Five Photography alumni reflect on their time as student workers at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Since opening its doors in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) has grown to the leading photography museum in the Midwest, shaping the art world conversation—and employing Columbia College Chicago students for hands-on work alongside world-renowned artists. Here, five Photography alumni remember their times at the MoCP—and how those lessons continue to affect their work today.
Stephanie Conaway MA`95 worked at the MoCP as a graduate student starting in 1991. She began working for the museum full time in 1996, and today she is the head of operations.
What do students get from working at the MoCP?
I’d like to say that [our student employees] are the best of the best of Columbia. That’s the most rewarding part of my job—students come back and they tell me what a great experience this was. The students have the opportunity to work with internationally known photographers one-on-one, learning how to present their work, learning how to think about artwork.
What exhibition sticks out in your mind?
For [our 2017 Ai Weiwei show], we had to do everything to his stipulations. We had to [map out] the whole space and then send it to an architect in Berlin. The architect made a model so Ai Weiwei could see what the space looked like and could design his exhibition. It was challenging for me, it was challenging for our students. It gave us a really great opportunity to work with a totally famous artist.
Timothy Campos `10 worked at the MoCP as an undergraduate worker from 2007 to 2009. Today, he works as a gallery manager at Chicago’s Catherine Edelman Gallery, which spotlights contemporary photography.
Do you have a favorite MoCP exhibit?
I really liked the retrospective they did for the anniversary. It was just a great collection of things in their archives, things they’ve acquired over the years. I’d seen some of the photographs in other shows at the museum, and I loved to see them paired with [other images] or in different rooms. It’s always interesting to take it in with fresh eyes.
What are your biggest lessons from working at the MoCP?
Just to take initiative. As an undergrad, you’re given a lot of responsibilities, whether it’s handling artwork, installing artwork, lighting the exhibition, answering the phone and passing calls on to the director. Just to take some initiative and be professional in those situations and use it to your advantage.
Barbara Diener MFA `13 was a student worker at the MoCP from 2010 to 2013. Today, she is collections manager in the department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.
How did your work at the MoCP affect your professional path?
My day job [at the Art Institute of Chicago] is a direct result of working at the MoCP. I am also an exhibiting artist and in the process of publishing a book with Daylight Books to be released next summer. In addition, I teach photography at Oakton Community College and in the Adult Continuing Education department at the School of the Art Institute Chicago.
What specific ways did the MoCP help you grow?
For me, it was incredibly helpful to have access to three amazing curators. Natasha Egan MFA `98 was one of my grad school advisors, Karen Irvine always provided insights into my work that I had not thought of previously, and Allison Grant MFA `11 curated my photographs into an exhibition at the MoCP the year after I graduated. She also wrote one of the essays for my forthcoming book.
Greg Harris `06 was a student worker at the MoCP from 2005 to 2006. Today, he’s the assistant curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
What sorts of work did you do at the MoCP?
One of the things I did was help hang the shows. I remember watching Natasha [Egan] and Karen [Irvine] lay out the shows and think about how the exhibition would work in a space, how the text was going to play into the work, how they would think through the curatorial process out loud. It was really my first exposure to what a curator does.
What MoCP exhibition stands out in your memory?
Before I worked at the MoCP, they had a show of Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi series—it was the first time that work was shown in a museum. I remember seeing it and I hated it. Then, over the years, this became a landmark body of work in photography. The book has been reprinted four times, and Alec has gotten all kinds of awards, and it’s shown all over the place. I kept seeing the work over the years and gradually, it grew on me and grew on me. Now it’s work that I really love. Seeing that show taught me a valuable lesson to always question my first impressions.
Kevin Benishek `11 was a student worker at the MoCP from 2010 to 2011. Today, he’s the art director and designer for Magpie Brewing Company in Seoul, South Korea. He also runs a small design practice called MuteHouse.
What lessons did you take from your time at the MoCP?
One of the big things I took away from the MoCP experience is listening to people talk about art. Both in portfolio critiques and while curating shows, I tried to listen in and see how others are thinking and arranging these works in their own minds. I wasn’t accustomed to speaking about art in depth, but I learned those skills—and how to express my own thoughts about images and arrangement. As an art director, I use these skills daily.
What does the MoCP bring to Columbia?
I think any place that allows people to learn and communicate is valuable to any community, and the MoCP does a great job of that. Hosting exhibitions, inviting the community in for artist talks, and giving students the chance to learn and experience their field in a very real setting is a special thing. Not just for the photo community, but for everyone. Having this as a part of the college is something to be proud of.