoot at a museum, she had a revelation that changed the course of her life.

"I wanted to be on the other side of the camera," Jaffee Frank said. "I was thinking, 'that's the wrong color to paint the gallery' and 'that label doesn't answer the questions I've got.'

"I wanted to be with the art. I wanted to fall in love with a work of art, to get to know all the ins and outs of it," she said.

Today, after getting a master's degree and doctorate at Yale, and spending 21 years curating at Yale University Art Gallery, Jaffee Frank is embarking on a new adventure in her chosen career. She is the new chief curator and Krieble Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. She replaces Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, who is now senior curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"My career has not been a straight line, but ... my background is in American literature, so I was already steeped in culture," Jaffee Frank said. "I'm interested in history, the American experience, the experience of human creativity.

"I like to look at a piece of art and think who owned it, what its purpose was on a personal and social level," she said. "I'm fascinated by what objects tell us about who we are, who we might be, what brought that object into being."

Welcoming Atmosphere

Jaffee Frank said her primary goal in coming to the Atheneum is to "make everybody feel welcome here.

"People should feel confident looking at objects in museums. They should feel confident interpreting those objects," she said. "People tend to be confident with texts, because of course in school we all learn to read. And we've all become very adept at interpreting moving images.

"But you should be able to stand in front of a still object from your culture or time or a culture or time you know little about and have access to it. You should feel confident enough to look at this object and let it speak to you," she said. "We are bombarded with so much imagery today, but at the same time, there is not as much visual literacy."

Jaffee Frank acknowledged that to a great degree, love of art can't be taught, that some people just have a "bam!" moment when a piece of art grabs them.

"The 'bam!' is a good start. But we want people to come back," she said. "'Bam!' can make you fall in love, but we can make that falling in love richer and deeper. Great objects have so many layers of meaning, the story behind the object, why the artist made it."

Helen A. Cooper, Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery, called Frank "a superb scholar with just this incredible energy.

"Nothing is too much trouble to pursue. No point is too small not to be investigated," she said. "She's a wonderful connoisseur."

Life And Career

Jaffee Frank, 57, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and raised in the Long Island community of Baldwin, N.Y., the only child of parents Nathan and Marian, who were insurance brokers.

"My background was in TV. I worked at NBC as a receptionist during summer and winter recesses starting when I was 16," she said.

She was the first person in her family to go to college; she got an undergraduate degree in English and American literature at Brandeis University.

In 1973, at Brandeis, she met her future husband, Robert Frank, when they stood on opposite sides of a debate about international politics and the Middle East. His interests were completely unlike hers: He became a consultant specializing in international finance and political risk.

"We both find what the other person does creative and different and interesting," she said. "We always have something to talk about."

During an independent study fellowship in England, she had that job at the BBC. "I loved it," she said. "London was my base and it gave me the opportunity to travel and see museums all over Europe."

After that fellowship, she came back, enrolled at Yale and began her journey toward a career in visual arts, earning a masters and doctorate in History of Art. She even creates some art herself, but not as much as she used to. "I still doodle quite a bit. I still draw," she said. "Let's just say that being an artist is a very humbling experience."

Immediately upon receiving her doctorate, in June 1990, she was hired by the Yale University Art Gallery as an assistant curator. In 2006, she was appointed Alice and Allan Kaplan Senior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture. Among the exhibits she curated there were "Charles Demuth Poster Portraits, 1923-1929," "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery" and "Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures," about funerary jewelry.

She also co-authored the catalog "American Daguerreotypes from the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection" and contributed to "A Private View: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection" and two volumes of "Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana."

Jaffee Frank and her husband have moved from their home in Westport to an apartment at Bushnell Towers in Hartford. They have a grown son, Jared, who lives in Los Angeles. His company, Topsy Productions, does art production and design for film and theater. Jared also directs films.

Coney Island

So why leave Yale, where she has been comfortably at home for decades? Jaffee Frank said her farewell party "was the only time in my professional life that I was moved to tears," but she has no regrets.

"The Atheneum has an extraordinary collection," she said. "I was particularly drawn to the unparalleled Hudson River School collection, and the amazing collection of European and American modernism, and their collection of surrealism and neo-romantics is very rare."

She said her focus in the coming months will be examining the Atheneum's collection of 50,000-plus items and look to re-installing many of them, and also to reclaiming space now used for storage and use that space for exhibition. "We'll be gaining 14 to 16 percent of gallery space," she said.

Susan Talbott, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, said that the museum did a yearlong search for Kornhauser's replacement.

"We took a long time because it's really one of the most critical positions of the museum," she said. "Interestingly, after that yearlong search, we wound up finding exactly the perfect person in our own backyard at Yale."

Talbott said the search committee was looking for two distinct skills: someone with both curatorial and scholarly skill.

"We needed a proven scholar in American art who really could look at he whole range of American art and not just be an expert in only one particular area. A generalist," Talbott said. "So many of the people we talked to had a very narrow focus and very little interest or sympathy outside that narrrow focus.

"Others had scholarly skills but no people skills," she said. "Robin had exactly the right combination of both."

Despite missing the Yale gallery, Jaffee Frank has brought a bit of that gallery with her. A show she was curating when she left, "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 18612008," now will be presented by the Atheneum instead, in 2015.

"An extraordinary array of artists have taken Coney Island as an inspiration and a setting," Jaffee Frank said of the popular amusement and resort destination. "It's not just a strip of sand in Brooklyn. It holds a singular place in the American imagination."

Meanwhile, she is enjoying living in Hartford. "This city has great bones, our sister institutions, Hartford Stage, Real Art Ways, TheaterWorks, the Bushnell, Hartford Symphony," she said. "People need to be encouraged to get out there and enjoy them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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