We recently had the opportunity to chat with Olivia Miller, curator of the Art of the Food exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Olivia has been at Curator of Exhibitions at the museum for nearly a decade and this exhibit is features more than 100 works from the renowned collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation. The exhibition uses a variety of mediums to examine food in a variety of non-alimentary contexts, from satire to social commentary. With prominent artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Damien Hirst, Hung Liu, Analia Saban, and Andy Warhol, the collection shows the ways that food is our communities, relationships, cultures and languages.
R.A. Kashanipour on behalf of the Recipes Project: Thank you so much for taking to the time to talk about this wonderful exhibit! What was the inspiration, particularly the focus on food? How did you select this collection of works?
Olivia Miller: I first visited the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation in Portland in 2019 to look at the collection. My intention at that early stage was just to gather information and to see what types of works were in the collection. Being part of a university art museum, I strive to curate exhibitions that are interdisciplinary with various entry points for engagement. We want as many students as possible to visit our exhibitions, so it’s important to have shows that connect to contemporary issues.
As I was going through the artworks, the topic of food kept standing out to me. I can’t explain exactly why—it just made sense because Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, there are many faculty and researchers on campus vast knowledge of food, and it’s a broad topic that would allow me some flexibility in the curation. It seemed like the perfect topic to explore.
Selecting the artwork was challenging. For one thing, food is a huge subject to tackle, so I had to figure out what themes to focus on and which artworks illustrated those themes best. The Schnitzer Collection is quite large so I had to make tough decisions on artworks to exclude from the show. Eventually, I narrowed down the checklist to 109 works after selecting the themes for the show: community, control, dissociation, food for thought, elixirs and libations, eye candy, and still life. Through those themes I made sure to include a mixture of well-known and lesser-known artists and a variety of mediums.
RP: The collection is impressive, particularly the variety of works. What kinds of media are included in the exhibition?
OM: There are many different types of media in the show including: paintings, sculpture, glass, ceramics, screen-prints, ready-mades, and lithographs. However, there are some artworks that take a traditional medium to a new level. For example, Red Groom’s Deli is a three-dimensional lithograph that extends off the wall and into the viewer’s space. Some works, such as Malia Jensen’s salt-lick sculpture, or Ed Ruscha’s prints News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues use food itself as the medium!
RP: What messages and insights about food do you see this incredible collection of artists communicating ?
OM: Some artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly in his plant lithographs, are focused on the aesthetics of food. Others, like Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Ichárhuta, speaks to environmental concerns and the accompanying social impact. Damien Hirst’s Last Supper series speaks to the over-reliance on prescription medications and making a parallel to the artificiality of processed foods. The incredible part of learning through art, is that although the artist may be communicating a specific message, contemporary events and people’s personal experiences add additional layers of meaning to the artwork. This is also part of the art of curation. By framing certain artworks in this exhibition, I’m adding a new interpretive lens to the work. In this way, the meaning of all of these artworks is ever-changing.
RP: How does The Art of Food contribute to ongoing conversations about food and spark new ones?
OM: The Art of Food is certainly intended to contribute to ongoing conversations about food, but hopefully in a way that inspires more people to join in on these conversations. As a curator on a university campus, it is very important for me to remember that I work in a unique place with incredible access to current topics. While a particular subject might seem old-hat or common knowledge to me, the museum is often the place where young students or community members are introduced to these conversations for the first time.
In this light, I hope that people leave the exhibition with a heightened awareness and a broader perspective about food. I hope they leave with a level of critical thought about where their food is sourced from, how food is integral to maintaining community, and who has agency over their food choices. Naturally I hope that people also understand the integral role that art plays in communicating ideas about food, telling food histories, and inspiring a call to action.
RP: Which works have garnered the most attention? Are there any issues or conversations that have developed that have surprised you?
OM: The porcelain sculptures by Oregon-based artist Chris Antemann have been very popular. She worked with the Meissen porcelain factory to produce them. They have the aesthetics of the Rococo style, so in addition to being genuinely beautiful works, they are also quite amusing. There are also two small, early watercolors by Andy Warhol, painted when he was only 19 years old. Those have really surprised people because they are not used to since they are more familiar with his Pop Art aesthetic than his earlier expressive works. The Roy Lichtenstein Bull Profile series has also been very moving to people. It is a series of six screen-prints that begins with an image of a cow that gets gradually broken down into an almost-unidentifiable geometric abstraction. It really speaks to the disconnect people have between their consumption of meat and the individual living being it comes from. People have also been very drawn to the glass sculpture by Emily Brock. It is called Diner Story, and it shows a woman sitting at a diner counter wiping up her spilled coffee as bacon and eggs cook on the stove behind the counter. People are fascinated by the fact that she made this miniature scene out of glass, but there is also a melancholic mood about the piece that is captivating.
RP: What other events and collaborations are a part of the Art of Food?
OM: Chelsea Farrar, Curator of Community Engagement and Willa Ahlschwede, Assistant Curator of Education and Public Programs have done an incredible job planning various events and collaborations in conjunction with the exhibition. Two complementary exhibitions in our community gallery have focused on food. The first was a collaboration with ArtWorks, an on-campus arts program for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They worked with a class in the School of Art to create an exhibition centered around food and memory. We currently have an exhibition with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and photographer Kathleen Dreier that highlights the personal food stories of Tucsonans. One of the most important collaborations was with the Campus Food Pantry. For the first month of the exhibition we collected donations that went directly to students on the University of Arizona campus. It was really important for us to call attention to the food insecurity that exists here, right on our campus. We have also had a number of public events including a Community Day, community garden tours, artist talks, scholarly talks, and even a food-themed art trivia.
RP: How can we continue to talk about food and art at the University of Arizona?
OM: Well for one, we should continue to exhibit artwork about food that speaks to its evolving significance. This exhibition has only scratched the surface and there are many more artists and issues to discuss around food. The subject will continue to evolve in our daily lives and artists will continue to respond to those changes. It is important to remember that there are incredible similarities between food and art. They are both cultural manifestations and are made in similar ways—a chef’s kitchen can be likened to an artist’s studio. Food preparation and art making involve a knowledge of the past, changing technologies, creativity, and innovation. Consuming food and consuming art are both multi-sensory experiences that can inspire different ways of learning. They both nourish the soul. Because of this, I think it is important for faculty to incorporate food and arts experiences into their curriculum whenever possible.
RP: Thank you! We will be sending students to the exhibit, especially those from my Food Studies and Latin American Studies courses.