Anna Marley has been with PAFA since 2009. As the curator of Historical American Art, Marley is a scholar of American art and material culture from the colonial era to 1945.
Jodi Throckmorton joined PAFA in 2014. She serves as PAFA’s contemporary curator, overseeing PAFA’s contemporary art exhibition programs.
Brittany Webb joined PAFA in 2018. She serves as the curator of the John Rhoden Collection.
Below is an excerpt of a conversation with Marley and Throckmorton, edited for flow and clarity.
In Conversation with PAFA’s Curators
Falling in Love With Art
Marley was first introduced to art history as child through books like Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. She said the stories and illustrations stuck in her head and carried her through an art history degree at Vassar College. She then headed west and lived in the national parks in California for a period of time.
“I worked in Yosemite National Park and that’s when I fell in love with American landscape painting, I got really interested in the national parks and how American art was used in national identity building,” she said.
For Throckmorton, she fell in love with museums during family vacations.
“Whenever we travelled we’d go to museums and I loved museums. I still to this day love any museum, it’s a good way for me to access information,” she said.
Throckmorton began her undergraduate studies on a pre-med track, but an art history course soon changed things.
“I was initially more into ancient art,” she said. “I took contemporary classes and ancient classes as an undergrad and I ended up going to Greece for the summer on a program.”
How an Exhibition Comes Together at PAFA
Both Throckmorton and Marley say their heads are full of ideas and exhibitions they’d like to bring to life.
But the time from idea to opening an exhibition can be years.
Throckmorton said she suggested an exhibition with artist Rina Banerjee when she interviewed at PAFA in 2014. Nearly four years later, Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World is opening at PAFA October of 2018. The initial idea for an exhibition showcasing Banerjee’s work had long been brewing in Throckmorton’s mind.
“When I lived in California I would do studio visits with her (Rina Banerjee) when I was in New York,” Throckmorton said. “Eventually I did a talk at the New York Public Library and she was part of the panel, so we crossed paths again.”
Securing funding and art loans are also part of the long path to a successful exhibition.
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World is made possible by The William Penn Foundation and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels, with additional funding provided by Charles and Kathy Harper.
The exhibition is being curated by PAFA and the San Jose Museum of Art, but many museums and private collections are loaning works by Banerjee for the show.
Marley said art loans need to be arranged at least a year in advance, and good relationships with other museums are the key to securing artwork.
“Relationships are incredibly important because you don’t get loans without relationships,” she said. “It helps to be a good lender yourself, generous to your colleagues as much as you can be, so that they will then be generous to you.”
An Exhibition to Be Proud Of
When Marley arrived at PAFA in 2009 she was tasked with mounting an all-encompassing exhibition of works by PAFA alumni Henry O. Tanner.
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit celebrated the African-American artist’s upbringing in Philadelphia in the years after the Civil War and his success as an American expatriate artist at the highest levels of the international art world at the turn of the 20th century.
In the three years leading up to the exhibition, Marley worked around the clock editing the book that accompanied the exhibition, traveling to see every painting Tanner created, and negotiating loans with museums and other institutions to bring Tanner’s work together.
“With the Tanner exhibition, I needed to see every painting he ever painted so that I could become the respected expert on him. There was a lot of traveling,” she said. “A lot of what curators do is developing our eye, we need to see a lot of work and we need to look at it in person. A lot of people, even art historians, don’t realize how much you need to look as a curator.”
All of the long nights and endless work hours were worth it when the exhibition opened in 2012, and eventually went on tour to the Cincinnati Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“I still get a thrill when I go into the National Gallery bookstore and see the Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit book there,” she said. “It has got a great longevity and for the opening night the mayor was here and PBS NewsHour did a piece. It was great, I’m really proud of it.”
Continuing To Grow PAFA's Collection
In addition to curating exhibitions at PAFA, Marley and Throckmorton are also tasked with expanding PAFA’s collection. There are thousands of pieces in the permanent collection and the two are doing their part to celebrate new American artists and acquire work from artists that make up the country’s past.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Marley said. “When I first started here it really terrified me because I thought, ‘I’m collecting for this institution which has some of the best American art in the world’.”
Part of Marley’s job is acquiring work from artists who were initially passed over and have now risen to prominence and acclaim.
“There are certain artists that I can’t believe we don’t have in the collection,” she said. “And I’m like we really messed up, why didn’t we get this, why didn’t we get it in 1890?’”
Throckmorton is making sure future PAFA curators won’t feel that way when they think of artwork today.
“There are things people are really hot on now that no one will remember in a hundred years. I think of it as a balance because we need the things that are hot now but we also need the things that stand the test of time,” she said.
No matter the time period, Throckmorton and Marley focus on collecting art that will make PAFA proud.
“I try to think of it as what is right for PAFA and what would I be really proud of,” Marley said. “I try to think if I’m going to take one of my colleagues, a curator from an institution, on a tour what would I be really proud to say, ‘Hey, I bought this.’ And if I’m not going to be proud to say to them, ‘Look at this, I bought this’ then I probably won’t go for it.”
The Future of American Art At PAFA
As the first art museum in the United States, PAFA has a long legacy of celebrating American art. It is up to the current museum team to carry that legacy forward and connect our history with the current day.
Throckmorton and Marley are committed to asking questions and pushing boundaries.
“We are interested in telling stories that haven’t been told about American art. I’m working on a show about landscape painting in Philadelphia in the early republic. Everybody thinks about the Hudson River School of painting and New York but nobody thinks about what was happening in the 1820s in Philadelphia that made all of that happen,” she said. “That’s an underexplored story. And I’m also interested in all of the women artists who studied at PAFA at the turn of the 20th century who are not household names. I want to tell that story.”
Looking forward, Throckmorton is asking the question of what is American art.
“What defines an American artist?” she said. “As an institution focused on American art, we to follow artists in re-thinking what 'American' art is in the 21st century.”