From the Harvard Art Museums, Jan. 9, 2017: The Harvard Art Museums are pleased to announce the appointment of Makeda Best, who has master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, as the Richard L. Menschel curator of photography, an appointment that took effect Jan. 17.
In her role at the Harvard Art Museums, Best will oversee the extensive photography collections, which trace the development of the medium from its earliest days and include exceptionally strong examples of contemporary photography.
“Makeda Best is one of the freshest voices in the study of photography, and Harvard is very lucky to have her back,” said Robin Kelsey, dean of Arts and Humanities and Shirley Carter Burden professor of photography at Harvard University. “Makeda brings an extraordinary combination of skills to the Harvard Art Museums. As an accomplished practitioner, she understands photographic techniques intimately, but she is also a historian of the first water. Few scholars or curators can match her capacity to bring out the historical significance of photographs in their subtle particulars.”
Best will draw on her experience in educational and museum settings to develop exhibitions, public lectures and other programming, and will play an integral role in the planning of regular rotations of photographs within the permanent collections galleries. Photographs and other works on paper play an important role in many of the museums’ collections galleries, as well as in the three University Galleries – spaces that support coursework in various academic departments and schools at Harvard.
She will also build on the museums’ recent acquisitions of notable photographs. The Harvard Art Museums have acquired artists Gary Schneider and John Erdman’s Printer’s Proof Collection, a rich resource on 20th-century photography that includes master prints by some of the most influential artists of the 1980s and 1990s, including Richard Avedon, and a major suite of photographs by German-born documentary photographer August Sander. Best will be key in identifying future acquisitions for the Fogg Museum collection and will advise on acquisitions for the Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler Museums.
“I am excited to return to Harvard and the museums’ vast teaching collections, which offer so many ways to explore the formal and conceptual challenges that photographers have faced and to consider how they’ve negotiated new technologies, processes, social factors and trends in visual culture over time,” Best said. “As a student of these collections myself, I have a unique knowledge of these objects, and I’m interested in what they can teach us about photography as a cultural force as well as about issues like social justice and social reform. As an educator and practitioner, I have a passion for facilitating object-based learning and interactive, student-led projects. This is a natural next step for me and an exciting opportunity to collaborate with colleagues within the museums and across the university.”
Best was previously assistant professor in visual studies at the California College of the Arts, specializing in the history of photography. She has also played an ongoing role as a chief adviser and writer for Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum, an online multimedia learning platform promoting the multidisciplinary use of photography in middle and high school classrooms, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Annenberg Learner. Best has also worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as an assistant curator and graduate fellow; there she worked on numerous exhibitions, conducted gallery talks and symposia, and contributed new, insightful research on objects in the collections. Best’s scholarly interests focus on the photobook as well as on documentary and war photography.
Her past teaching experience includes serving as assistant professor in the Department of Art and Architecture at the University of Vermont, where she developed museum-based learning courses in the history of photography and American art.
“Makeda Best is an accomplished scholar and curator, an innovative thinker, and a passionate advocate for teaching with original works of art; we are thrilled to welcome her back to Harvard as the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, a critical role for both the Art Museums and the University,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot director of the Harvard Art Museums. “Makeda’s deep understanding of photography as an art form – and as a social, cultural and political force – will advance new and challenging ideas to support our teaching and learning mission. She is a wonderful addition to our team of curators – extraordinary scholars who bring intellectual curiosity, fresh ideas and a true commitment to unlocking the potential of Harvard’s great collections for all audiences.”
Best earned bachelor’s of fine arts and master’s of fine arts degrees in photography from the California Institute of the Arts, studying under photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic Allan Sekula. She also received a bachelor’s of arts degree in history and art history from Barnard College.
She has received fellowships and grants from numerous institutions, including Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Phillips Collection; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Between 2013 and 2016, Best served on the College Art Association’s Museum Committee, and was recently appointed to serve on the association’s Education Committee.
Best has published in multiple journals and has contributed chapters to scholarly publications. She co-edited and contributed to Conflict, Identity, and Protest in American Art (2015), which explores the powerful relationship between artistic production and cultures of conflict in the United States. Her forthcoming book is on the Civil War-era photographer Alexander Gardner.