I spoke with Britt Salvesen, head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and the Prints and Drawings Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), just a few days before the opening of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium. Less than an hour after we spoke, an interview with Salvesen aired on NPR, a sign of the widespread interest in this expansive Mapplethorpe exhibition. The Getty portion of the two-venue show, organized by Paul Martineau, had opened the previous week. It focuses on Mapplethorpe’s studio practice and art-historical resonances. At LACMA, says Salvesen, “I was looking for evidence of him as an artist in his own time, from his pre-photographic works in the 1960s to his Polaroids and the downtown art scene to his more refined, perfectionist style.”
The exhibition represents a collaborative approach that southern California seems to welcome. In 2013, Salvesen curated the LACMA portion of John Divola: As Far As I Could Get, which was also at the Santa Barbara Art Museum and the Pomona College Museum of Art. “I love LA,” says Salvesen, who joined LACMA in 2009. “Any art world event will have curators, collectors, gallerists, artists, and aficionados, all together.”
Salvesen grew up in the Midwest and went to Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, but she was drawn to art history in Madrid, where she studied during her junior year in college. She discovered photography during an internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where she was assigned to the prints and photographs department; she eventually wrote her dissertation on stereoscopic photography in the 19th century. “It took me beyond museums to all kinds of institutions and all kinds of people,” she says. Her work examined photography as a fine art but also through the history of science and popular culture.
Popular culture is the backdrop to Salvesen’s next exhibition, on the work of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. “He’s a voracious collector and obsessive draftsman,” she says. The show will include his drawings, notebooks, films, and his own collections. The subsequent exhibition will bring Salvesen full circle, back to the subject of her dissertation. Focusing on 3D film and photography, it will range from 19th-century stereoscopic views to virtual reality. “A lot of exploration in that area is happening around here,” she says.
Salvesen came to Los Angeles via Tucson, where she was the chief curator, then director, of the Center for Creative Photography. “It formed the second chapter of my thinking,” she says. “Having studied the 19th century, the CCP is mainly great 20th century photographers. I learned a lot more about that history, and I enjoyed working with the archives – which was something that drew me to Mapplethorpe. It was a chance to work with another fantastically deep archive.”
The CCP was also where Salvesen co-curated, with Alison Nordström, then curator at the George Eastman Museum, New Topographics, which reprised the original 1975 exhibition. Serendipitously, the traveling exhibition opened at LACMA the same month Salvesen started there. “I got to walk straight into my own opening, “ she says. “It was a dream project.”