Joining the Booth Western Art Museum in late 2016, Mary Margaret Cornwell is embracing the opportunity to be the venue’s first curator of photography.
“I had previously been volunteering at the Bartow History [Museum] working with a collection of negatives — from the Cartersville Daily Tribune — when I learned about the new position with the Booth,” she said. “There was something very appealing about being the first person in the position and getting to start a gallery and collection from the beginning. The Booth, being such a prestigious institution and close to family, made this the perfect position for me.
“Among other duties, I manage the care and use of the photography collection and records by ensuring proper storage, handling, conservation and exhibit techniques. I develop and curate temporary and permanent photography exhibits.”
Located at 501 Museum Drive in Cartersville, the Booth is known worldwide for its extensive collection of contemporary Western art. The 120,000-square-foot museum, which became an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in 2006, offers a variety of exhibit spaces, some of which include the Civil War gallery; Sculpture Court; a presidential gallery; the “Picturing America” photography gallery; and the interactive children’s gallery, Sagebrush Ranch.
Name: Mary Margaret Cornwell
Occupation (title): Curator of photography City of residence: Sonoraville, Georgia
Family: Daughter of Marty and Anne Cornwell
Education: Graduated from the University of Georgia with Bachelors of Arts in History and Art History in 2012. Received a Master of Library and Information Science from Simmons College, Boston, in 2015. My focus in graduate school was in archive and preservation of photography and environmental monitoring.
DTN: When/how did you get interested in photography, and provide some details about your professional photography background.
MC: One of the misconceptions about my job is that people think you have to be a photographer to be a curator of photography. I am not, but I do understand photographic principles and practices. I have always enjoyed photography as an artistic medium. When I was interning at the Appalachian Mountain Club, the archivist told me to take an archiving and preserving photography course because every collection I would ever work with would have at least one photograph. I took her advice and fell in love with preserving photography.
DTN: When and why did the “Picturing America” gallery open, and how many special exhibits has it featured?
MC: The “Picturing America” gallery opened last May with the “Ansel Adams: The Masterworks” exhibit. The gallery was created as a way to show the Booth’s new commitment [to] collecting fine art photography. The gallery will eventually house our permanent collection of photographs. It currently functions as a temporary photography exhibit space with “Zoë Urness: Keeping the Traditions Alive” on display.
DTN: Describe the “Zoë Urness: Keeping the Traditions Alive” exhibit, and what makes the photographer/exhibit unique?
MC: I am not sure we have enough space in the paper for me to describe this artist and exhibit, but I will give it a go. Seth Hopkins, executive director of the Booth Western Art Museum, suggested that I look into her photography. After seeing two of her photographs, I knew I needed to exhibit her work. Zoë Urness is an Alaskan Tlingit and Cherokee Native American in her early 30s who ... uses her art to help preserve the traditions of indigenous people.
Her photography portrays modern Natives in traditional regalia, serving to connect the old ways to the modern-day realities of the native world. Her images seem to say, “We are here. And we are thriving, through our traditions.” Urness’ unique style, combining documentary and fine art photography, reflects the ancestral strength of her subjects. Zoë has become a great friend since the beginning of the exhibition process. I am extremely honored that she chose the Booth museum for her first solo exhibit.
Her work is similar to Edward Curtis’ work on Native Americans. She doesn’t mind being compared to Curtis, but she has put her own twist on the story. Curtis wanted to document a “vanishing people.” Zoë is showing the world that Native Americans are not only thriving but so is their culture and traditions. She still shoots on film — rarely uses digital — and most of the images on display were printed in a dark room. This exhibit provides the viewer with several different sizes, formats and — most importantly — several different views into Native tribes’ culture.
DTN: What are your future aspirations for the Booth’s photography gallery?
MC: My future aspirations for the gallery is to grow the permanent photography collection while providing interesting and educational temporary exhibits. I hope one day soon to have enough photography in our collection to have a permanent exhibit of the works. These works would rotate throughout the year — for preservation reasons — and show the amazing talents of photographers living and deceased.
DTN: What do you enjoy most about working at the Booth museum?
MC: I enjoy working with the people at the Booth museum. My coworkers are amazing, and it would be extremely difficult for me to be successful at my job without them. The patrons are wonderful and come from all over the world to see our collections. I love meeting them and hearing their stories.
DTN: What is your favorite spot in the museum, and why?
MC: My favorite spot in the museum is the Sculpture Court. I know you may find this odd, a photography curator’s favorite spot is not in the photography gallery. Due to the temperamental nature of photographs, the places I work are usually quite dark. The Sculpture Court is one of the few places with natural light. I like to sit for a minute and enjoy the view in the sunlight.
DTN: Who is your favorite photographer, and why?
MC: This question to me is similar to when someone asks me what my favorite book is. I usually just respond with one of the books I am currently reading. It’s the same with art in general. I don’t have a favorite artist, and I consider photographers to be artists. There are works by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange that bring me to tears every time I see them. I can’t pick just one. It’s too hard.
DTN: What is your greatest professional and/or personal achievement?
MC: I think my greatest professional/personal achievement would be completing my master’s degree with a 4.0 while working two jobs. It was stressful and hard at times but the rewards have been amazing.
DTN: How would you describe yourself in three words?
MC: I asked my friends how they would describe me in three words. I received responses that included honest, adventurous and practical. However, all of the responses included a form of tea, books and football. So with that in mind, I think the three words that best describe me are tea-snob, books and football.
DTN: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
MC: I’m an avid traveler and take spontaneous trips for weeks. In May, I traveled to 10 countries in 21 days and loved every — sometimes very tiring — minute. The countries were Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom — England and Scotland.
DTN: What is the best advice you have ever received
MC: Every time I am asked this question, I always ponder it, trying to think of advice someone had said to me. Then it hit me that the advice could come from someone I’ve never met. It could come from their words printed on paper. Words that have stuck with me since the first time I read them. The best advice I have ever received came from Natalie Babbitt in “Tuck Everlasting” — “Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an un-lived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”
DTN: What do you like to do in your spare time?
MC: I enjoy watching football, reading books, baking cookies and hanging out with my family.
DTN: Where is your favorite place to be in Bartow County?
MC: My favorite place to be in Bartow County is any place in the Rydal/Pine Log area. It is where I grew up and where my family is from. I have so many fond memories from that community.
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