In Profile

Lisa Sutcliffe

BY Jean Dykstra, November 1, 2016

Lisa Sutcliffe became the curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum at an auspicious time: when she arrived from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2013, the museum was planning for renovations that included the new Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts. “The idea was to present an integrated space for photography and related media,” says Sutcliffe. “Everything would be light-based. The exciting thing for me is that we can show the works in our photography collection in the broader context of 21st-century lens-based media.”

Sutcliffe organized the first video show at the center, Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals, on view through January 1. She had helped organize Dijkstra’s retrospective at SFMOMA in 2012 and had gotten to know the artist. At Milwaukee, two of Dijkstra’s recent videos are on view, of young gymnasts and ballet dancers in Saint Petersburg, as well as a companion show, The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography Collection, which includes Dijkstra’s entire 11-part series on the Bosnian refugee Almerisa. The exhibition is a good fit for Milwaukee, says Sutcliffe, because the city has a strong film community, but also, “because Dijkstra’s videos encourage close observation, and the specificity of her portraits offers a human face to universal themes.”

Sutcliffe grew up in Maine and often went to galleries and museums with her mother, a painter. From the time she was in high school, though, she was interested primarily in photography: “I like the way you see the world through the frame of a camera,” she says. She studied art history at Wellesley, and her curatorial instincts were in evidence early on: She decorated her dorm room with art postcards – Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, as well as painters from Ingres to masters of German Expressionism – and gave mini tours of her wall to her friends. “I realized I really liked talking about art,” she says, laughing.

She earned a master’s degree from Boston University, writing a thesis on contemporary aerial photography. “I was thinking about why so many artists were turning to it, and about our interest in this god-like perspective,” she says. After a stint as a Koch Curatorial Fellow at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts, she joined SFMOMA. The museum has one of the best collections of Japanese photography in the country, and Sutcliffe wound up putting together the first collection survey of Japanese photography: “I got to know the history of postwar photography in Japan and how important it is to the evolution of photography now.”

Unlike SFMOMA, the Milwaukee Art Museum is a regional museum with a small to medium collection,  some 4,000 photographs, strong in American mid-century work. Sutcliffe hopes to expand the contemporary collection, and the museum recently formed a partnership with the Magnum group Postcards from America, for which Alessandra Sanguinetti made a series of photographs in Black River Falls, the site of most of the photographs in Michael Lesy’s 1973 cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip. Down the road, Sutcliffe has plans for a show based on that influential photo book. “When I was coming here, every photographer I know emailed me about Wisconsin Death Trip. What photographer hasn’t been influenced by it in some way?”