Some people know in their bones what they want to do from an early age. As a kid in Dayton, Ohio, Kate Ware used to play museum. She and her brother would set up their exhibitions in the neighbor’s carport— rocks, minerals, fossils, all catalogued, identified, and labeled. When the neighbor came home from work every evening, they had to disassemble the whole thing, so Ware’s father eventually built a set of shelves in the basement for their collections. “We liked objects,” says Ware, now the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art. “We liked stuff.”
Ware has a ready laugh and a way with words, so it’s no surprise that she was a literature major at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where she wrote her thesis on artists who use words in their visual art and writers who use visual components in their texts. After graduating, she was an intern at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in Washington, D.C.: “There was so much going on in photography in the ‘80s in D.C.,“ she says. “Sarah Greenough did the big Stieglitz show [at the National Gallery of Art]; Laura Gilpin’s work was at the Museum of Natural History.”
Ware eventually went back west, earning an MA in the history of art from U.C. Berkeley, writing her master’s thesis on Paul Strand in Mexico. At the time, she says, “I was afraid to specialize in photography; I thought it would be too narrow.” Her career is evidence that she need not have worried.
Ware started out as a curatorial assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum and left nine years later as an assistant curator. “It was an amazing place with a phenomenal collection,” she recalls. “I was most interested in what I see as the dichotomy between the craftsman printers like Stieglitz and Strand and the very adventurous approach by people like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy. Both of those poles are very attractive to me.”
The Philadelphia Museum wooed her to the East Coast and she stayed there nine years as well. It was in Philadelphia that Ware became known, in certain circles, as the singing curator. At the party welcoming her to the Museum, she says, she was preceded at the microphone by no less than the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the museum, and Harvey Shipley Miller. “What’s left to say?” she says. “So I sang.”
What she sang was a Polka song called Pennsylvania Hills. “I got very involved in Polka music in L.A.,” she says. “I haven’t kept up the Polka stuff, but I will occasionally burst into song at an opening or a lecture.”
These days, when she bursts into song, it’s usually in Santa Fe, where she’s been the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art for five years. Her first show was Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, a major exploration of the history of landscape photography. “I was so attracted to this place because of the history of photography here. And we have a book store, galleries, artists, the nonprofit Center, workshops, this whole aggregation of interesting people,” she says. “I feel like the barriers are more permeable here than in other places. It leaves room for a little outrageousness.”
That said, she adds, “I’m really interested in alternative approaches to photography. It’s the 21st century—let’s find out what a photograph can be! It doesn’t have to be an image on an 8×10 piece of paper.”