In February of this year, shortly before the coronavirus shut down the world, Ingrid Schaffner was announced as the first curator of the Chinati Foundation, the storied contemporary art institution that made the West Texas town of Marfa an international arts destination.
A lauded curator, Schaffner organized Pittsburgh’s 57th Carnegie International in 2018, one of the biggest American biennial-style exhibitions and the oldest. Prior to that, she spent 15 years at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, curating a closely watched exhibition program.
Schaffner has described her work as work coalescing around themes of archiving and collecting, photography, feminism, and alternate modernisms. Her books include “The Essential Joseph Cornell” and “Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus: The Surrealist Funhouse from the 1939 World’s Fair” and in nearly 200 essays and articles, writing in clear and lively prose, she has considered artists such as Maira Kalman, Julian Levy, Joan Jonas — and also Beverly Semmes’s Feminist Responsibility Project, chocolate art history, exhibition wall text, and ideas of museum storage and archiving. Currently, Schaffner is co-authoring a history of Skowhegan, the summer art program in Maine, founded by artists for artists in 1946.
Donald Judd founded Chinati in 1986 as a museum made by and for artists — a place where the large scale art remains permanently installed according to the artists’ wishes.
At the time of her appointment Schaffner said: “Judd’s concept for the Chinati Foundation was curatorial: to permanently site works of art within a dynamic of exhibitions, scholarship, artists residencies, and events.”
We caught up with Schaffner recently, ten months into a new job, and a pandemic.
Sightlines: Describe Marfa in three words.
Ingrid Schaffner: Border culture. Lucent art. Dark skies.
S: How would you describe the Marfa arts community?
IS: Generally un-generalizable. Particularly local and worldly, resilient, creative- and kind.
S: Who are your favorite local Marfa artists? What are your favorite local galleries or arts institutions?
IS: I don’t pick favorites. Recently, I very much enjoyed an online studio visit with Glen Hanson, who applies the craft of Native American beadwork to appropriated images of modernist abstraction — on deer hide. Time-absorbing and meditative, Glen’s art is an act of adoration. I also very much enjoyed artist Zoe Leonard’s online talk with Roxana Marcoci at the Museum of Modern Art. Leonard’s work in progress “Al Rio/To the River” will comprise over 500 photographs of Texas’s fluid border between the United States and Mexico, and a compendium publication.
S: What do you value most about your work at Chinati?
IS: Like many museums, Chinati is experiencing the enforced pause of the pandemic as a hard reset: time to hunker down with the core mission, operations, and values of this rare institution. Having started my job in February, it’s been intensely grounding and bonding to meet these challenges with a team of amazing new colleagues and our director Jenny Moore. I made my curatorial debut with Chinati Weekend 2020 and a full slate of online programs. I’ve really been valuing my weekly walkabouts of 34 buildings over 340 acres getting to know the collection.
S: What do you consider your greatest career achievement so far?
IS: The 2018 Carnegie International — my turn at America’s most historic biennial-style exhibition — was a complex beast of a project that culminated in a joyfully cohesive expression of curatorial craft and culture. Every part of this five-year project was activated to interconnect a long history, many audiences, design and research, distinct voices and perspectives. A series of drawing sessions, led by participants during their site visits to Pittsburgh, developed a diverse creative community of all ages around the International before the exhibition even opened. Jeremy Deller led an auditorium of children in a drawing scrum to see America through their eyes. And artists, including Zoe Leonard and Leslie Hewitt, continue to evolve bodies of work that debuted at the Carnegie.
S: What do you do on a day off?
IS: I love walking: being outdoors, drawing a line with my feet on the ground. I also enjoy the satisfaction of ironing. No starch.
S: How do you want the statewide arts community to evolve?
IS: Stay tuned for TEXAS ART TALKS a new series of online talks between Texas artists and curators; it starts next year and will be hosted by a regional network of spaces large and small, including Chinati. This is exactly the kind of cultural evolution I’m delighted to be a part of: one that connects artists, arts activators, and audiences through good work and talk.
S: Where is one place in Texas you want to go but haven’t been?
IS: There’s a whole lot of Texas I have yet to see. I haven’t been to San Antonio. I haven’t spent enough time in El Paso. I’ve explored a lot of Big Bend National Park, but never the state park. I look forward to such travel being within the bounds of safety and public health to expand my Texas horizons.