In August, after a long vacancy, the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum hiredCaroline Kipp as its new curator of contemporary art. Now a little over two months into her tenure at The Textile Museum, Kipp’s long-term role as curator is to help build the museum’s collection of contemporary textile art and, of course, think about how to exhibit and contextualize that work.
Kipp’s title may be curator of contemporary art, but she works solely on textiles. That word isn’t in her title because the category can get fuzzy, she explains. “What is a textile?” she asks rhetorically. “We’re not doing paintings, necessarily, but there are a lot of intersections in contemporary art between media.”
Many contemporary art pieces aren’t just 2D pieces of cloth; artists use textiles and fibers to create sculptural objects or pair them with other materials.
Kipp’s work draws on her training as a studio artist. She was a fibers major at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and she comes from a family of artists. But she turned toward curation in graduate school at Harvard, where the museum studies program was especially collection-based. Many equivalent programs, she says, teach students “the practicalities of dealing with the running a museum, because they’re very strange organizations.” But being an artist drew her naturally toward curation. “Curators are actually the ones who get to spend time thinking about [pieces of art], not just working with them and looking at them and taking care of them. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s actually what I want to do.’ It was a very, very organic process, just bubbling out of a love of art, and fiber in particular,” she says.
The museum works on a five-year exhibition calendar, so the soonest D.C. will see a “full-blown, contemporary show” at The Textile Museum is likely 2023. But five years is a blink in museum time, Kipp says, and she hopes to use the intervening years to focus on building the contemporary textile collection “from, essentially, the ground up” and to work on engaging the community. Her long-term goal? “To build the reputation of the museum as a place for contemporary art,” she says.
Kipp now lives in Montgomery County—“in North Bethesda, which someone just told me isn’t a thing”—and she’s still getting to know D.C., though she’s already found some things to like (“Boston’s a nice city, but it is not this clean. It is not this green”). Most importantly, she’s trying to familiarize herself with the D.C. art scene—all the better to build the collection with.
Her investment in contemporary art stretches across the world. Although The Textile Museum is based at GWU, it has an international collection, and Kipp calls it a truly international museum; its collection focuses heavily on textiles from the Middle East and Asia. Its reach is also broad: Its website and its publishing are globally available, and the museum is working on using digital tools to make the collection and exhibitions available worldwide.
Kipp’s scope is even further broadened by her definition of “contemporary”—one not limited to the past few decades. She says she’s interested in covering everything from the 20th century onward. “When you’re thinking about building a collection from a scholarly standpoint, how do you talk about the stuff that’s happening now without talking about the stuff that occurred before?” she asks. “Especially the early ground breakers—Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, Anni Albers—those women who really revolutionized what it meant to make sculpture out of textiles.”
And it matters to her to focus on gender: “Textiles historically have really been associated with the domestic realm, with women,” she explains. “And, in many ways, that inherent sort of bias has contributed to the work not being taken seriously.” That logic spills into her thinking about race, class, and other identities. “A lot of the shows and a lot of the ideas that I think are interesting do focus on identity politics, you know, social justice, whatever that means—it’s a pretty broad term, right?” she says. “We have the capacity … [to make] sure that the artists that are represented in our shows, in our collecting, reflect the broad nature that is contemporary art.”
Kipp’s artistic and scholarly interests point her toward textile history, especially how textiles have affected and changed human history, from the Industrial Revolution to computing (the punch-card system in the Jacquard loom was an early predecessor of the technology that brought us the computer). “It’s the threads of life, literally connected into everything,” she says. “Textiles are associated with us from the moment we’re born until the moment we die.”