After 31 Years at the Fleming Museum, Janie Cohen Embraces What Lies Ahead | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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After 31 Years at the Fleming Museum, Janie Cohen Embraces What Lies Ahead

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Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Janie Cohen - COURTESY OF CHRIS DISSINGER
  • Courtesy Of Chris Dissinger
  • Janie Cohen

The term "inflection point" is used so often in the media lately that listeners might think it connotes a political event. In fact, it comes from mathematics and refers to the place where a curved line changes direction. But never mind punditry; inflection is also a useful concept for a recent retiree — as is its more philosophical cousin, reflection.

Janie Cohen has reached this transformative place. Last month she retired from the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art, where she had spent 11 years as curator and 20 as director. At a reception on September 14 in her honor, speakers including UVM provost and senior vice president Patricia Prelock lauded Cohen's accomplishments.

Over her time at the museum, Cohen mounted significant exhibitions, some featuring international artists and collaborations with major institutions; distinguished herself and the Fleming with her ongoing scholarship on Pablo Picasso; nurtured a devoted and capable staff; built a broad network of professional colleagues, board members and museum supporters; and made lifelong friends in a community she loves.

Did she imagine, when she came to the Fleming in 1991, that she would stay for the rest of her career?

"I didn't really think about it," Cohen said. "My style was to just go with it and see what evolved."

She had opportunities to move on, Cohen acknowledged, but "I remained engaged at the Fleming, and my roots grew ever deeper in Vermont," she said. "I made the decision to stay several times, and I never regretted it."

Chris Dissinger has grown in his role at the Fleming, too. Cohen initially hired him in 2005; in 2017, she named him assistant director. "I'm forever grateful to Janie for taking a chance on a [former] newspaper publisher to come in and handle design and public relations with no experience in museums," he said. "I realized with Janie there was an opportunity to make connections between people and artwork [and] to learn from her the unseen capabilities of art as a change agent."

Dissinger is serving as interim director before the arrival of Cohen's successor, Sonja Lunde, later this month. Change may be inevitable with new staff — the Fleming also recently hired a curator, Kristan Hanson — but Dissinger has reason to hope a few things stay the same.

"I've loved my job, loved coming in here because of Janie's passion," he said. "She was an extraordinary leader because she let people try new things without the certainty that they [were] going to play out. And if they didn't, it was a learning experience, so we'd know how to succeed in the future."

Cohen, in turn, has nothing but praise for her team. "It was a process for me to switch from the creative side to administration," she said. "I tried to bring creativity to it. But I found there were aspects I loved, and the main one was creating a strong, innovative staff who are not afraid to try things."

The entire staff, and the museum, were challenged by the advent of COVID-19, though the initial mandatory shutdown proved to have a silver lining. As previously reported, the Fleming team used the time to reckon with the museum's colonialist past and to cement its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion going forward.

As the Fleming leans into this significant and global cultural shift, Cohen is pursuing a more personal goal: making her own art.

In conversation with Seven Days, she reflected on the past and anticipated her future.

Let's start by going back a few decades. You earned a BA at the University of Michigan and then a master's at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In between, you had an internship at the Rijksmuseum. How did that come about?

My family has close friends in Amsterdam, and they invited me to live with them if I could find a project for the year. With their help, I learned that the Rijksmuseum took on college interns for the academic year. I applied and was accepted. I worked in the history department and had the privilege of working in the print and drawing department, where Rembrandt's prints were kept.

Was that also when you developed a relationship with the Rembrandt House Museum?

That happened later, but because of the contacts I established that year. I published on Picasso's creative use of Rembrandt's art in graduate school. I was invited to help curate an exhibition on that topic and write the catalog at the Rembrandt House in 1990, and then again on a larger scale with a Spanish Goya scholar in 2000.

I had another internship, at the Brooklyn Museum, during graduate school. I realized I wanted to be a generalist, though I ended up focusing on Picasso.

What does it mean to be a generalist as a curator?

A generalist is someone with a broad base of knowledge in art history who is interested in using that knowledge in curating across a diverse collection and identifying scholars in specific areas when needed.

What came next?

I had a number of jobs in New York [City] during grad school. My first job was working part time for [art dealer] Serge Sabarsky. His collection went to the Neue Galerie. I also worked in Cambridge [Mass.] for the New England Foundation for the Arts. I worked on traveling exhibits that went all over New England.

I knew I wanted to curate. It was the '80s; the economy was booming. I tried freelance curating for four years. It was a really exciting time, bringing European artists to Boston.

But then ... Burlington, Vt.?

I felt like I wanted a community, a place to be embedded in. A friend told me about the Fleming job listing. It was very appealing — an interesting, quirky collection, a smaller city than I'd lived in before.

Had you been to Vermont previously?

Once, to ski. And my then-husband and I camped at Lake Bomoseen a couple weeks before the Fleming interview. I loved it!

So, you were hired in 1991. Ann Porter was the director.

Ann had been the assistant director/curator; I was hired for that position when she became director.

What did you like about it?

I love history and art history. Being the only curator with a collection of 25,000 objects was overwhelming. I just dove in. I did a number of exhibits that used objects from the collection. I had two goals: to get to know the community and the collection.

Janie Cohen (left) and Patricia Prelock unveiling "Head Study" by John Wilson, purchased by the Fleming Museum and presented to Cohen at her retirement party - COURTESY OF CHRIS DISSINGER
  • Courtesy Of Chris Dissinger
  • Janie Cohen (left) and Patricia Prelock unveiling "Head Study" by John Wilson, purchased by the Fleming Museum and presented to Cohen at her retirement party

What were some of the most significant exhibitions for you?

One I had done as a freelancer I brought to the Fleming: photo-based contemporary work by artists doing groundbreaking work at the time. It included Christian Boltanski — he did photography installations on the Holocaust — and [Chilean artist] Alfredo Jaar.

In 1995 I did the Picasso print show ["Picasso: Inside the Image, Prints From the Ludwig Museum"]. The Fleming had an unusual and fruitful connection with the collector Peter Ludwig. I had done two Picasso shows at the Rembrandt House for my master's. So, I was able to curate a show of prints from throughout Picasso's life that were in Peter's collection. Over the years, I had the opportunity to curate five exhibits from his collection.

Clearly your interest and scholarship in Picasso resulted in some noteworthy shows for the Fleming. This is leaping ahead, but do you want to say something about "Staring Back"?

"Staring Back: The Creation and Legacy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon" was an exhibition we organized in 2015, based in part on an article I had just published on the painting. The show took advantage of the fact that Picasso's landmark 1907 painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" never leaves the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. We used a range of technology, visual art, film and sound art to present the evolution of the painting, including two iPads that held all 800-plus of the artist's studies for the work.

We had so many wonderful partners in this project: Michael Jager and [Jager Di Paola Kemp Design], Jenn Karson, Coby Brownell, artists across the country, and members of the Burlington arts community who provided the voices for the scathing commentary of Picasso's peers [about the painting]. The catalog we produced included a number of essays on the work and the exhibition.

I remember an excellent exhibit of works by Bill Traylor, the African American self-taught artist born into slavery.

This was an exhibition [in 1999] that was organized in Europe of Traylor works in U.S. collections, mostly from the East Coast. I contacted the organizers and asked if it might be possible for the Fleming to present [it] when it returned to the U.S. It was so fortunate to be able to share this exhibition of one of the world's leading visionary artists [1854-1949]. We added to it several Traylor works in the collection of Joan and Eugene Kalkin, longtime UVM and Fleming Museum supporters. We were also able to publish an English version of the catalog through Yale University Press.

To what extent did you bring in Vermont artists?

Art's Alive was the big thing when I was first around, in '91 and '92. We had an exhibition of Art's Alive winners [from juried shows]. We also did one-person shows of student and faculty members, including Barbara Zucker and Kathleen Schneider.

Much later, we had Alison Bechdel ["Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel," 2018] — curated by Andrea Rosen and Margaret Tamulonis — and Ed Koren ["The Capricious Line," 2011]. The Koren show was so much fun to do.

What were markers along the way of the museum's evolution?

The question that's critical as a curator is what is meaningful to the community, and how do you create those opportunities? A benchmark moment for me was ["Buddha in Paradise: Tibetan Art From the Rubin Museum," 2008] and also the contemporary Tibetan art ["Anonymous," 2014]. [Both times,] we brought in monks from Ithaca who did sand mandalas. It was packed. I don't know if we ever had more people in the museum.

There's a large Tibetan community in Vermont and a lot of Buddhists; they were doing the ceremony and chanting. I realized that we had brought them in in terms of art, but that was a religious ceremony. It was not just observation; it was participatory.

It was a threshold for me to feel the difference between a performative artistic act versus being part of a religious ceremony.

The participatory aspect didn't really manifest again until the past few years. I think everyone at the Fleming is struggling with ideas of how can the museum be a part of life — even beyond the "reckoning" work.

When you're putting cultures on display, it's uncomfortable. It didn't used to be.

Can you elaborate on that latter point?

It didn't used to be for museum professionals and scholars who had studied those cultures, but it has often been uncomfortable for members of those cultures viewing them on display — unless the knowledge, aesthetics and nuances of those cultural traditions shaped the display through members' leadership or involvement from the start. The "nothing about us without us" practice of cultural display is understood as better serving all audiences.

Let's talk about your transition from curator to director.

I became the director in the fall of 2002. It was a bonanza year. We had the Andy Warhol show ["Andy Warhol: Work and Play"]. I did the Rembrandt print show ["Prints From the Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam"]. But I really didn't curate anymore after that. I hired curator Evelyn Hankins, who's now at the Hirshhorn [Museum in Washington, D.C.].

I want to ask about the museum's reckoning process.

Our type of collection is really at the heart of a lot of the issues that have come up. In addition to the necessity of diversifying staffing and opening our doors to those community members [of diverse cultures], we have objects in our collection that were acquired during the era of colonialism. It's impossible to rectify, but [we need] to find ways to deal with it that heal and don't create further harm.

For example, the first director of the Fleming, Henry Perkins, was a eugenicist. That was the lens through which the Fleming was first established. The challenge is to address this and be transparent without spending more time on it than would allow you to move beyond it.

It's not enough to put the objects away?

No, we need to use these objects to teach. In post-colonialism, you can deaccession or repatriate objects. But at the same time, you want to factor in where you want to go as a museum.

Where do you want to go as an artist?

I'm really looking forward to spending more time in my studio! Years ago, I started collecting cloth — small pieces as well as large. Decades ago, I started to hand sew with that collection of material. I'll probably call it cloth collage rather than textile art. Some of the work has to do with the history of cloth itself; others are more formalist.

What inspires you?

I have a lot of sources for inspiration for what I make. The composition and layout process is so completely engaging to me. It's finding things out. I have strange training: I've been making art since high school, but my eye has been trained by years of looking at art.

Where have you exhibited your work so far?

The Art at the Kent show, the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, the Vermont Supreme Court Lobby [and others]. I've had six shows within six years.

Some of your work has an Asian sensibility.

I have been interested in Japanese textiles from high school on and have collected them since the mid-1980s.

I like your description of cloth on your website: "Cloth carries associations of comfort, security, warmth, not just for me but historically. I am drawn to its histories and humanity, its evocative traces of age and use."

It is such a pleasure to look for cloth, from the streets to fabric shops.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Curating a Life"

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