Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander is the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Cantor Arts Center. Alexander has been invited to present her research and writing at the Harvard Art Museums, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Folk Art Museum, Fabric Workshop Museum, Laband Art Gallery, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. From 2017-2018 she was a Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
THAT: Can you tell us about your curatorial journey so far?
APA: My first museum job was working as a student intern at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University (my alma mater). That initial experience working directly with a collection at a university art museum was transformative for me. I later interned in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and during my Ph.D. studies, I was a Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While I was a fellow, I got my job at the Cantor and began work after I filed my dissertation. Throughout all of my experiences, the desire to return to a university art museum context remained strong, so I couldn’t be happier with where I’ve landed.
THAT: Cantor Arts Center's Asian American Art Initiative is one of the first dedicated studies of artists and makers of Asian descent in the US. Can you tell us what leads you and Marci (Kwon) to establish this initiative at Stanford?
APA: Stanford University was built in large part through Chinese migrant labor. As the Bay Area was the first landing place for many Asian immigrants, the history of Asian American artistic production here is deep and varied. Being at a university is a key to the initiative’s success and strength—Marci Kwon and I work together to build the preeminent collection of Asian American art, engage with students, work with Stanford Libraries to acquire archives, and mount a range of exhibitions. We are doing our best to set the stage for future generations of scholars and curators interested in Asian American art, and want to serve as a research hub where one can work directly with objects.
THAT: Can you tell us a bit about the current three inaugural Asian American Art Initiative exhibitions that open at the Cantor Arts Center?
APA: We wanted to launch the AAAI with a bang—between these three shows, The Faces of Ruth Asawa, At Home/On Stage: Asian American Representation in Photography and Film, and East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art, there are more than 150 objects by Asian American artists on view at the Cantor. (Remember that while there are 233 Asawa face masks, they count as one object)! This is a rare opportunity to view objects from a vast chronological range in diverse media. We hope that the collective impact of these shows fundamentally changes your understanding of American art and history.
THAT: The largest of the three exhibitions is the East of the Pacific exhibition. Can you tell us about the genesis and premise of the show?
APA: This show celebrates our efforts toward building one of the best collections of Asian American art in the country. Of the 96 objects in the exhibition, 93 of them are from Cantor’s collection, the majority of which was recently acquired. We want viewers to reorient their perspective—realizing that the western coast of the United States is “east of the Pacific,” and that our artistic history is inextricably tied to transpacific movement in both directions.
THAT: Can you tell us a bit about the short-term and long-term goals of the Cantor Arts Center's Asian American Art Initiative?
APA: We aim to become the academic and curatorial center for the study of Asian American art. Co-director Marci Kwon and I work together towards building the preeminent collection of Asian American art nationally, organizing programs, mounting exhibitions, and contributing original research. All while teaching the next generation of scholars and curators.
THAT: The opening of the inaugural Asian American Art Initiative exhibitions offers a powerful message of solidarity and resilience. What does success mean or look like for these particular exhibitions?
APA: Success looks a little different to us. Beyond the critical reception we receive in news outlets and elsewhere, we want to make sure our community feels seen and included. That the contributions of scholars and curators who laid the groundwork for us are properly acknowledged. We also want visitors to understand that the AAAI is a long-term commitment and investment and that this is actually just the beginning.
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