Behind the Scenes Conversations: Interview with Danielle Susalla Deery, Director of Exhibits and Communications, Oceanside Museum of Art (May, 2012)
In the Fall, 2011, I had the opportunity to work with Danielle on my exhibition, ‘A Matter of Space’ which was on view in the Parker Gallery from October, 2011 - February 2012. Our association over a period of several months, gave me the chance to get to know Danielle and the workings of the Oceanside Museum of Art. When I decided to write the series “Behind the Scenes Conversations” - interviews with curators, exhibition directors, gallery directors, and others shaping the art world, I thought of Danielle. Behind her bright and energetic persona, lies a hard working, well organized, experienced, and educated young woman who is passionate about the arts.Read about Danielle’s background, her 8 years at a commercial gallery and how that influences her work at OMA, the challenges of being an Exhibition Director, and learn some great advice for artists seeking an exhibition at a museum.
1) Can you briefly talk about your time at Oceanside Museum of Art – how you got the position and your job responsibilities there? I started out as an intern at OMA in 2003 and helped out on various projects such as marketing, grant writing and exhibitions. Then, after receiving my MFA at California State University, Fullerton in 2007 I went back to OMA. They needed some help taking the leap into the social media world, so I started the museum’s blog and developed their Facebook page. This was a busy time for the museum as they were just finishing up their expansion. In May of 2008 they offered me the Assistant Director position and I was thrilled. It was a big responsibility, but I hit the ground running and wore many hats as all people do at a small institution. I managed the volunteer program, marketing, social media and events and curated a few small shows per year.
In April of 2011, I was promoted to Director of Exhibits and Communications. I manage the museum’s 5 exhibition galleries and oversee about 15 exhibitions a year. I curate exhibitions and work closely with artists, guest curators and lenders. Each exhibition requires lots of research and writing. I design the exhibit spaces, and create the text panels for each exhibit. I do many studio visits to keep pulse on what is going on in the art community as well as visiting galleries and museums to see what is current. I also review all the exhibition proposals that come to the museum.
I also handle all the marketing for the museum, which includes writing press releases for all our events and exhibitions and send them to our press contacts, designing and writing the museum’s print and e-mail based newsletters, managing the social media, public speaking about the museum, television and radio interviews, and photographing all the exhibits and events. Also under my purview is the Collection - We have about 140 objects in our possession and I make sure that each piece is catalogued and do research on pieces in the collection when I have time. I wish that I could devote more time to the collection since it continues to grow and it is an important part of the museum’s role in the community. I also manage the budget for all these departments. I am chair of the Exhibitions Committee, the Collections Committee and the Marketing Committee and I Chair the Marketing Committee for the San Diego Museum Council where I sit on the board.
2)Can you talk about your background and how you developed your passion for art?
I received my MFA and Certificate in Museum Studies from Cal State Fullerton in 2007. I focused on exhibition design, which was a combination of art history, design and curatorial studies. For my masters degree I curated a major exhibit called Han-Zi: The Rhythm of Chinese Script which brought together a number of Chinese artists from around the nation. Prior to CSUF I did some post baccalaureate work in art history and sculpture at SDSU for a couple years. I earned my BA in European Studies, which was a combo of Art History and French with a minor in Studio Art from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York and also studied abroad in Aix en Provence. France. Prior to working at OMA I was the Interim Art Gallery Director at Fullerton College where I curated a number of exhibits and taught art history and exhibition design.
An interesting piece of my background was the 8 years I spent at a commercial art gallery in La Jolla where I held various positions including gallery manager, senior art consultant and executive fine art consultant. I think this was really valuable because it showed me a whole other side to the art world. Most often galleries are concerned about what sells and they commission artists to paint a repeated image, taking away an artist’s creative freedom. Having sold millions of dollars’ worth of artwork over my 8 year span gave me a strong sense of art that is decorative vs. what has substance and content. When I left the gallery, I wanted something more fulfilling - I wanted to work with artists who were painting for themselves and had more depth to their work, and to have the opportunity to educate people about visual culture.
I developed my passion for art in high school when one of my ceramic sculptures was chosen to be in the Young At Art show the San Diego Museum of Art has each year. The excitement of seeing my work in the context of a museum setting propelled my desire to work with museums. The same year I studied abroad in Paris and my experience at the Louvre fueled my passion for art. Then, when I returned home from New York I began curating shows in local coffee shops and galleries before I started curating at CSUF, Fullerton College and OMA. I do enjoy making art when I have the chance,but it is more of a hobby for me. I feel that making art gave me a better understanding of the process behind creating art and the struggles and joys artists face.
3) What is your vision for exhibitions at OMA? How are decisions made for exhibitions that will take place at the museum?The exhibits at OMA have always been extremely diverse, from African quilts and underwater photography to glass art and abstract painting. I feel it is important to vary the styles and media displayed at the museum and work with both emerging and well established regional, national and international artists. My vision is to display exhibitions that are engaging, interactive and respond to the issues of contemporary art, while educating people about art history and the diverse cultures in our community.
Every few months I meet with our Exhibitions Committee and review interesting proposals submitted by committee members, outside curators and artists. The committee acts as a sounding board for what exhibitions will be the most relevant for OMA. Then I meet with our Executive Director and we make the final decision on which exhibits to move forward.
4) What have been your biggest challenges as exhibition director?Well, as you know, it is hard to please everyone. It is always challenging to inform artists that the museum is not able to exhibit their work. Sometimes their work is not up to museum standards, and other times it just does not fit with our schedule at the time. I really dislike giving people bad news and want to support every artist out there because I respect what they are doing. I hope that when an artist sends a proposal and doesn’t get a show, there won’t be hard feelings toward me or the museum. It is not personal, as there are many factors considered for making exhibition decisions.
Also, because I work for a public institution, occasionally I am faced with being judged and criticized, but at the same time I do feel a lot of support from our board and the community. My relative young age and experience may cause some to question my abilities. But, proving myself is part of growth and learning. You have to start somewhere and I am grateful to the museum and all the support I do get from most of the community.
5) What kind of experience do you want visitors to have had from visiting OMA?I hope that visitors engage with the artwork on view and learn more about our visual culture and the diverse methods artists use to communicate the human experience. In the future I would like to make our exhibits more interactive so that people stay longer and really take their time enjoying the museum.
6) What are you looking for in terms of the artists you select for exhibition at the museum?I look for artists who are doing something original and have an engaging story behind their work. I am also drawn to artists who push the envelope and find new ways to explore contemporary issues such as identity, diversity and environmentalism. I am also conscious of our audience when I select artwork for the museum, making sure that the work on view is accessible to all ages.
7) What do you look for when viewing an artist’s portfolio? What is necessary to include and what is not?I look for a strong artist's statement and a few striking images. This is what gets me to spend some time reading through their biography, CV and opening the CD of images if they sent one with their proposal. I also really like it when an artist includes an illustrated checklist so I can see what they have available and the sizes of each piece and the medium in one quick glance. And, I think that it is helpful to include a couple articles that have been written about the artists work, especially if the artist is not able to fully contextualize their work.
8) If you could give any advice to artists seeking an exhibition, what would it be?Submit a great proposal and invite the curator to visit their studio. I always learn so much more about an artist when I get the chance to see them in their own environment. Also, become a member of the museum they wish to show their work. If an artist wants to show at OMA they should come to our functions and introduce themselves to me and meet other people in the OMA community. And, keep curators up to date on what you are working on. If you have a new series of work, shoot the curator an email with a link to a photo album, stay in touch and keep promoting yourself.
Cathy Breslaw is a southern California visual artist, writer and lecturer who has had over 25 solo exhibitions, and 50 group exhibitions across the country at museums, art centers, college and university galleries and commercial galleries. Her work can be found in many private and corporate collections.
Her work and writing can be seen at: