NORMAN — To hear Emily Ballew Neff say it, there’s long been a joke that her mother left her in a basket on the front steps of a museum and she never left. She admits that in many ways, the joke is true: She’s a self-professed “museum rat.”
The art and museum lover is now making herself at home as the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Neff comes from working as a curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Neff, a Texas native, said she is excited for the adventure Oklahoma will bring her husband and her two boys, ages 13 and 11.
And with a bachelor’s in art history from Yale University, a master’s in art history from Rice University and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin, it’s safe to say the Fred Jones is excited to have Neff, too.
Q: How did you get into art to begin with?
A: There’s obviously a large number of art historians who come from the side of artistic practice but that’s not me. I’m a terrible artist. [laughing] I am the worst. But I have the greatest respect for it. And I would say it’s probably just from early childhood visits — my mother would always take me to the museum growing up. It was a place I loved to be. I remember going to the museum on school field trips and very quickly it was a place I always felt comfortable and inspired and motivated and excited. So that was always a place I wanted to be.
When I was in college at Yale my first major was history. I had never really intended to take an art history course but I happened to take one and completely fell in love with the field.
Q: When you switched to art history what was your plan for the future?
A: My parents asked that very same question. [laughing] They were a little concerned. What do art historians do? I’m not sure what I was envisioning. My freshmen year, actually, I remember it suddenly clicked for me that people did this for a living so I was fairly — I would say 99 percent certain — that a life in the museum was going to be the life for me. And I feel extraordinarily privileged to have that life and to have that life in incredible institutions.
Q: What’s a day in the life like for you?
A: Every day is different. You often hear people say, “I love my job because every day is different,” and I’d say that’s true in our field. A day in the life is crazy. You work for a nonprofit. You feel passionate about what you do and you never have enough time so a day would be anything from let’s say I’ll be in New York next week for a number of museum exhibitions I will be seeing — and believe it or not — that’s work but obviously a pleasure. There will be a number of dealers I’ll be meeting for acquisitions or possible acquisitions. You’ll be meeting with trustees and hoping they’ll agree with you and that whatever it is that you’re presenting will make sense to them. You might be going to a fundraiser luncheon to try and help to raise funds to try and buy a work of art or launch an educational initiative. We try not to have too many meetings but you have to have some meetings. The best part of the day is when you’re actually with the art.
Q: What has been the most difficult part in your career thus far?
A: I don’t think any of it has been difficult. Obviously the long hours are a challenge. I thought I had put all-nighters behind me in college, but that doesn’t necessarily happen if you are meeting deadlines for writing a catalogue. I thrive on challenges so I honestly don’t think that any of this has been difficult perhaps in the way you maybe intend it.
The thing is that my avocation is my vocation and my vocation is my avocation so I don’t see it as difficulty. Probably people from the outside say, “Wow, you travel a lot,” or , “That must get old,” or , “Gosh, you work so hard.” But in the museum field, we don’t look at it that way.
I will say, as a mother who works full time, I am very interested in issues that have to do with working women and women in the work place. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to bring my kids along on business trips when it’s appropriate. I’m very interested in that so called balance between work and family life, though I would say a better model for that is the blending. It’s easy for me to do that to some degree in that it’s a weekend and we go to the museum and there’s great things for them to do if I need to run upstairs and take care of something. If I was a doctor, you don’t invite your children into the operating room. They’ve had more opportunities to be a little bit more involved in what I do. I think that makes them happy and it makes me happy.
Q: What has been your proudest moment in your career?
A: I would say there’s not one single proud moment. I think that when we open an exhibition and the catalogue is produced, we have the opening of that at night and the trustees gather and we have a very lovely dinner and we may have only finished completing the show at 5:30 and run home, fix your hair and be back at 7 — but those are the most exciting, when all of those different elements come together.
When you’re doing exhibitions you’re not only doing original research, a tremendous amount of travel, you’re doing a lot of negotiating of loans, you’re dealing with every single department in a museum in terms of public relations, in terms of fundraising, and it all comes together and is celebrated in an exhibition. Those are my proudest moments because maybe for five minutes you can take a deep breath and know it’s done.
Q: I understand what it’s like to feel satisfied when you reach a deadline!
A: Proud is not the word, but you think, “Oh my gosh, it really happened, didn’t it?”
Q: What’s your vision for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art?
A: That’s a really good question, and I think it would be premature to say what it is because I need to get on the ground. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the collection. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the history of the university and the state. As a Texan, I thought only Texas had an interesting, fascinating history. [laughing]
I’m trying to get to know the staff, the board — in other words, I want to get to know all the people involved in the museum. I want to listen to what they have to say and I think for about 90 days I’ll really be trying to figure all of that out. I think at that point we can launch a strategic plan for what the next five or 10 years will look like.
I first saw the Fred Jones back in 2001 and the Weitzenhoffer Collection was just coming in. ... Just the whole thing was terrific. To come back many years later and see how it has doubled in size, has a brand new building and has just been growing — and not just growing in terms of numbers or statistics but growing smartly and strategically. All of that is very impressive. So obviously I want to maintain the excellence that is already there. That’s a great thing. You don’t build excellence overnight.
... This is what’s so great about the Fred Jones. It’s a great university art museum that obviously wants, needs and already does serve the needs and mission of the university but also functions as a museum on its own terms. That’s the part that I’m really going to be very interested in observing.
Q: Why do you think art and museums are important?
A: Can you imagine life without it? It speaks to this idea of what it means to be human. This gets to the area of fundraising, but one thing that’s really frustrating is obviously health issues will always take precedence when it comes to funding. We, of course, gravitate towards those life and death issues. But if you’re fortunate enough to be alive and healthy, what about the quality of living? Do you want to live in a society that doesn’t celebrate creativity and living?
University museums are about ideas, the history of ideas and knowledge and spending four years interacting with all these different ideas, histories and so forth. Art is the physical aspect of this world of ideas. It’s made concrete. That to me is what’s so exciting about not only the art museum but a university art museum, is you’re already surrounded by this world of ideas and the art objects are a physical manifestation of that. Art is about being human and the human experience. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be a human in the 21st century? Art museums help us look at the greatest examples of art and why that art work was made and why does it look that way?
Q: Do you have any specific plans to involve the community or minority groups with the museum?
A: It is our job, it is our highest priority to make sure that museums are for absolutely everybody. I’m very fortunate that I worked with a director who was very much about outreach and getting people in to museums but also getting the museum out to the people. It’s a very old model— the idea that it’s for elitism. But we are not doing our jobs as museum directors or professionals if we are not doing everything that we possibly can do to make sure that everybody understands that they are always invited to come in and look at the art and to learn from it.
Our institution, for example, and this is probably true for the Fred, too, but people’s experiences at the museum starts at the parking lot. As a policy our friendliest guards are always at the front door to make sure the first experience people have is a warm one. You want people to feel welcome.
... That’s why we put so much effort into getting as many students and young children into the museum at an early age so it’s never something they’re afraid of. One of my favorite expressions is, “It’s a playground for the mind.” The idea is that museums are fun. This is where we go to have fun. Learning is fun. Museum’s are visually exciting. There’s all these kinds of things that make it exciting for kids.
... We need to create an environment so when people walk in the door they don’t feel like they’ve failed a taste. Just come in. It’s getting people to cross that threshold. So that’s a challenge for all museums and I think they are much better than they used to be, diverting many more resources to programs that help with that.
Q: What is your favorite genre of art?
A: You know what, I like it all. I know that sounds like the easy answer but I really do. And I should. It’s not only that I gravitate in that direction anyway but I should. I want to be open to all forms of art and give everything a chance. My expertise is in painting and sculptures so I feel most confident when I’m around painting and sculptures. And my other expertise is American and British art but I also did African art and I’m also interested in Native American art.
Collecting for museums can be different than collecting personally. I’ve never met anything I didn’t feel very, very strongly about for a museum. That said, some of them might have been more important because of the context in which they were made. They still have to meet the criteria of: Is this a great work of art? Is the condition great? You answer all these different questions, but would I want to take it home and have it on my wall? Not necessarily. I think that’s one of the things that’s different is you have to be as open as a museum curator or director as you can be. You’re not collecting for a museum just the things you like. That makes no sense. There’s a history to it. There’s a tremendous amount you bring to the table when you’re considering bringing in a piece of art.
Q: Do you have a large personal art collection?
A: You know, I don’t. There’s a lot of people that I know, curators who I know, who love to collect. I love to collect, but to tell you the truth, we often have blank walls at home. I get pretty saturated in my work environment, but there’s something to be said about going home and having very little on the walls. Or to have things on the wall that aren’t necessarily great but are more meaningful and we have a personal association with.
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