Sean Corcoran is the Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. Now, that's his title, but he's also a down-to-earth, warm, funny and accessible guy, who is a big fan of photographers and art. I've met quite a few curators in my life and I place Sean Corcoran at the top of my list with Anne Wilkes Tucker as the class acts of curators. Sean is also a very busy guy that's working on multiple shows right now, including the upcoming "Sandy" photo show. I appreciate him taking some time to answer my questions for Emerging Photographer. Folks, I present to you the quite candid Mr. Sean Corcoran. Enjoy...
So you're a curator at The Museum of the City of New York, I'm impressed! Did you win a lottery to get this gig or do you have a background in the world of art? Tell me about life before New York City.
Well, I grew up in New York's Finger Lakes Region and, up until relatively recently, Kodak was a big part of the economy there, so I was fascinated with photography at a relatively young age. I'd always been interested in History and Art and photography was a medium that perfectly combined the two. Out of graduate school, I did win the lottery of sorts by securing a job in the curatorial department at the George Eastman House in Rochester. I worked there for about seven wonderful years that allowed me to not only research and study the history of photography, but also afforded me the opportunity to learn the role of a curator. I started as a junior in the department and slowly worked my way up to having my own research projects and exhibitions. I arrived at the Museum of the City of New York in 2006 and the position has continued to allow me to grow professionally and work on exciting projects with many great photographers.
What are the biggest changes in photography and curating that you've witnessed since you got into the field?
I am still a relatively young curator in the field, but I have been doing this for over a dozen years and have noted some shifts along the way. When I started, there seemed to be skepticism toward digital photography, which has evidently completely fallen by the wayside. My biggest observation is not related specifically to photography but to the overuse of the word “curator.” It seems like everyone is a curator now. People who get dressed in the morning are “curating” their outfits! To me, it just seems to take something away from the serious work that professionals are trying to accomplish.
OK, pick one of the following and tell me why. A) You get to play one inning with your favorite baseball team. B) You get to perform on stage with any band. C) Have dinner with any artist in history.
David, you know me well enough to know that music, baseball and art are three things I obsesses over. I guess I get no softballs from you….so of the three, I would choose B. However, I wouldn’t even have to be on stage playing alongside a musician. I would simply want to be in the audience hearing John Coltrane perform during the height of his powers. To me, music has this spiritual power, one that can transport you, and Coltrane is the exemplar of this. I would have loved to hear him play live! But I would gladly take Albert Alyer as a second choice.
What advice would you give an artist that wanted their work exhibited in the permanent collection of Museum of the City of New York or, for that matter, any major museum?
It’s really important to maintain realistic expectations. The Museum of the City of New York only has a couple of photography exhibitions every year–they take significant effort and financial commitment. Very few artists are granted a solo exhibition in a museum. I am not trying to discourage any artists, but be aware of the situation. I think it is crucial that an artist consider the curators they approach and what they have demonstrated as their tastes or institutional preferences (same goes for gallerists). An artist’s time is valuable, as is that of a curator, so place your efforts where you are most likely to succeed. When you do meet with a curator, be prepared with a tight edit of your work and a concise way of speaking about it.
It's almost over. This is your last question. What was the moment, I hope you've had one, when you realized, I'm here and I'm doing the coolest job I could ask for?
A visit to the Eastman House from Richard Avedon and the Sheik of Qatar was certainly a highlight, but, really, every day I think about how fortunate I am to be doing what I do. What other job allows you to walk into a vault of hundreds of thousands of photographs that you can look at, appreciate and learn from? I also really enjoy the exchange of ideas when working with artists, established and emerging. I want to help them advance their work and they too help me advance my awareness and thoughts about the medium.