Visitors to Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center are frequently greeted by cutting-edge exhibitions of diverse styles, mediums, and perspectives. As a member of the museum, it’s always a pleasure to see the latest show or installation, or to re-experience something that I’d seen previously.
Of course, the artists and their creations are always the focus of the show, but behind each exhibition is a curator who spends months or years thoughtfully working to see the exhibition come together from beginning to end.
On this week’s episode of Art on the Air, I spoke with Erin Dunn, Telfair Museums’ Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, about how she came into her position, what the space is currently offering, as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by our unique period in history.
"It goes all the way back to high school in terms of me taking an art history class," Dunn said of the origins of her interest in curation, "and realizing that it combined all of my passions that I really enjoyed: Reading, writing, researching, art, [and] looking at history through this really interesting lens of visual culture."
Following the path laid by that early elective course, she ultimately graduated with a Masters in Art History from the University of Georgia in 2014. Later that year, she came to the Telfair as a Richard Middleton Curatorial Fellow, deciding that she wanted to get working with artists hands-on rather than pursuing a doctorate.
Before long, she knew she’d found her calling.
"Once you’re kind of in the midst of it and doing the things, you start to realize that’s where you want to be," Dunn explained. "When I knew that was where I wanted to be, it became my passion."
Under the tutelage of fellow Telfair Museums’ curator and mentor Courtney McNeil, it wasn’t long before Dunn was helping to plan and put on exhibitions. With an area of focus in photography, she felt like she could utilize the permanent collection to tell stories that other curators at the space hadn’t yet told. Exhibitions like "Watershed: Contemporary Landscape Photography" in 2016 and 2018’s "The Language of Vision: Early Twentieth-Century Photography" helped to establish Dunn’s place amongst her colleagues.
Then there was the Boxed In/Break Out project.
"Courtney and I were talking about those windows along Barnard Street," Dunn recalled of the project’s origins over four years ago.
"They had just been used for promotional banners for the museum. And it felt a little bit like wasted space. So the windows were a great space to, if someone’s just walking along, to kind of hopefully invite them in and to see something, and let them know that it’s a place for art."
The row of six large windows currently features "Breakout!," a series of powerful images by Amiri Geuka Farris. Artists are selected through a yearly call to the local community for submissions that Dunn personally oversees. More broadly, they’re an important component of the museum’s #art912 initiative, a program designed to increase the visibility of local artists.
"I love receiving proposals for those window spaces because a lot of times, even if the artist is not selected…I learn about people and I introduce myself and go do studio visits with them later," Dunn explained.
Those studio visits, which have now gone mostly virtual due to health concerns, began while Dunn was still an Associate Curator under her predecessor Rachel Reese. They’ve become an important way for her to connect with the Savannah art scene, as well as a means to find new artists for a gallery at the Jepson Center dedicated specifically to #art912 exhibitions.
Photographer Emily Earl’s current "Late Night Polaroids" show, for example, has its roots in a studio visit Dunn made over a year ago.
"I think a lot people have realized that these big ideas of big blockbuster exhibitions and expansions of museum spaces kind of has to come to halt for a while," Dunn acknowledged. "And so, for us, it’s important to turn to our community here, and focus on what makes Telfair Museums special, what makes Savannah special, look to our local artist community. And hope that people see themselves reflected in our building."
Current Dunn-curated exhibitions like "Breakout!" and "Late Night Polaroids," as well as the Georgia-artist-centric traveling exhibition, "Cut and Paste: Works of Paper," ensure that locals will most assuredly feel represented. At the same time, out-of-town visitors will get a peak at some of the talent Savannah has to offer.
To learn more about Erin Dunn’s work as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art follow erindunn_art on Instagram or search #art912. Telfair Museums’ current exhibition lineup can be found at Telfair.org. Next week I’ll be speaking with photographer and Sulfur Studios co-owner Emily Earl.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.