An interview with Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

“It is impossible to say in advance when photography is an art and when it is not”


The Museum of Modern Art has the distinction of being one of the first major museums in the world to dedicate a separate department to the collection and display of photography.

Their 25,000-strong collection has remained one of the most extensive, ranging from early works dated around 1840 to contemporary photographs, with a particular emphasis on modern American work. An exhibition of photographs from the collection, “American Photography, 1890-1965”, is currently making a tour of museums throughout Europe.

The Art Newspaper’s sister paper, Le Journal des Arts, talked to MOMA’s Chief Curator of Photography and the organiser of the exhibition, Peter Galassi.

Who began the collection?

Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, deserves a great deal of credit for recognising the artistic importance of photography. But the most original and important aspect of the photography collection of the museum is not its early date of origin or even the quality of the works it contains but its presence within a museum devoted broadly to modern visual culture—not only to the traditional arts, such as painting and sculpture, but also to architecture, design and film.

How would you define a museum collection of photography? What criteria must it meet?

By 1929, when the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors, photography had already achieved an important place in modern art, and Barr certainly had this in mind when he planned to include photography in the museum’s collections and programmes. But he also understood that, like film and industrial design, photography plays a central role in modern life and culture, whether or not it is regarded as a fine art.

All kinds of photography, not only the works of self conscious artists, have changed the way we perceive and understand the world. It seems to me that a museum that deals with photography is obliged to deal with these two different, and often opposing, understandings of photography’s significance.

It is impossible to say in advance as a matter of principle, when photography is an art and when it is not. People who are anxious about the status of photography as a fine art may regard this as frustrating, but in my view it is part of what makes photography so interesting.

What direction have you steered the collection in?

Shortly after I became Chief Curator of the Department of Photography in October 1991, my colleagues and I initiated a systematic review of our collecting policy, which we have since reviewed periodically. For older pictures, that review led us to seek out particular works of high quality that would strengthen the comprehensiveness of the collection.

Some examples of these recent acquisitions are works by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Max Burchartz, John Gutmann, André Kertész, Etienne-Jules Marey, Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil, Alexander Rodchenko, and Umbo. For art of the past twenty or thirty years, we have focused on acquiring extensive groups of works by major figures, notably the complete series of sixty-nine “Untitled Film Stills” by Cindy Sherman, as well as important groups of works by Lucas Samaras, Jan Groover, William Wegman, Lee Friedlander and others. Of course, this is an ongoing effort, far from complete.

Do you give particular attention to any era?

The other collections in the museum began in the 1880s. In photography we reach back to the beginning, around 1840. Nevertheless, the emphasis is on the twentieth century, and in current collecting our highest priority is recent work.

Do you take account of and buy all types of photographs: news, nudes, still-lifes, portraits, advertising. Do you try to establish a balance between them or is this not relevant?

We try to see photography whole, without respect to arbitrary categories. Especially since the 1960s, it has been essential to regard photography as one tool among others in contemporary art, which, since Rauschenberg and Warhol, is full of hybrid forms that incorporate photography in one way or another.

How do you buy: at auction, from galleries, or directly from photographers or their agents?

We do buy at auction, but rarely. Since the great majority of our purchases are of contemporary work, we buy a great deal directly from artists as well as from their galleries. Our weekly review of portfolios that artists bring or send to us still plays an important role in our effort to remain abreast of new photographic work. Naturally, however, as galleries that exhibit photography have proliferated, the proportion of work that we acquire through them has risen in recent years.

On the subject of donations: what are the criteria by which you take new works into the collection, how often do you receive them and what have been some of your most important recent gifts?

Like most American museums, the Museum of Modern Art was created and is supported, not by the State, but by private individuals. Gifts of works of art are a very important part of that support. Particularly notable in recent years is a series of gifts of outstanding photographs from New York collector Paul F. Walter, a trustee and Vice Chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Photography. As for offered gifts, our closest friends are not only generous, they expect us to exercise our curatorial judgment and would be disturbed if we did not.

What is the relationship between your acquisition and exhibition policies?

Our acquisition and exhibition programmes are closely linked. A great deal of thought and research goes into our exhibitions, and for older work and especially for contemporary work, acquisitions selected from exhibitions have long played a central role in the growth of the collection.

How would you assess the current role of MOMA and how will you hope to expand it?

Three important factors have affected the appreciation of photography in the United States. The US has little material relating to medieval cathedrals and Renaissance monuments, has been spared modern wars on its soil, and is the beneficiary of the talents of brilliant immigrants. Each of these factors has surely contributed to the vitality and appreciation of photography in the US.

Over the past two decades, however, European museums have done an increasingly impressive job with photography, with the Centre Pompidou among the leaders.

For the moment, MOMA remains one of the very few places in the world where visitors may see an outline of the history of photography in fine original examples six days a week. For post-Renaissance painting this function is performed by dozens and dozens of museums but for photography it is rare, which is partly why we attach such importance to it. When the museum expanded in 1984, the space devoted to the collection more than doubled, so that we now exhibit nearly 200 pictures at any one time. We are now planning to expand again within the next decade or so, and the space for photography will doubtless increase again, although aspects of our collection may be integrated with other mediums.

What proportion of MOMA’s budget goes to the photography department and what proportion of that goes to exhibitions?

There are modest endowments for both acquisitions and exhibitions, but the museum’s budget for these purposes is largely a function of its ability to solicit support from individuals, businesses and foundations. There is a fundamental commitment to the role of the photography programme at MOMA, but it is also part of the curator’s job to help to seek support outside the museum so that the programme prospers. For example, the Department of Photography maintains a close working relationship with Springs Industries, Inc., a major textile manufacturer, which has supported more than twenty photography exhibitions at the museum since 1978.

What kind of relationship do you have with the other departments at MOMA?

There are six curatorial departments in the museum: Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Architecture and Design, Film and Video, and Photography. I am pleased to say that exchanges among them are very active and productive, as my colleagues and I feel they must be, for the museum to do its job properly today.

For example, we are currently planning together a major series of interrelated exhibitions, all drawn from the collection, to mark the millenium. This collaborative project is partly conceived as an experiment leading toward a new larger, but different, Museum of Modern Art. We all recognise that we share the good fortune of having the opportunity to re-invent the museum for the future. Glenn Lowry, who was named director of the museum about a year ago, shares this enthusiasm.

Does your interest in painting facilitate these questions, or would they exist whoever was in charge of the department of photography?

You might be surprised to learn that the interests of curators at the museum are very broad, no matter what department each individual might happen to work in.

“American Photography 1890-1965” will be at the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez, Valencia (27 June-15 September) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (14 November-27 January 1997)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “It is impossible to say in advance when photography is an art and when it is not”