“Fundamentally, museums are storytellers,” says Dr. Casey Riley, the new head of the Department of Photography and New Media at Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia). “We occupy a unique position in the community, and in light of that, we have to think about whose stories we are telling. We want to be as dynamic, responsible, and accountable as we can in shaping those stories.”
According to Mia, Riley earned her leadership position in 2018 partly because of her interest in gender studies and the work of women photographers.
Riley believes now is an exciting time in art history, because past contributions of women photographers and photographers of color are being newly discovered. She envisions including these voices at Mia, as well as the voices of visual storytellers working with contemporary issues. “Finding artists who are responding in reflective and intelligent ways to social issues of our time is really what gets me excited.”
Riley looks beyond work that is traditionally labeled fine-art photography. “A lot of women’s camerawork has been labeled as support-type photography,” she says. “Often in archives you can find the most remarkable things, taken by skilled people, who happened not to be considered professionals of their era.”
For example, she tells of a box of color photographs from the 1970s that were discovered in a corner of the New York Parks department. These discarded objects, as well as images that have lost meaning through repetition, appeal to her.
“I’m the champion of the underused, under-loved, and overlooked,” Riley says.
It isn’t simply the creation of the artwork — Riley also is intrigued by how the meaning of a photograph changes over time. The reproduced versions of an image can be interpreted differently, depending on how it is used and experienced. She considers this part of the image’s power. “Think about ways in which we have been activated as a society by images — literally prompted to act because of something we’ve seen in a photograph.”
Riley also is interested in how “our Instagram informal culture” is part of a continuum of communicating through photographs. “I write about photograph albums from the 19th century or the 20th century. These are socially networked devices. They had Facebook before it was Facebook.”
Riley found the path to her passion in a route as circuitous as some of the images she tracks. For nearly 15 years she was a classroom teacher, starting as a fourth grade teacher before teaching high school English.
She graduated with a degree in the history of art from Yale University, a Masters of Art in Teaching from Brown University, and a master’s degree in English from Middlebury College. In her late 30s, she started her Ph.D. in American Studies from Boston University.
Prior to her appointment at Mia, she was the assistant curator at the Boston Athenaeum, where she spearheaded initiatives designed to increase public access to its collection of rare materials. She also served at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she co-curated the exhibit “Henry James and American Painting.”
“Now here I am. I feel so lucky,” she says. “I don’t see [my career shifts] as a huge switch. Curating is just a different kind of teaching. It’s all a continuum.”