a response to questions regarding my activities at the Pasadena Art Museum
You asked me to give some thought to what prompted, or allowed, me to begin exhibiting and collecting photography at the Pasadena Art Museum. And, also, how I was able to express such a wide range of attitudes and perspectives for what was collected and for the diverse types of exhibitions scheduled through 1974 when Norton Simon took over the museum and the program was terminated.
Your questions have led to a unique investigation for me. I had never consciously attempted to trace my previous curatorial activities—searching for the roots to how or why I did what I did. The revisit to my past has been both instructive and enjoyable.
To review that evolution and to set the stage, I need to go back to the late 1950's. I was in High School in Southern California. One of my main passions was dance (modern, ballroom, ballet, ethnic and historical). I was good at it and in great shape. By the time I got to college, I had performed in several musicals, on television, and in numerous school programs of various types. I was very interested in and expected to make a career in either education or the theater.
However, after only one year as a student at Long Beach State College (because the Physical Education major offered few opportunities for advancing my interests in either dance or theater), I changed my major to Philosophy.
Like many young people, since my early teens I had been searching for the meaning of life. In high school, I participated in a Methodist youth group and had even considered the ministry. I was drawn to the field of philosophy as a continuation of my search for more satisfactory answers. To keep a long story as short as possible, over the next few years, I spent time working in rural Mexico with the American Friends Service Committee and as a member of a Peace Corp type project in Germany, changed colleges and majors again (General Humanities at San Jose State), was considering a career in medicine and, by 1960, I found myself in San Francisco serving in the Army as a surgical technician. By then, I had resolved my personal religious and philosophical concerns and had evolved into a form of existential relativist—where value was relative to the situation and perspective of the individual. To this day, this philosophical position has remained an influential foundation to all my later endeavors and accomplishments.
With that mind set, while still in the Army in 1961, I enrolled in my first ever art class— beginning painting at the San Francisco State College downtown Extension Center. Since that initial class, I have maintained a personal relationship with art. That first class was a painting class, my instructor was Jack Welpott, a new professor of photography at the college. After I got out of the Army (1962) I stayed in S. F. and became an art major with a strong interest in both photography and painting. Jack Welpott became my advisor and friend, introducing me to the world of photography. During this time, needing to support myself with a work-study job as a gallery installer, I also began my career as a presenter of art.
By 1964 when I left San Francisco to attend the University of California Davis for graduate school, I had already laid the foundation for my dual path as artist/curator. At Davis my work-study jobs echoed the same interests. I was hired to install exhibitions of student work in the Design Department and also worked as an assistant to the Campus Photographer. By the time I got my Masters degree in 1966, because I was in the right place at the right time, I was asked to help open the art gallery in the newly built Student Union. After a few months, it became evident to all concerned that I should become the permanent director of the Memorial Union Art Gallery. My career as a curator/administrator formally started with that opportunity. In addition to the main gallery, there were other locations for displaying art throughout the building. Eventually, I became responsible for multiple exhibition schedules with a wide range of media and levels of importance. For the next three years, I experimented with exhibition presentation and design as a form of art itself.
The first photography exhibitions in the gallery were solo shows by Jack Welpott and Don Worth—both from San Francisco State. On a whim, in 1968 I applied for a summer internship at the George Eastman House. To my surprise, I was selected as one of five interns to spend the summer in Rochester. While there I meet Nathan Lyons, Beaumont Newhall, Aaron Siskind, Jerry Uelsman, Peter Bunnell, and a host of younger photographers from all over the country. That summer internship firmly established my interest in photography. While at the George Eastman House, I saw my first Manuel Alvarez Bravo print. I also became aware of, or was actually introduced to, many of the individuals connected to most of the major centers of photographic arts. Returning to Davis in the Fall, I had many new resources for possible future exhibitions.
As the director of the art gallery, I was free to explore the methodology of presenting exhibitions. As an artist, that's what made the job interesting. In 1968, at a conference of the Association of College Unions, held on the Davis campus, I presented a "lecture" (more of an event) on The Effects of Multi-Media Sensitivity upon the Presentation of Art. This was the 1960’s and light shows at dance concerts were the rage throughout the country. In San Francisco, the Grateful Dead, the Fillmore and an extended Summer of Love were all going strong. Although, as an artist I had always been interested in the relationship between human sensibility and the presentation of art, by 1968 every exhibition or catalogue I worked on was subjected to a conscious consideration as to how the gallery visitor’s or reader’s senses could be more effectively exploited.
Of the 1969 exhibitions, Pre-Impressionism 1860-1869, co-curated with art history professor, Dr. Joseph Baird, is a good example. In the catalogue, I wrote:
During my directorship of the Memorial Union Art Gallery most of the installation designs involved novel and unique presentations. Of the catalogues, the most unique were for the exhibitions of the photographers. Harold Jones, Roger Mertin, Thomas Barrow and Robert Fichter (I had met each in Rochester) had their first solo shows in Davis and a unique catalogue was produced for each photographer.
About six months before I was invited to join the staff at the Pasadena Art Museum (late 1969), I started organizing California Photographers 1970. At first, I thought Davis would be the exhibition's only installation. However, given my new position in Pasadena, I was then able to schedule the exhibition there as well. And, with that higher level of importance, it was then possible to arrange a tour for the exhibition that included the Oakland Art Museum. With scant experience and a lot of naive confidence, almost by accident, I had brought most of California's photographic artists together and had also found three venues where a large and diverse audience could actually see the exhibition. All of a sudden, the Pasadena Art Museum was a major center of photographic art. Much of the diversity of the ensuing photographic exhibitions and growth of the collection began with California Photographer 1970.
In 1974 when Norton Simon took over the cash strapped Pasadena Art Museum, I had just started working on a major exhibition that would have been a national version of California Photographers 1970. I had received an NEA grant and had already completed a three-month driving research trip to most of the photographic hot spots throughout the country. With the new management, all the grants were terminated, NEA monies were returned, people were fired and my project aborted. I often wonder what might have been had the program survived beyond 1974.
Later, between 1977 and 1983, I had the opportunity to create the same type of photography program at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. While there, I organized a new department, curated numerous unique exhibitions, wrote and edited several catalogues, and began another photography collection. Much of the research I had begun in Pasadena was updated and utilized in Santa Barbara. The exhibition, Attitudes: Photography in the 1970’s (held in Santa Barbara in 1979) was actually the offspring of the aborted 1974 Pasadena project. The unique design of the exhibition’s physical layout and the unusual catalogue were both direct descendants of my early experiments started in Davis.
Fred R. Parker, January, 2004