MASS MoCA curator's passion for art blossomed at the Rose Art Museum

Photo courtesy The Berkshire Eagle / Ben Garver, photographer

Denise Markonish '97

Denise Markonish '97 didn't waste any time when she arrived at Brandeis in the fall of 1993.

She dropped her bags off at her room, went straight to the Rose Art Museum and asked for a job. For all but one of her semesters at Brandeis she interned at the museum, where she held long conversations with museum staff, like legendary director Carl Belz and curator Susan Stoops, and got to work hands-on with the museum collection and exhibitions.

"It was the time I spent at the Rose that really cemented what I wanted to do with my life,” Markonish said. “I knew I wanted to work in the arts, but it was a broad and vague idea at that point. Between the work that I did and the conversations I had, it was the best education that I could have ever received."

These days, Markonish is a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Back in 1993, she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to art, but wasn't sure exactly how. Her time at the Rose drew her closer to the tasks that go along with curating exhibitions.

"A lot of what I did were pretty mundane tasks like replacing the candles as they melted down in a sculpture by (Cuban artist) Ana Mendieta. This experience of realizing that art can be a living, changing thing, was revelatory.” She added "Being able to get up close to the art, to work with artists, made me realize that I wanted to spend my life facilitating the creation of artworks.”

After she finished at Brandeis, Markonish immediately went on to graduate school at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. She has since served as curator at Artspace in New Haven, Conn. and taught at the Williams College and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Since 2007, Markonish has been at MASS MoCA, one of the most respected contemporary art museums in the world. Without a collection of its own, the museum places a high value on developing strong relationships with working artists and providing them opportunities to create work to be displayed at the museum. “Aside from long-term engagements with certain artists, we also do temporary exhibitions that involve bringing in artists and commission new works. I often working with artists and technicians for years to create new works for the museum, which then exist in the world afterwards,” is how Markonish describes it.

“I consider myself more of a producer than a curator. Engagement with every step of the process is really important to me. We talk about the end result, but I want to be there for [the artists] every step of the way,” she said. “Whether that’s taking a research trip with them or just talking with them, being a therapist.”

In May, MASS MoCA opened B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building, a new 130,000-square-foot wing, making the museum the largest non-collecting contemporary art museum in the world. The opening included a wall work more than 100 feet in length created by Brandeis professor Joseph Wardwell. Another wall installation by Brandeis alumna Natasha Bowdoin ’03 will be on view just outside the Museum’s theater in 2018. 

Markonish is constantly connecting with both established and emerging artists to work with them on new projects, even if the exhibitions are years in the future. Exhibitions are planned out as far as four years ahead of time.

“I've always got lists of artists in my head. Sometimes it might take years before it’s the right time (for a particular artist,” she said. “I always tell artists to be patient, sometimes it takes time for the puzzle to fit together.”

Categories: Alumni, Arts

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