Whitehot Magazine

Interview: Mint Museum Curator Jen Edwards on Photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel and Running a Museum During Covid

  Ruben Natal-San Miguel, Negesti, color photograph.

By VITTORIA BENZINE December 24, 2020 

“What makes an online exhibition unique?” I asked Jen Edwards, Chief Curator at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, over Zoom one afternoon in early December. “It has to translate well,” she responded. “That’s why Ruben was so perfect.”

She’s referring to Ruben Natal-San Miguel, the photographer whose latest solo show Expanding the Pantheon: Women R Beautiful kicks off The Mint’s online exhibition offerings. Citing the images’ vibrant dynamism, she added, “There’s a bold color, there's a dramatic feature, whether it's the person's face or something about the background. They’re really great as graphic images. And so that makes it perfect to translate online.” 

Edwards would know. She and her team at The Mint have tried it all in an effort to serve their audiences throughout an atmosphere of collective trauma — online opera performances paired with images from the museum’s collection, art kits available for pickup, and even performance creation, inviting a Brooklyn-based artist to create a 60’ x 62’ hand-cut collage in the museum’s atrium. The team tried everything but a full online exhibition, until last month.

Ruben Natal San Miguel, Ongina (Dragcon),Color Photograph.

“We realized the pivot would be necessary as soon as we closed, which was March 20th,” Edwards recalled. Populations can reasonably demand their governments be prepared for a pandemic. Such events fall within the government’s purview. However, populations don’t hold museums or other cultural institutions to the same responsibility. Their purviews lie elsewhere.

“We were so panicked and so confused that we stayed kind of literal,” Edwards continued. “What I mean by that is we immediately thought about how to do programming-like things online, which were talks or videos.” This included a virtual walkthrough of their thwarted Spring exhibition with photographer Linda Foard Roberts, a recent Guggenheim awardee. Edwards admitted the minute detail innate to Roberts’s photography didn’t lend itself to the ever-buffering sphere of Instagram Live exploration.

The team also used the downtime to revamp their offerings, overturning the art on view so that when they re-opened in September, guests at The Mint found its walls hung with 75% new work. “We scrapped most of our exhibition schedule,” Edwards said. “We opened in September with a whole new show that was focused on our donors and the new works that had come into the collection over the last eighteen months — to celebrate our audiences and donors and talk about how the museum is made up of the people's generosity.” 

Interior view at the Mint Museum.

Since the United States re-opened, relatively, around summertime, Edwards noted that museums have become “one of the few places that people can go.” Movie theaters are dark, malls are frighteningly packed, and the weather has cooled off to a biting chill. High ceilings, wide halls, and the freedom for self-direction allows museums, played correctly, to serve as a low-risk opportunity for respite. 

Edwards shared how the team contemplated their role in the crisis. “We talked about how art feeds the soul, how it spurs conversations that are so uncomfortable they can't be had in any other circumstance. We’ve been seeing all the art coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement since May and how that has created dialogue between people we didn't expect to be able to converse with on the subject. That's always historically been the case, but it's even more necessary now, when this is the only venue where we can gather as strangers.” 

Natal-San Miguel’s photographs speak to these themes with panache and intellect. “For the last two decades,” the online exhibition reads, “Ruben Natal-San Miguel has been challenging the expectations of who gets memorialized and celebrated in our art spaces.” His portraits shatter boundary after boundary, deconstructing and reassembling societal beauty standards to include a varied mosaic that spans race, class, age, fashion sense, and more. The portraits collected here create a malleable, breathing tribute to our collective female ideal. Respecting beauty means accepting that it spans the full spectrum of possibility. Women R Beautiful does all this while highlighting the best of Natal-San Miguel’s bold style and candid ethos, with rich background information to nourish each viewer’s appreciation.

Ruben Natal-San Miguel, Mama Beautiful Skin, color photograph.

What’s more, this online show rescues the works that were supposed to be available for public consumption in early Spring, just as the pandemic was taking shape. Women R Beautiful had originally been installed at New York’s Postmasters Gallery. The space closed its doors the day after Natal-San Miguel’s imagery took up residence on its walls.  

As a curator, Edwards actually specializes in photography, an area of her expertise. She and Natal-San Miguel are old acquaintances — he’s visited the museum, shot a commissioned portrait of Charlotte-based award winning journalist Mary C. Curtis, and even hosted Edwards for a studio visit while she was in town for the Armory. His work Mama is a mainstay at the museum’s physical space, where it’s also a crowd favorite. “It was really Ruben who thought about the idea to do it online,” Edwards pointed out, thus kicking off The Mint’s entire online exhibition endeavor.

Not only does the work featured throughout Women R Beautiful suit the online format, the art world’s greatest hope until the vaccine takes full effect, but it also helps mitigate some of the real-world effects this situation has wrought on public institutions. Edwards touched upon for format’s affordability, pointing out that The Mint is presently losing about $100,000 each month due to a lack of event rentals. “That’s where most museums make a lot of money now,” she informed me. “It’s gonna be a long time before exhibition budgets become robust again.” 

Installation view, The Mint Museum.

Famed self-help author Napoleon Hill repeatedly wrote that “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” While the online exhibitions that now serve as centerpiece to The Mint’s “pandemic pivot” do help comfort barebones bank accounts, Edwards also acknowledged a silver lining. “So much of our programming has been getting audiences way beyond Charlotte,” she said. “It really has branched internationally. We're reaching a whole new group of people and we want to maintain that even when the pandemic is over. All of these programs that we've put into place since March 2020, they'll remain. We'll record all of our artists conversations that we'll always have, and we'll put those online. We're going to archive as much as possible on the website.” 

The past year’s events have raised an awareness of accessibility that perhaps never seemed so pertinent before. Since re-opening, Edwards told me that most museums have been offering increased opportunities for free admission, serving their role as the new first-choice third place. “I hope that what we take from this is, from the museum angle, is that we should try and be as accessible as possible,” she offered, citing public transportation tie-ins as an actionable method through which this aim could be achieved.

“What I hope other people remember after the pandemic is that the museums were there and the art was there, not just in person but online,” she continued. Edwards hopes “we remember that when we're back to our regular lives and we're paying $20 for a movie.” The museums were still there strategizing and organizing to effectively share their services. “I hope people remember us in their in their monthly donations,” the curator laughed. Of course, it’s also important we remember the many cultural lessons that have unfolded over the past twelve months, holding them front of mind while we trailblaze a new year. Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s photography revels at the cornerstone of these two insights, celebrating multi-dimensional diversity in the digital space of an esteemed art institution. Expanding the Pantheon: Women R Beautiful will remain on view through June 20th, 2021. WM


Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // vittoriabenzine@gmail.com // vittoriabenzine.com


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