An Interview with Tory Schendel Cox, Art Curator at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science
Tory Schendel Cox — the Virginia G. Schroeder Curator of Art at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History, and Science — knew that 2020 was going to be an important year in her field, but she did not know it would turn out to be essential. She had been planning a number of exhibitions — including one to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage — for over 12 months, but her effort didn’t come to fruition the way she hoped. The current health pandemic created a new set of circumstances, and Cox had to figure out how to adapt her life and profession to the new reality.
In a 2009 paper, Museums and Community Engagement, Cox argues that “communities and audiences are never static and are continually changing,” and because “museums exist to serve the public,” art curators need “to get out of their ivory walls and mingle in their communities.” She believes that “it is imperative for museums to survey and track changes to keep current on the needs and desires of those they intend to serve.” But serving a community during a pandemic presents a number of problems, especially when mingling with the community puts the community in danger. Thinking about her role, Cox decided to take a different approach to art curation during this time.
"This is the first time in our generation where we've dealt with something like this," Cox told the Evansville Courier & Press. So, using social media, she reached out to the community and asked people to submit their stories, experiences, and pictures. “What I've been trying to do is documenting stories of what people's life looks like in quarantine, getting their testimonies and putting them on a steel grey background because that color represents isolation and self-sufficiency." The project was also picked up by other museums and institutions. Joining forces with the American Alliance of Museums, Cox is now a part of its COVID-19 collecting committee.
But, documenting life during the pandemic is not the only thing the Virginia G. Schroeder Curator of Art has been doing. Her current exhibit “A Celebration of Women” features selected works from the museum’s permanent collection to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage. She is also responsible for the museum’s virtual “Object of the Day” exhibit that features “a daily post in which a piece from [the] permanent collection [is] showcased and interpreted across all social media platforms. The pictures were compiled by the museum’s Collection Manager and Marketing Associate.
The museum is planning to reopen to the public sometime next month, and that means Cox is back at her office, but her work had never stopped and is, arguably, extremely important. ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Tory Schendel Cox about her love of art, curation, and the community she serves.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
How did you get interested in art and art curation?
[During] my senior year of high school, I was sent off to Germany; that’s where I finished high school. It was a big turning point in my life. I’ve always been interested in art and photography, but I had no ambition to go to college, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My mom was not OK with her daughter’s college “ambition,” so she sent me to Germany and made me pay for it to get perspective. It was the best thing she could have ever done for me.
I went to a liberal arts school. So, when I was in Germany, I saw different historical sites — like monuments and museums — and got that cultural experience.
I saw the Bust of Charlemagne (1349) in Aachen, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The gold bust, the jewels, the stones that were in the crown — it was amazing. I felt something in my heart; I felt something come over my entire body. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I thought: Whatever this feeling is, I want to dedicate my life to it. I started to learn more about museums, artifacts, and stewardship. Art curator came across the screen when I was Googling [information], trying to figure out what this was. From that moment on, my entire life was dedicated to becoming an art curator.
When I came back to the states to start college, I went to Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and studied German, art history, museum studies, classics, a little bit of French, and a little bit of Italian — because if you’re going to make it in the art world you have to be able to understand different languages and read different histories.
I got my first museum jobs when I was 18. I was the Collection’s Manager intern at the Indiana State Museum, and that helped me a lot because I learned how to take care of art. I was [also] a Gallery Guard and Visitor’s Associate at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. With the help of my advisor, I ended up networking my way to the curatorial suite. So, by the time I was 19, I was the Contemporary Curator of Art intern, which was a big deal because usually you have to have a master’s or a doctorate degree to hold a position like that. The first catalogue I worked on was Ai Weiwei; it was absolutely amazing and I got to virtually meet and interact with him.
What did you have to learn to work in collections and art curation?
When I got the job at the state museum working in collections, I made sure to read and to learn everything that I could. There are a lot of classes that you have to take when you’re there; the museum makes sure to get you certified in object handling, caring for paintings, storing ceramics, transporting artifacts — wrapping items and getting them ready for shipping and receiving — and doing condition reports. You have to learn the whole shebang.
The good thing about this type training is that most curators don’t have a collections management and/ or registrar background, but it helped me a lot to move forward, because the experience gave me that understanding of stewardship, so when I got my job as the contemporary curator intern at the IMA a year later, I really knew how to care for the pieces that were coming in. They were pretty shocked that a 19-year old could catalogue, take in art, do condition reports, and perform provenance research on the pieces, too — that’s what curators do. As time progressed, I got an appreciation for the field and realized that this is what I wanted to do. I really appreciated contemporary art at that point, but medieval has always been my thing.
I think it was from that Charlemagne experience while living in Germany. While I was there, I was traveling a lot, too. It’s easy to bounce around between different countries, so I got to see most of Europe and art was what made all of this happen.
When I switched from the contemporary department to the medieval department as a curatorial researcher at the IMA, I was able to get a scholarship through my university to do research on a medieval saint that we only knew five facts about, and one of those facts unfortunately turned out to be wrong. But, my friend, Dr. Sharon Wailes, and I ended up producing a pretty detail-oriented 20-page paper on Saint Barbara (1490) — from Germany, high-gothic period — and it was a wonderful experience. That’s where I fell in love with this career, I thought: I have to do this for the rest of my life. But, of course, like all art professionals, you have to take the odd side job to get whatever experience you can. So, I contract curated and did other art events around Indianapolis while working a plethora of customer service jobs to make ends meet.
What is the first piece of art that you fell in love with?
Probably the Bust of Charlemagne, because that’s when it all started to make sense. When I was growing up, my family and I visited a lot of art museums. My dad took us to Chicago every year and we would rotate the museums. My mom is very art savvy, too. And my school would take us to museums. I always liked museums, but it wasn’t a thing until my experience in Germany.
What clicked for you when you saw it?
I don’t know, just an overarching feeling that something about this was important. It gave validation to the human experience; someone created something so beautiful, it spoke to a 17-year-old without context — just through sheer beauty.
I think that is what’s important about art; people seem to forget that when you look at something, your visual experience isn’t going to be like someone else’s, which is why we need a variety of art, from the traditional to the contemporary and everything in between.
Where do you place art in social media driven culture?
Social media unites people and this is where digital curation gets interesting, and why it helps to have a working understanding of contemporary art. When you digitize art, you are still digitizing human experiences, so you can have that individual or community aspect, much like you do on social media.
As an art curator at the Evansville Museum, what do you hope your art does for people?
Museums exist for the public in general. I’m being trusted to preserve, protect, display, and interpret 30,000 objects — that’s what the permanent collection has right now. What I want to do is make sure that the art is accessible to anybody. I want to be able to connect the people of Evansville and the tristate area to the art they trust us to have. It’s about the people in these communities; if I can initiate dialogue or feelings about the displayed works, I did my job.
How do you feel when people ask you about the works?
I just want to tell them as much as I can in a way they can easily understand and grasp. I want to make sure they get the So what? aspect of a particular piece — why it’s important. I am so delighted when people ask questions. It’s awesome to share what I know, because I’ve read about and researched the pieces in the museum and am super passionate about them. I make sure the information I share is backed up, and when people ask me for sources, I do my best to provide them, even if it means going back to my office and looking them up. I’m so excited when someone cares enough to ask. I want to share that journey of discovery with them, because I just went through the process of trying to figure these pieces out.
What is your favorite exhibition so far?
Our French poster exhibition, “La Belle Époque: Commercial Creativity in European Advertising.” I read every play, every story, individually researched every poster. This was one of the harder things I’ve had to do. I just got hired, not even two months passed, and my boss drops a folder on my desk and says: ‘Here’s the first exhibition you’re going to curate.” That’s AMAZING, because of the amount of trust it takes for someone to do that, especially with someone new. I am extremely grateful to her for letting me have that opportunity, because I viewed it as the ultimate test — you’re either going to sink or swim.
What would you like to work on that you haven’t had a chance to attempt yet?
I would really love to do a medieval exhibition at some point — really give homage to my academic roots. But I would also love to do something Egyptian. When I was trying to figure out what period of art I wanted to focus on during my undergraduate studies, I was split between Egyptology and Medieval art history. I actually learned how to read hieroglyphs in middle school and ever since then have been borderline obsessed with Egyptian culture. My mom was a good advocate on that, too, because she was an archaeologist.While she taught me how to appreciate Egyptian culture, she did a lot of work around Angel Mounds, and in the Kentucky region on the other side of the Ohio river. But there were more opportunities and classes to support medieval art history at IUPUI, so it made more sense, but I would love to do an exhibition on each at some point.
For those interested in learning more about art, what books would you recommend?
Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History. It is a very well-written easy-to-understand book that mixes historical content with the art, she hits on a little bit of everything.
What do you want people to know about the power of art?
I want people to know that anyone can get into art. Art is for everyone, and the inclusiveness and accessibility is constantly growing. Specifically, curators are working vigorously to reinterpret artifacts to give a more authentic and shared authoritative understanding. This is the due-diligence permanent collections deserve. Also, artworks are the acquisitions of memories displayed in visual time-capsules. When one visits a museum, specifically art, you receive a better understanding of how someone, like the artist, viewed and interpreted life through pictorial representations.