Profile: Michael Neumeister was named the Columbia Museum of Art’s new curator last spring. We chatted with him about how he became a curator, his favorite restaurant in Cola, and what he considers the most interesting object on display at the CMA.
Here’s what he had to say.
Q: Tell us about your background in the arts. What was your path to becoming a curator?
A: For me, curatorial work represents a convergence of interests. I’ve always been passionate about music, which opened me up to the arts more broadly. My undergraduate degree is in anthropology and religion, two fields that use objects to tell stories. After college, I found myself going to museums in my spare time; at some point, it clicked.
Q: What does your typical day look like?
A: After catching up on emails, I’m usually doing some combination of selecting artworks for exhibitions, researching artists and objects, and refining gallery layouts. There are meetings sprinkled in, either with my team or external collaborators. The best days are the ones where I get to interact with artists.
Q: Which of the CMA’s objects has the most interesting story?
A: There are many. Right now, we have a portrait up in our European Splendors exhibition by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. He studied closely with Leonardo da Vinci, and the painting we have is stylistically similar to Leonardo’s work. Some time ago, we X-rayed the painting, and discovered an under-drawing in pencil that may have been done by Leonardo himself.
In our featured exhibition on Elizabeth Catlett, we were able to include works from our collection that speak to Catlett’s artistic lineage. We have a work on paper by Grant Wood, who instructed Catlett at the University of Iowa. It’s exciting to tell the story of student and teacher, tracking that impact across generations.
Q: One of our City Editors, David Stringer, recently learned that only 15-20% of the CMA’s collection is on display at any given time (and his curiosity was piqued). Can you tell us more?
A: It remains in storage. There can be this perception that museums arbitrarily choose which works go on view, but it’s an intricate process. There are several factors: condition, spatial constraints, thematic content, and historical relevance. We’re spinning a lot of plates.
Q: What’s a surprising fact about the CMA that not everyone may know?
A: We have the only fresco by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli in North America.
Q: What were the last three things you did locally?
- Ronnie’s Ribs in Elgin. Fantastic barbecue.
- The Roastery at Oliver Gospel Mission for coffee.
- Sound Bites Eatery for lunch.
Q: What is your favorite local discovery you’ve made since relocating to Columbia?
A: The Gourmet Shop, hands down. It’s amazing to have that selection in Columbia.
Q: Can you share anything in the works for the CMA that you’re excited about?
A: In January 2023, we’re opening an exhibition of Southern women artists from the Johnson Collection. It’s centered in the 20th century, including works by Emma Amos, Beverly Buchanan, and Zelda Fitzgerald. There will be various points of connection for visitors — regional, national, and historical.*