Every curator’s dream is to walk into a blank space and be able to hang a collection of art any which way they like. Erika Holmquist-Wall did just that two years ago when the Speed Art Museum hired her before they reopened. She, along with the other curators, reinstalled the permanent collection from scratch. She was so committed to the originality of her vision that she never even looked to see how the museum was installed before. Recently Holmquist-Wall was named Chief Curator at the Speed, which was a great honor after only having been there three years. She is a curious, affable and positive person; you cannot help but become very interested in every subject she discusses, whether that be art, her shoes or the fact that she makes much of her own wardrobe. She is now working on sharing the stories of the collection at the Speed, since “every object has a story to tell.” Meet our FACE of Louisville today, Erika Holmquist-Wall, and learn her story.
You were recently named the Chief Curator of the Speed Art Museum. What all does this large job entail?
As Chief Curator at the Speed, I lead and support the Collections and Exhibitions division, which encompasses the Curatorial, Registration and Preparations Departments, as well as the Speed Cinema. If it involves artwork, galleries, exhibitions, loans, installations, the film program or the permanent collection, I watch over it, but it’s our staff who make all the magic happen.
You were initially hired as a curator for paintings in 2014. What did you think about the collection, and how did you want to change or maintain it?
In museum circles, it’s generally known that the Speed has a great collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings, as well as strong holdings in 18th century European paintings. I loved being surprised, though, by little gems like the portrait miniature collection, and I wanted to ensure those had a place in the galleries. I am still learning about the painters and sculptors native to Kentucky, which was a necessary crash course with a lot of great teachers!
Moving forward, while I will always seize an opportunity to add artworks to the collection, I also want to focus on restoration and conservation efforts. There are several artworks in storage that have been hidden for decades. They require treatment, cleaning, repair or reframing — the Speed is no different from any other museum in that regard — and it’s such an exciting moment when they are revealed in the galleries!
You had the unique opportunity to reinstall the entire permanent collection at the Speed when it reopened. What was that rare experience like from your perspective?
When I started, the museum had already been closed for two years and the collections under my purview (European and American painting and sculpture) were either in deep storage or travelling on loan. I had to learn the collection quickly and make decisions about installation, even before I had a chance to read the object files!
Of course, it’s a marvelous collection of art, which made the whole process much easier. I purposely avoided any photographs or plans of earlier installations, so as not to influence my thinking about so much blank wall space. That deliberate choice produced some fresh and interesting juxtapositions – or so I’ve heard.
Even though I was running on adrenaline for the entire year before the museum opened, it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my professional career. We created a museum from scratch and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What are your plans and goals at the Speed for the next year? The next five years?
Apart from making key acquisitions for the permanent collection, we’re filling the exhibition calendar with a wide range of projects for the next several years. I’m always thinking about new ways to share the Speed’s permanent collection, both in the galleries and online. Since every object has a story to tell, accessibility is key. How can we best share these stories?
You are one of the foremost experts on the provenance of World War II art. How did you get involved in this?
I became involved with these efforts out of necessity: it has only been within the last twenty years that many art museums have committed resources to researching the provenance — or history of ownership — of the artworks in their collections. Since then, access to documents related to the World War II-era looting of artwork throughout Europe has improved exponentially. It’s incredibly gratifying to discover and share the stories behind the life of an artwork. I only wish I had endless hours to unravel the mysteries behind the objects in the Speed’s collection!
Have you enjoyed living in Louisville? Is there anything about this city that has surprised you?
I am completely charmed by Louisville! I’m still figuring out the quirky Derby culture. It’s an easy city to love.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What does a typical day or week like for you?
Nothing is typical in this job. I could be working with a conservator on a restoration project, advising a collector, researching in an archive, developing a gallery layout, looking at the stickers and wax seals on the back of a frame, visiting an art fair to keep up with the market, or writing gallery labels. And, so much more. Every day presents a new juggling act.
What are three words that describe you?
Enthusiastic. Advocate. Storyteller.
What advice do you treasure?
“Never cry for a dealer,” which means don’t be afraid to negotiate. It’s the best advice for anyone who collects art!
Fill in the blank. You’ll rarely see me without _______?
A pair of good Swedish clogs.
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
Looking for yarn stores – as a former Minnesotan, it’s my personal mission to find the knitters here! In the rain, I scout the antique malls; in shine, I’m in the park with my family.
Favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Daytripping without a schedule. I love to just poke around in boutiques, galleries or shops and look for visual inspiration among the designs and displays. I wish I had more time for it.
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
Sally Mann’s Hold Still.
What are three of your favorite things right now?
Thank you to Adele Reding Photography for the wonderful photos taken at the Speed Art Museum. To learn more about the stories in the permanent collection, follow them on Instagram where they are profiling different works of their collection in a campaign called #90works.
Read about more inspiring women in Louisville in our FACES of Louisville weekly features here.