Karen Irvine, curator and associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College Chicago, was born and raised in Chicago. She studied International Relations and French as an undergraduate, worked in Prague in her early 20s and did photography as a hobby. Once she realized her passion for photography Irvine decided to go to graduate school in Prague at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, or FAMU, and graduated with an MFA in Photography.
Below, Irvine describes her unusual story that led her to curating and her responsibilities at the MoCP.
What sparked your interest in becoming a curator?
I was not planning to be a curator. I went to photography school in Prague and wanted to stay in that field. I came back to Chicago after school ended. I heard about the MoCP and called one day asking if they needed any help. I volunteered for a couple months and left, but eventually the Museum offered me a full-time job. That was 12 years ago and I’ve been here since. I realized along the way it would be fun to be a curator so I went back to school for art history at UIC, but it took me a long time to finish, seven years in fact. I was in my early 30s when I started as a curator. I did the program at night, one class at a time, while I was still working, and I also had kids in between.
What is your role at MoCP?
Mostly I think of ideas for shows and plan exhibits including some traveling ones. I work on publications and monographs. I do a lot of writing for museum publications and a handful of pieces for magazines outside of the museum. I research and purchase works for collections and negotiate deals with galleries and artists. I supervise scholarships and catalogue entries for the website. I partly work with fundraising and strategic planning for the institution and in general am part of a lot of other conversations. I wear a bunch of different hats because it’s a smaller institution.
How has your experience at the MoCP been so far?
When I wake up on Monday morning I think ‘Great I get to go to work’ and actually mean it. Every artist is different and the projects vary, so it is fun because the content and atmosphere changes. I feel like I am in grad school because I learn so much on every project. It’s been a thrill for me to find a career that I am completely engaged in. That’s what keeps me going.
You currated the Jan Tichy exhibit that ran through December. Tell me about it. How long did it take to prepare for the exhibit?
We started working on the exhibit over a year ago. I invited Jan Tichy to do a collection with us, but then he started to really engage with the MoCP and get involved in more ways than one. We commissioned him to delve into the Museum’s permanent collection (which is about 11,000 pieces) as well as a number of his signature pieces, to make them more accessible to the public. But he also helped us redesign our website and make a cornerstone gallery — the project became bigger than we thought it would. We worked with Tichy longer than we have with any other artist. He has amazingly integrated well with our staff.”
What do you want viewers to get out of the Jan Tichy Exhibit?
Like anything else, we want people to think and have an art experience that snaps them out of their everyday experience. In this case, we want people to think about a collection and an archive — how you define a collection, how art works resonate with each other, what the tensions between digital and analog are, and so forth. We want to enrich people’s knowledge and give them something to think about.