Conversation at the Crisp Museum

Interview with Peter Nguyen

Chintia Kirana, Expose Art Editor (left) and Peter Nguyen, Director and Curator of Crisps Museum (right). Photo by Justin Kenealy.

Expose Art Magazine catches up with Peter Nguyen, the museum director for the Crisp Museum at Southeast Missouri State University.

Nguyen: In the visual arts, we have always had problems with artists and young people.  It’s because  we’re not upfront like theater, dance, or music, who have to perform live.  As an artist, you don’t stand  in front of  people painting.  You do your work and you put it up on a wall and  say, “OK well,  that’s me, right there.” It’s not you; it’s a painting. So, that’s something that we can learn from the  performing arts.  You can’t be shy when you doing  other forms of art, like theater or music. Those arts tend to be more accessible, what I mean by accessible is that artists in those areas don’t shy away when talking to the audience or connecting with  them. In the visual arts, we don’t do that very well. We tend to shy away from it.

I think that’s probably the key component right there, especially when you get to grad school. What if  they said, “OK, you’re going to show every single week; you have to be in front of people. We’re going to throw you out there, in front of people so that you can get over this shyness, so  you get over this idea that  you don’t have to talk to people about your work.”

Expose: The idea that your work should speak for itself.

Nguyen:  Yes, well, your art cannot speak for itself and it cannot sell itself either.  That’s the reason why musicians are out there playing music and talking to people about their work. You have to be personable enough.  So, I think that’s probably one of the key differences between visual arts and the performing arts.

The reason why  I mention this is because I’m always thinking about the museum aspect.  Now that I’m on this side of the art business,  I’m always thinking about how do I get more people into the museum. How do you get a bigger audience? How do you get more people into your museum to see what you’re doing and to support the things that you’re doing?  

Expose: So, how do you capture a bigger audience?

Nguyen:  Well, part of it is you have to do exhibitions that, especially in an area where you don’t get a lot of different types of artwork, is currently being produced. If you’re in a university setting, you want to also bring in artwork that that you can show  students, that will stretch their learning and exhibits for the community as well.  Exhibits that they normally wouldn’t see or, especially in a small location, that they would usually have to travel to a larger city to actually see.  So, those are some of the things that you know you have to try to achieve as a museum director, at a smaller museum, in a smaller location.

It’s  tough because you’re always thinking, “OK, what type of exhibition would do well?”  You also have to think about how  you can reach audiences that you normally would not reach.  You’re always going to have the art crowd coming to the museum or gallery. Those are the people you’re always going to have come to your openings and exhibitions.  You don’t really have to reach very far or do much to get them to come. It’s the other type of visitors that you really don’t usually get  in the museum. When you’re in a smaller, rural setting, it’s a little bit more difficult because you have to get to where it is that you need to go.  For me, the key is to get more young people. Most of the young people don’t drive, but guess what happens if they’re interested and if you have something for them to do? Who has to drive them?

So, I tap into the young audience and the parents have to drive.  I’m getting the parents as well, but you have to really think from a different perspective when you’re working in the museum setting or in the gallery.  You have kind of think differently in terms of who do you want to get into to see the work?

So, I’m always thinking about how to utilize some of the some of the techniques from the performing arts. They can be utilized to get people to come to you. If you make it memorable and they remembered they’ll come back. Their experience is like at  music performances,  they’re like, “hey, that wasn’t so bad. I like it.”  You have to kind of use different approaches and borrow from other areas, especially their marketing and things like that.

Expose: How much power do you have in the setting up of the exhibitions?

Nguyen: In this museum, I’m also the curator. I pretty much have the power to choose the exhibitions.  I don’t have to answer to an exhibition board. I feel it has an educational component but also shows artwork has not been seen in this area.  I pretty much have free reign.  There are certain things that you can’t do it and that goes with the territory. In terms of what’s been shown and what’s not being shown, that comes down to your location and you have to be cognizant of where you are in the museum and also the location of the museum. .

Expose: So how does your budget work?

Nguyen:  We are part of the university; the majority of its budget comes from the university.  Most museums that are connected to a university has their budget set from year to year. There are some things that museum can do in terms of increasing their budget: by having memberships and special events and also money that they save or come from donors etc. to supplement the actual budget that they receive from the university.

Expose: How do you seek your artists?

Nguyen: I do various things. I go to openings, go to exhibitions etc.  Of course, I have a long history in the museum  and in the art gallery field as well. I know certain artists so I’m connected to other people and a lot of times that helps  bring in more artists.  Of course, when you work with the companies and travel exhibitions, not all of the exhibition are solo shows by a single artist. Sometimes, I will post an open call for portfolios to get a sense of what artists are doing out there, if I can’t get out of to all the different shows. Most museum directors and curators will go to some of the art fairs to see some of the work that’s being produced around the country or around the world.

Expose: When you do an open call, do you invite the artist sometimes?

Nguyen:  It’s similar to what a gallery would do, They would have it on their website and they would have an open call and you submit your work with x number of slides with your artist statement etc. etc. It would be posted on the website and it would be for a short period of time, just to kind of to review what’s going on.  Find what artists are out there and who’s interested.

Expose: Can you talk about the difference between a university museum and a regular museum?

Nguyen: University Museum is, of course, connected to a university. So, budget, guidelines, and the process in terms of how things are done is completely different than at a museum that’s not connected to the University. A regular museum, that is a standalone museum, even though it’s a not-for-profit, have a board, but the structures is a little bit different. Their funding is done through endowments and things like that. So, in a sense, they have the freedom to do a little bit more. They don’t have the type of strict guidelines that they have to follow in terms of what they can show, what they what they can do, and what they can’t do.  On one hand, they have a little bit more freedom but, on the other hand, if an endowment  goes sour, they have a huge problem. Whereas, at a university museum, you’re protected in a way, in terms of your funding. You get your funding unless  the regents at the university decide,  “well, we don’t need a museum anymore etc.” That’s the downside.  As long as there’s a need for the museum, then the museum will be around. Whereas, you know a private museum it will be there; it just depends on how good they’re managing their finances.

Expose: Let’s talk about how you got into becoming a museum director and curator.

Nguyen: Well, let’s just say if it doesn’t happen overnight.  It took me ten years to get to to where I’m at today. Of course, when I went to school I did not go for museum administrations. I was an art major. So, I have my have M.F.A. in painting; so, I took the long route. Now, they still are plenty of students that major in  Museum Studies and Museum Administration, but you have to pretty much have to start at the bottom and work your way up, and then, you also have to choose wisely and decide where you’re going to go.  Pick the right time and you have to make those choices for yourself in terms of what’s best for you.  You have to be willing to jump around.  For me, it was jumping around to another country to get to where I’m at today. If you want to be a museum director, you almost have to do that because museum directors start off small. If you want to move to a larger museum, you have to work at a small museum first. But you also have to learn as much as you can while you’re working to do all these different things so that way you’re more well rounded.

It’s better to be able to do all of the various jobs. It helps out because you never know when you’re going to need to do those things again. Even if you haven’t done it in awhile but least you’ve done it before. Especially if you’re short-staffed, especially if you’re going to a museum where you have you don’t have a whole lot of staff. Let’s just say if you’re going to the Met, you don’t usually have that problem. Because the Met is huge! They have plenty of staff members so the museum director will never have to really pitch in and help move a sculpture unless the museum director wants to,  if they even have time to.

Expose: What was your position at the bottom?

Nguyen: Starting from the bottom would be a Preparer, working to install exhibitions, doing all the grunt work, that type of thing. Doing those things, it’s helpful because then you know how to put up an exhibition. It’s helpful being an artist. You have an idea of design and the layout of artwork and exhibitions. If you are working under someone else, also learn as much as much as you can by observing. That’s probably an important key to working museum world,  learning by observing other people and how they do things because, if you come in with an idea of a  how you want to do it, it may not work out that way. So, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Like I said, to it took me ten years but, it was a good ten years! I learned a lot in those in those ten years.

Maybe it’s a little bit faster now. It might have been a little bit faster if I had I done Museum Studies but at the time, that wasn’t something I really wanted to get into. I never thought about it.   We talked a little bit earlier about not getting having options when you’re in grad school, to maybe try things instead of just doing the hard thing. That wasn’t really a big option when I was in grad school. Sometimes, I think it’s good to make students do certain things, even though they may not want to do it and they may not be doing that when they get out of grad school, but they have that experience.

The other thing is, a M.F.A. is your terminal degree.  There is no class for how to be a really good teacher. It’s the luck of the draw. You get lucky when you find you have a mentor that’s really, really good, but no two people are the same. You might have a really good, exceptional teacher and you learned so much from that person or they’re really really good at teaching concept in general. It’s really hard to duplicate that because it comes down to again to personality. Personality and experience: no two people have the same personality. If you do not have an outgoing personality, it will be difficult. Especially in the arts.  That’s what I think that’s part of the problem that we have in the art world. It is that we’re not outgoing enough. It’s hard to teach other people how to be outgoing. That’s reason why  theatre, music, and dance, they’re much more outgoing. They don’t care whether they’re out there. They don’t care they’re singing in a hallway.

If you don’t have a studio space, You’re going to draw wherever. You draw at a coffee shop. You do this; you do that and people come up and be like, “that’s pretty cool.” and you’re like, “thank you.” I think that’s what a lot of young artists need, is that spirit. I’m not afraid to make art anywhere and everywhere and I don’t care what people think. Just like musicians and dancers, they don’t care what you think; they’re out there.

So, artists have to have that fearlessness. You have to do it, wherever and whenever that it’s required.  Graffiti artists, they don’t care,  they’re, “I’m a free spirit. Yes, I’m going to do this. I have this urge.”  That’s what’s what a lot of young artists need, especially in grad school. It comes down to being in the studio. They are in there all the time making art. It’s not about whether it’s a success or not it’s just about making the making the work. If it’s good, if it’s successful, you are going to know that, “hey, it pays off.” and that’s the problem is a lot of artists I see. Especially those who want to get it right first time.

Expose: No patience
Nguyen: No, you don’t have the patience. You shouldn’t care about whether it is right the first time and it takes a long time to get that experience. You have to be willing to make mistakes and I think in the in our culture, whether it’s in art or not, we’re too afraid to make mistakes because we don’t want people to see us make mistakes.  It’s OK to make mistakes if learned from it and you get something out of it.

Please visit Peter Nguyen Conversation with Expose for clips of the interview.