The Whatcom Museum is well-regarded for its thought-provoking fine art exhibitions, and as the museum’s curator of art, Amy Chaloupka plays a key role in bringing them to life. With more than 15 years of curatorial experience under her belt, she’s passionate about introducing dynamic and inclusive artwork to the North Sound community.
“The mindset of curation, and the mindset of museums, has really shifted in the last 10 years,” Chaloupka says. “I think it’s starting to be ingrained that we’re here to foreground other voices. With [‘Many Wests’] our intent is to center the artists’ perspectives and experiences, and less the curatorial voice.”
Chaloupka is an alumna of Western Washington University and holds an MFA in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to joining the museum on a full-time basis, she worked in the curatorial department at the Kohler Arts Center and as an independent curator (including for exhibitions at both the Whatcom Museum and Western).
“Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea”
Chaloupka’s role at the Whatcom Museum allows her to connect the community with contemporary art that’s both exciting and challenging. Many of the museum’s exhibitions have been recognized far beyond just Bellingham; for example, a 2019 retrospective of local artist Ed Bereal received coverage from the New York Times.
For the exhibition “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea,” which is currently on view in the Lightcatcher Building, Chaloupka also worked in partnership with five other museums– including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition is supported as part of the Art Bridges Initiative.
The idea of the American West might bring to mind images of heroic cowboys and pristine, sun-soaked landscapes, but this mythology– albeit romantic– isn’t necessarily based in truth. “Many Wests” seeks to challenge these prevailing cliches. It includes work from 48 artists, many of whom belong to groups whose stories are misrepresented in or absent altogether from traditional Western narratives.
The show will be on view in Oregon and Utah before reaching its final stop in Washington, D.C.– but before it reaches wider audiences, Bellingham residents have the unique opportunity to see it locally until Aug. 21.
The Role of a Curator
In addition to developing programs and exhibitions like “Many Wests,” Chaloupka is involved in areas ranging from grant writing to community engagement via nonprofits, tours, the city’s Arts Commission, and even local schools (which her own children attend).
“There’s not much separation. If I’m working on volunteering in the schools, I love to try and find an opportunity to get those kids drawing,” she says. “I’m always wearing my artist/curator hat when I’m out in the bigger community.”
While Chaloupka’s role is undoubtedly public-facing, she’s careful to note that she, her colleagues, and community partners work highly collaboratively, and thus everyone has a part in making the Whatcom Museum what it is. She herself is extremely hands-on when it comes to installing new exhibitions, noting that working in direct connection with artists feeds her own sense of creativity. Given her background in sculpture, she has a particular interest in site-specific pieces.
“I love working with artists on new proposals on works that have not been completed yet and to see them be realized in the exhibition space,” Chaloupka says. “Not every curator is comfortable working with artists on new works because of the unknown variables involved … but I love to jump into projects like that.”
The Whatcom Museum is returning to in-person events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public opening celebration for “Many Wests” was the first to occur at the museum in two years. Although the exhibition is set to close at the end of August, Chaloupka is already excited about what’s coming next.
“Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art,” a large group exhibition borrowed from the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, is set to open on Sept. 10. As with “Many Wests,” the show includes a variety of different artists working across diverse mediums, including sculpture installations.
“The representation of nature and the natural history of this region is something that’s at the heart of our mission and will be a connection point to this upcoming exhibition,” Chaloupka says. “I think the artworks commenting on human/animal interactions will be something that the community is really going to enjoy.”
The museum’s website has further information on the show plus a full calendar of events (including docent tours, youth docent tours, and even monthly curator tours led by Chaloupka herself).
Moreover, fine art exhibitions are just the beginning of what you’ll find at the Whatcom Museum. For the price of a 20-ounce coffee, you can bring the kids to the Family Interactive Gallery, learn about regional Coast Salish tribes upstairs in the Lightcatcher Building, immerse yourself in local history at Old City Hall, and much more.
As pandemic restrictions ease, Chaloupka has the sense that people are “looking at things with fresh eyes”– herself included. Whether you’re looking to deepen your knowledge about this community or be challenged by new perspectives and ideas, the Whatcom Museum has something to offer everyone. 250 Flora St., Bellingham, 360.778.8930, whatcommuseum.org