Visual Arts

Curator of Nelson-Atkins museum contemplates art as an oasis in a fast-paced world

Catherine Futter, head curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, encourages visitors to slow down and spend time viewing the museum’s Mark Rothko painting (behind her).
Catherine Futter, head curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, encourages visitors to slow down and spend time viewing the museum’s Mark Rothko painting (behind her).

Head curator Catherine Futter of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will celebrate her one-year anniversary in that role in November, around the time the museum opens its much-anticipated “Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet” sound installation in the Bloch Building (Nov. 19-March 19, 2017).

Futter believes that show, which will feature 40 high-fidelity speakers playing 40 different parts of a 16th-century choral composition on an 11-minute loop, will offer visitors a rare opportunity to experience a musical performance from the inside out, so to speak, moving closer and farther away from specific voices.

Futter began her career at the Nelson 14 years ago after working at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn. She holds a doctorate in art history from Yale University.

This conversation about how art has the power to help us slow down, using an abstract painting by Mark Rothko (behind Futter in the photo) as an example, took place over lunch in Rozzelle Court at the museum.

Q: What is the best way to experience a large art museum like the Nelson?

A: In our culture today, we are so used to taking in visual and audio information so quickly. You can use coming to a museum as a way of forcing yourself to slow down, but you have to be intentional about it.

At a museum, you don’t need to look at every work of art. Unless you are never going to be back to that city, it’s better to really pick and choose just a couple of things to focus intently on. It’s so much more rewarding that way.

Q: When is the last time you really slowed down in a museum, other than the Nelson?

A: At the Rothko Chapel in Houston. It is literally a chapel, nondenominational, with huge paintings by American abstract painter Mark Rothko on the walls. And they are very dark, very black. The space is very simple, just walls with these paintings, and simple benches.

I sat down on one of the benches, and I made myself relax. I started regularizing my breathing — I had been walking quite a long way — and started looking and beginning to focus. It took a little bit of time.

But then I saw the paintings were not really black. Some of them were green with a lot of black and some were blue with a lot of black.

I started seeing modulations in the color, darknesses and lightnesses, and the paintings started really resonating with me. I felt encompassed and peaceful. I also felt a little bit of anxiety about all that darkness. But that’s what being with art should be like.

It takes time to get to a really rewarding experience. I came away from the paintings calmer. It was a beautiful experience with art.

I should mention, the Nelson does have a Rothko (in the first gallery past the Bloch Building information desk). To most people it probably looks like a dark brown blob. But I would urge everyone to spend the time to slow down and look at it.

Q: Do you have any tips for people who say they don’t like abstract work, like Rothko’s, or that they don’t understand it?

A: I think people say that sometimes because they can’t figure out what the story is, and we’re used to being able to discern the story really quickly. Sometimes the story is more complicated, and, quite frankly, sometimes a work of art is a question and there’s no answer in there.

We are supposed to bring who we are and our experiences to the viewing of a piece. None of us are going to have exactly the same response to a work of art. That’s what’s great about contemporary art. It gives us a chance to open our minds, to experience “I never knew …” or “I’ve never seen …” as opposed to easy-to-digest, predictable experiences.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel