By Jack Kelly
In 2005, Amy Powell arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to pursue her MA in art history. Upon completion of her master’s in 2007, the Kentucky native decided to stay at the university to pursue her PhD in the same field.
Powell is currently the curator of modern and contemporary art at Krannert Art Museum (KAM) at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign—overseeing a collection that contains roughly 10,000 works of art. The path to her current position, though, was not as straightforward as one may think. It began in Madison, and took her to Washington, D.C. and Houston along the way.
During the 2010-2011 academic year, Powell was a Smithsonian predoctoral fellow at the National Museum of African Art in Washington. Her time in the nation’s capital was invaluable because of the resources available to her while writing her dissertation, she explained.
“It was an academic year fellowship based at the museum, and fellows have no responsibilities to the museum at all,” Powell said. “It’s just a space for writing and research, so I could use the collection and the archives [at the Smithsonian] as I needed. And also, I could use collections and archives elsewhere in [Washington].”
Upon her return to Madison, Powell worked as a dissertation fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities. However, she spent only a semester in Madison before taking a position in Texas, from which she successfully defended her dissertation in December 2012.
Powell held the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Curatorial Fellowship with Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. During her time at the museum, she worked on a series of exhibitions and public programs, something that provided her valuable experience for her current position.
“I had a lot of opportunity to do my own programs,” Powell said. “I wrote grants and raised money to organize exhibitions and public programs, and was able to do a lot there. Being at Blaffer really prepared me for being able to come into a full curator position like the one I have [at KAM].”
Today, in her role at KAM, Powell draws on her past experiences more than ever. Not only is she responsible for managing a collection, but also for organizing temporary exhibitions and working with contemporary artists she hosts for residencies with the faculty and material resources at the University of Illinois. This creates unique challenges, as she finds herself working with not only independent artists, but with members of departments across the University of Illinois, she explained.
However, Powell believes that her work with the Center for Visual Cultures, the Department of Afro-American Studies and the African Studies Program at UW–Madison prepared her well for such a challenge.
“There were just really tremendous resources to take advantage of, a range of different disciplines and bodies of knowledge, and it was just a really great training ground on how to draw from multiple disciplines into one practice. Now that I’m effectively a cultural producer I work with faculty from a range of departments here at the University of Illinois, and I think Madison really trained me for that kind of work.”
Powell went on to explain the importance of university art museums, and the role that they can have in a campus community.
“I think it’s a natural place for experimentation and for interrogating the production of knowledge,” Powell said. “I think that university museums, because of the research mission of the university and the teaching mission of the university, they’re particularly privileged places where there can be a lot of experimentation.”
The UW–Madison alumna is approaching the end of her third year with KAM, and is currently wrapping up Autumn Knight: In Rehearsal, the first solo museum presentation of performances, videos and public programs with New York-based artist Autumn Knight, who focuses on reshaping perceptions of race, gender and authority in institutional spaces.