Anna Hammond: How did you begin your career in the arts?
While I was a student at New York University in the late 1970s, I also studied pottery and taught at a ceramics studio. In addition, I worked at an alternative space in SoHo, a nonprofit artists’ organization called 112 Workshop Inc. It subsequently became White Columns, which is still in existence. We were documenting the history of its exhibitions since 1972, tracking down artists, visiting their studios, having them make new pieces for sale and publication in a book. That was where I cut my teeth meeting artists and performers. When I graduated, I worked from 1981 to 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art in the painting and sculpture department.
AH: Why a big museum after the smaller not-for-profit space?
KCh: I had volunteered at MoMA’s archive of Latin American art as an undergraduate. When I saw the job opening, I applied. I worked for curators Kynaston McShine and Carolyn Lanchner. I went from SoHo to midtown, and then my next job was uptown at the Claude Bernard Gallery, the New York branch of a gallery in Paris. From 1984 to 1990, I worked on its exhibitions of contemporary painters and sculptors. I moved to Connecticut and continued part-time, but in 1990, in order to spend more time with my young family, I retired for ten years. In 2000 I took a job working at the Yale Law School's office of alumni and public affairs, and in August 2002 I came to the Furniture Study, drawn by the scholarship of curators Patricia Kane and David Barquist.
AH: Tell me more about the Furniture Study—how does it relate to the museum’s other collections?
KCh: Well, the Furniture Study is an amazing resource comprising seven aisles of furniture, all from the Gallery’s collections. The pieces include not only furniture but also woodturning and wood-related objects—anything made of wood. People can make appointments to visit and see the collections in an area that is not as formal as the Gallery’s exhibition space. We might have visitors from the School of Architecture, the School of Drama, and History of Art, as well as people doing research about furniture forms, possibly for their own acquisitions or something they’ve inherited. The study center is world-renowned for its collections and for the access we provide—that’s very rare. In all of my history of working with the arts, I haven’t seen as much ease about visitors just coming right in and exploring firsthand.
AH: What are your responsibilities?
KCh: My job is museum assistant in the Department of American Decorative Arts. While my office is in Furniture Study, my commitment and obligations are to all the collections in American decorative arts, which include silver, gold, pewter, glass, ceramics, textiles, as well as furniture and objects of wood. I provide access to and information about the objects in the collection, and also ensure their care. Often, I bring decorative arts objects to art history object-study classes. Last week, for example, I brought silver, glass, and ceramic objects to an undergraduate class. It’s so much fun to watch the students’ faces when they’re holding some wonderful piece that they haven’t seen before.
AH: What’s the most interesting thing that has happened in your job since you started?
KCh: A person called up about a group of chairs that he had grown up with. The caller’s family was originally from Connecticut, and he wanted to compare one of his chairs to our side chair from Wethersfield, Connecticut, in order to ascertain if it was from the same maker, the same set. The family came en masse. Our chair still had its original upholstery, and the needlework—from the mid-1700s—was in pretty good condition. So we put them together and measured and photographed. We were able to share some information from the accession documents and our comparative files on forms and makers. It was so rewarding to share this with them—it turned out to include not only information on the chair and its provenance, but also aspects of the family’s own genealogy. They retired their own chairs once they saw the difference in condition between a chair under our care and one in active use. The caller decided to hire someone to remake his chairs so that he could give one to each family member. All this was inspired by their visit.
AH: Furniture is talked about in such human terms. I mean, you just used the word “retire,” and of course chairs have “arms” and “backs,” for example.
KCh: Furniture is familiar to everyone, that’s why we incorporate it in our language and lives. You know—the head of the table or the bedstead, the feet—there’s humanity and democracy in that. Since I’ve come to Furniture Study, anytime I see a reference to furniture, well, it just hops off the page. I collect them in a file. I was particularly struck by the book Carlos Eire's Waiting for Snow in Havana. At the end of the book there are some descriptions of a table in the family’s home, which raises recollections about rooms and furniture in Havana. I started sharing my file of all these little quirky things with Ethan Lasser, who organized the Curule exhibition and catalogue (Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture, 2003) as a graduate research assistant. It turns out this is right up his alley, what he’s writing and thinking about. So for example, when I heard a news story quote from the musical Oliver—“Consider yourself one of us, consider yourself part of the furniture”—that went in the file. I recently saw Shrek 2, and there were curule chairs in the background. I was watching with the kids, and I nearly fell off the couch! Little curule chairs, dancing . . . I also enjoy and look out for furniture humor—jokes and cartoons. When I came on the job here, I found some comics that others had clipped over the years and posted on our file cabinets and bulletin boards. I love the punchline in one of them: “No, lad, we’re not movers, we’re just Shakers!”
Katherine Chabla spoke with Anna Hammond on December 9, 2004.