PHOTO COURTESY OF MINGEI INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM
Emily G. Hanna, Mingei International Museum’s new director of exhibitions and chief curator, discusses the spring Niki de Saint Phalle and Moses exhibits, and what to expect from the Balboa Park folk art museum moving forward.
What was it about Mingei International Museum (mingei.org) that made you want to come aboard? What do you think makes this museum so special and unique? I was intrigued by Mingei from the first time I visited about a decade ago. The mission of the museum is so aligned with what has propelled my own work throughout my career. From the first time I visited, I tucked away the thought that it would be a marvelous place to work, and kept my eye on the website. The global scope, the focus on folk art, craft and design—on art of the people—these things make Mingei accessible to everyone.
What did you learn from your previous experience at the Birmingham Museum of Art that you hope to apply here? Birmingham is dear to my heart—it was a privilege to live and work and learn there. The city has a very important place in our country’s history, and the events that marked people so profoundly are not in the distant past but in living memory. All museums, no matter their subject, are part of a place, and must reckon with their relationships to people and to the collections in their care. They must reckon with representation, and who tells the story of art and of history. Who has authority and who chooses what is important. Many aspects of my curatorial practice were forged in Birmingham.
See artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Upside Down Lady” vase during the Niki & Mingei exhibition, on display through Oct. 2 PHOTO COURTESY OF MINGEI INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM
When did you first develop a passion for global folk art, and what excites you about being able to focus on this area? I have been able to live in different parts of this country, and in places around the world. No matter where you go, art and craft traditions are a source of cultural identity and pride, and of personal fulfillment. Craft provides an avenue for self-representation and a cultural voice, and it provides a livelihood. Appreciation and respect for the craft of another person or group is an opening to understanding something much deeper.
What are some of your favorite pieces from Mingei’s current exhibits and permanent collection? Choosing favorite pieces—the most difficult task of all! In Mingei’s collection, I’ve found exquisite examples of familiar things, as well as objects and traditions that are completely new to me. I’m very excited about the proximity to Mexico and Mingei’s relationships with binational artists and Mexican cultural institutions. I’m eager to learn as much as possible about California’s Indigenous cultures and art, and about the important history of California craft and design.
Tell us about your new spring exhibits. What do you love about the work from artists Niki de Saint Phalle and Moses, and how do these exhibits reflect Mingei’s mission? Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is so appealing—full of color and humor. Her large-scale tiled sculpture “Nikigator” is a favorite kids climbing spot in front of the museum. For the exhibition Niki & Mingei, our senior curator, Barbara Hanson Forsyth, focused the exhibition on Niki’s objects of use—vases, tables and benches, for example. Niki lived with her furniture, and there’s a wonderful photo of her inside her home surrounded by these objects she made. With the new exhibition of her work at MCASD, the whole city will be remembering Niki de Saint Phalle with appreciation. Our other show, Fold, Twist, Tie: Paper Bag Hats by Moses, is also curated by Barb, and features hats made by the self-taught artist Moses. All his fantastic creations are made from simple paper bags. I guarantee that after seeing this exhibition, people will be inspired to try their hands at creating something wonderful with paper bags. And they will even have that opportunity at Mingei!
Also on display through Oct. 2, Fold, Twist, Tie highlights artful paper hats by artist Moses. PHOTO COURTESY OF MINGEI INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM
What can we expect from Mingei this summer and moving forward? We have some wonderful, inspiring exhibitions coming this summer and fall, ranging from American vernacular art to spectacular piñatas, beaded adornment and embroidered panels with 25 million stitches telling stories of refugees. Each of these shows will also have wonderful programs and maker opportunities.