Interview with MOPA's "Curator at Large" Merry Foresta

You have recently been appointed as MOPA’s Curator at Large. Tell us about your new role.

First let me say how pleased I am to be working with MOPA. The staff has been welcoming, both to me personally and to the idea of someone working off site, reporting on interesting photographers I may encounter away from San Diego, current ideas about the state of visual culture, piping in ideas and advice about all manner of things. 


Will you be relocating to San Diego?

No, I’ll stick to visits. Being “at large” by definition means that I’ll work away from the physical MOPA most of the time. Virtual participation in the form of professional partnerships is gaining popularity with many institutions. Obviously there are events and jobs that need on site participation and then I’ll be there. And it is not hard to find an excuse to travel to San Diego!


In 1983 you were the first Curator of Photography at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and from 2000 – 2010 you were the founding Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. How will your experience in Washington D.C. inform the exhibitions at MOPA?

At the Smithsonian I had an almost unique opportunity to define myself in two different ways.  As a curator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum I was able to establish a permanent collection of photography—from daguerreotypes to contemporary photographs---organize shows, produce catalogues: the usual. And in the course of nearly 20 years, look really broadly at the history of photography in this country. And then, in my second act, I got to look broadly at the role photography played at the institution, and by implication the history of photography as the very basis of modern institutional history.  In a digital age of new visual technologies, when photography itself was facing enormous changes,  “Photography Changes Everything” was the theme—and eventually the title of a Smithsonian Photography Initiative website and Aperture publication. That idea, of a larger, multi-disciplinary history of photography, how images work, what we picture, how we picture, how we use them to communicate, how they function as contemporary art, is what I hope to continue to talk about at MOPA.


You’ve curated exhibitions at MOPA previously, including Tell Me a Story: Narrative Photography Now in 2007. What are the greatest opportunities you see to educate an audience for photography in Southern California?

There is such an important tradition of photographic inquiry in Southern California.  Historically, the schools and universities have some of the most important photography programs in the country. And MOPA has had had important role to play in supporting the work of California artists. So playing on both those strengths, and the plans MOPA has for creating a space and a program to create opportunities for both education and exhibition, I see rich possibilities.


As Curator at Large will you have the opportunity to work with MOPA’s permanent collection, including their newest acquisitions from 2016?

I hope so!  And hopefully I will have the opportunity to work with MOPA on future acquisitions.


Can you share a bit about the inaugural project or exhibition you’ll be presenting as Curator at Large? What surprises or new ideas do you have in store?

There are several exhibition projects already in the planning stages: an Aaron Siskind retrospective; an exhibition of never before seen Deborah Turbeville collages; contemporary photography from Australia. The most important, if at this point the least specific, is the re-organization of MOPA itself. MOPA is looking hard at the questions important to the building of a 21st century institution devoted to photographic images. This includes thinking not only about content, but delivery: on the walls, online, and as ongoing educational programs.  There is no “one size fits all” to any of this, and MOPA’s consideration of “how” might also become part of the online discussion… as well as how audiences interact with, experience, and use images. This is a vast topic, and I’m not quite able to share, because I don’t know, the “what and how” at this point, but MOPA’s progress in this area will be something to watch. I don’t know of any other photo-centric institution tackling these ideas head on.