“Fifteen years ago, I did another Ansel Adams show here that was a great success, but for this one I couldn’t just hang the work without comment,” Haas says. “I feel as though the world has changed so much that our role as curators really is to respond not in a knee-jerk way, not in a simplistic way, but to our community, our neighborhood and to the politics of the moment.”
Growing up in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, Haas often visited museums with her parents and always felt at home in their serene environs. But pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t part of her plan until she randomly took an art history course at Conn to fill a hole in her class schedule.
That course triggered an epiphany, and she switched from studying early childhood education to art history, spending her summers interning at museums such as Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she landed a job immediately after graduation and moved to Boston with a roommate from Conn, with whom she’s still close friends today.
The privilege of having such a powerful platform from which to expose people to artists and issues they may not be familiar with is not lost on Haas, and she’s especially excited about the opportunities she has to broaden the audience by sending certain exhibits on tour. The Ansel Adams show, for example, which includes works by several Boston-based photographers, will be traveling to Arkansas and Oregon.
“I’m really excited that his exhibit is going to places where it could be eye-opening to a lot of people and introduce them to some artists who are less well-known in the South and out West,” says Haas.
As the Lane Curator of Photographs, Haas makes sure to mention that the Lane Collection is unique in that it’s an incredibly personal collection—one that started with Adams’ photos—that was built by the donors over many years, but not as a financial investment or because these photographers were trendy.
William and Saundra Lane, longtime supporters of the MFA, began building their photography collection in the 1960s, developing close friendships with Ansel Adams and his wife, who introduced them to a number of other California-based photographers. When William passed away, Saundra donated their entire collection to the museum in what remains one of the largest gifts in the MFA’s history.
What’s particularly notable about that era of photography, Haas says, is that there was barely any commercial market for it, and a prevailing sense existed within the art world’s cognoscenti that photography—the relative new kid on the block—inhabited a position far beneath other visual art forms. That perception has mostly changed, especially at the institutions where Haas has worked, which have always given photography equal billing.
For her next big project, Haas is working on an exhibition commemorating the centennial anniversary of women getting the right to vote. Set to open before the 2020 presidential election, it will entirely feature women photographers.
While she’s now a veteran curator, Haas’ enthusiasm for her work shows no signs of fading, and she credits those earliest experiences at Conn with setting her on this path.
“I still have vivid memories of sitting in those art history classes at the very beginning, in the most basic surveys where professors often just go through the motions, but my Conn professors were so animated and excited about the material that it was infectious,” she recalls. “It really comes down to great teachers, and I’m so grateful that I had these inspiring teachers who helped me carve out this niche as a curator. I wake up every day excited to come to work and to be a part of this field.”