All Dressed

Natural Born Curator: in conversation with Mary Dailey Desmarais

If collage was the defining artform of the 20th century, then curation surely must be the quintessential artistic mode proper to the 21st.

Festivals of music and film in the new millennium routinely invite celebrities to curate their annual programmes. Popular media services like Spotify and Letterboxd encourage everyday users to curate playlists and collections of their favourite songs and movies. Increasingly, people’s identities and values are defined and reflected in their collections of things more than by traditional doctrine or philosophy.

So, museum curation today may just be an essential kind of contemporary art: using works of art across genre, format, and history, as spectacular objects, as well as the medium of creation itself — painting with paintings, sculpting with sculpture, pushing the limits of exhibition through avant-garde technology and new media.

Still, Mary Dailey Desmarais, chief curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is not above (or below) sneaker collecting, a guilty-pleasure.

“I really don’t like wearing high heels, so I wear sneakers all the time,” Desmarais says of her funky blue and orange kicks as we chat in a quiet meeting room overlooking Sherbrooke Street on a bustling Tuesday afternoon. “I feel like I can go faster, get more stuff done.”

“Museums have always been a place where I’ve felt at peace.” Mary Dailey Desmarais, photographed for NicheMTL by Thomas Hawes.

Taking care of business is exactly what Desmarais has been doing since a rocky transition into her chief role in 2020, which the media widely reported. Without delay, a series of Desmarais’s triumphant shows, including “How long does it take for one voice to reach another?” in Autumn-Winter ‘21-‘22, and “Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music,” which ran from October, 2022, until February, 2023, returned the right kind of spotlight to the museum.

Now, there is an undeniable feeling of fresh optimism about the place. It’s clear that Desmarais not only hit the ground running, but did so with grace. And though she ultimately determines the museum’s direction, Desmarais is quick to share the credit when and where it’s due.

“I want the museum and the people here to feel that, collectively, we have been able to make this museum into a real hub of community and conversation that, through art, inspires new ideas — about humanity, about the world, about human creativity,” Desmarais says. “I really feel that that’s something that is achieved collectively.”

An exhibition of Pop Art culled from the museum’s permanent collection, entitled “The Pop of Life,” curated by Iris Amizlev, accompanies a major retrospective opening in October of Marisol Escobar, the Paris-born Venezuelan-American artist who was a singular and indefinable force working concurrent to the Pop movement in the United States. Marisol famously appeared in several of Andy Warhol’s films. But her diverse oeuvre owes as much to Pre-Columbian and even Classical Greek sculpture as to her contemporaries’ work, which embraced a particularly American brand of popular culture.

Desmarais speaks enthusiastically about the Marisol showcase, and a piece in particular that will serve as the entire exhibition’s anchor. “One of the great sculptures we have in the show is called ‘The Fishman,’ which is half-man, half-fish,” Desmarais reveals. “Marisol was very invested in exploring the relationship between humans and animals — particularly underwater sea creatures. In fact, she was more interested in the relationship between humans and animals, and humans and the environment, and the interconnectedness of all things. You can see that in her practice.”

The Fishman, wood, plaster, paint acrylic, and glass eyes, 68 1/4 x 28 x 33 1/4 inches. Collection of The Buffalo AKG Art Museum, photographed for NicheMTL.

Another collection of Marisol’s sculptures represents a group of larger-than-life-sized aquatic creatures, with a satirical suggestion that reflects on her contemporary moment, and particularly, on women’s roles in society, including herself. “Although she was this major star of her generation — people were lining up around the block to go see her shows, even in galleries,” Desmarais explains, “she has been somewhat overlooked by history.”

Overlooked no more, Montreal’s Marisol retrospective, presented in connection with the AKG Museum of Buffalo, NY, is by far the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work. “I’m so excited about this show,” Desmarais beams. “I think it will really be a discovery for people.”

There is always a delicate balance to be struck in curation, to challenge audiences with art they may never have seen — and to re-examine familiar artworks in new ways — yet still remain appealing to a museum’s core mass audience, some of whom may be dabblers and novices.

“It’s not always obvious,” says Desmarais, “between exhibitions that deal with known subjects — subjects that might be more familiar to people — and those exhibitions that are bringing something new to light. For me, an exhibition, regardless of how many people it brings in the door, which is not really the critical factor of success, is that people come away having learned something new, and being inspired to engage differently with the world around them.”

Coming of age in New York City in the 1990s, Desmarais, for lack of a better explanation, seems to have been born gratia artis. “Museums have always been a place where I’ve felt at peace,” Desmarais recalls of her foundational artistic encounters. “As a kid, I remember specifically walking through the Met and stopping in front of this painting by Claude Monet. It’s a snow scene — it’s one of his haystacks in the snow at sunset — and it is this beautiful, glowing, almost ghostly scene. And I remember just stopping dead in front of this thing. And I can say now, in retrospect, that that painting was a kind of signpost for me.”

Desmarais eventually pursued a doctorate in Art History at Yale, writing her thesis on those very Monets which strayed from the sunny Impressionist paradigm. “I’d always believed that there was something kind of darker in these paintings because I remember feeling quite moved and sad in front of this thing,” she explains. “It was a constant feeling that being in the presence of works of art could transport me to a different place.”

“In the same way that writing is an artform, when you’re curating an exhibition,” says Desmarais, “what you’re doing is telling a story.” Thomas Hawes for NicheMTL.

The path to becoming a curator is neither prescribed nor impossible, though, and Desmarais had to pay her dues, too. “You have to have rigorous training in the practice of looking at art when you’re looking from a professional standpoint,” Desmarais recommends. “I know it sounds silly, but internships are important — they really were to me. I interned at the MOMA. I worked at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Musée Rodin in Paris, and the New York Historical Society. Those can be very formative experiences,” Desmarais suggests, “and they help you understand what museum work is.”

I propose to Desmarais my theory of curation as the 21st century’s artistic zeitgeist. “In a way, it is an artform,” she agrees, “but I don’t think of myself as an artist. In the same way that writing is an artform, when you’re curating an exhibition, what you’re doing is telling a story. You need to put it together in the same way you’d be writing a text. You’re making it digestible for people and helping people to feel something, see something,” Desmarais says. “That’s important.”

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is fortunate to boast a chief curator with such admirable credentials, intuitive tastes, a sense of humility, and something everyone chez nous respects: an enviable sneaker collection.

Desmarais feels just as pleased to be an adopted Montrealer.

“Montreal is a niche city,” she observes, “but with this great admiration around the world. Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Oh, you live in Montreal, what an awesome city!’ And it is. That multiplicity of cultural richness in this city needs to be reflected in the museum.”◼︎

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Mrs. Desmarais interned at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her internship was at Musée Rodin.