Anna Marie Strankman

Anna Marie Strankman is the new curator of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at the University of Montana.

Anna Marie Strankman has been thinking about art and the stories behind objects since she was a child.

Her father grew up on the Makah Reservation in northwest Washington, and when Strankman was a kid, baskets he’d been gifted had pride of place in the household.

“That really sparked something in me about the object and how it can tell stories, and their importance to people and culture,” she said.

Strankman started recently as the new curator for the Montana Museum of Art & Culture at the University of Montana during a period of transition for the institution and its objects. Soon the museum will break ground on a new building (see sidebar), which will be a “transformative” change, she said.

The curator oversees year-round exhibitions in the Meloy and the Paxson galleries in the Performing Arts Radio and Television Center on campus. They also help oversee the MMAC’s Permanent Collection, which at some 11,000 objects is the among the largest in the state.

'Invaluable' experience

Strankman’s predecessor, Jeremy Canwell, was fired earlier this year after a Title IX investigation concluded that he sexually assaulted a former intern in summer 2020. The Commissioner of Higher Education upheld that decision last month.

The MMAC’s director, Rafael Chacon, said they were seeking a candidate with expertise in collections management; someone who could help move the collection from storage to the new building next year; and who could work with a collection that includes Western and non-Western art.

Strankman has experience teaching museum studies and curating courses at the university level, and “that academic experience will prove invaluable to us,” Chacon said.

The MMAC job appealed to her because it would take her back to the Northwest and the museum is closely associated with a university.

“I like what that can bring in terms of the student culture and the museum really functioning to serve the students as its primary sort of constituency as well as the greater community,” she said.

Strankman’s last job was curator of collections and exhibitions at the University Museum of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Her resume also includes time as curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum. She’s worked extensively with Indigenous art from the beginning of her career at the National Museum of the American Indian, which was then was assessing its holdings, and curated exhibitions.

She earned her master’s degree in art history with a focus on Indigenous art from the University of Washington and her B.A. in art history and Indigenous studies from the University of California-Berkeley.

While the MMAC doesn’t have a large proportion of Indigenous objects in its collection, Chacon said there are holdings in the anthropology collection, and they’d like to work more closely with that in the future.

In New Mexico, she taught museum studies courses and designed several courses on the intersection of Indigenous art and museums, covering historical interactions and later issues such as the creation of tribal museums, reclaiming sovereignty over collections, and repatriation of objects.

Another course, “Museum Confidential,” allowed graduate students to curate from collections as part of a larger exhibition. “That was a pretty intensive seminar course that they went through the process, start to finish, doing the research, writing the labels, thinking about conservation issues, if there were any, and display,” she said.

Making moves

The new building could have a “galvanizing” effect for the institution and its relationship with students and the public, she said.

“I'm really honored to be a part of it, because it is going to be such a transformative difference for the collection, for the university,” she said.

She believes a dedicated space will make the MMAC more visible and accessible and “provide a lot more opportunities for students to engage with both the collection and the space,” as it will have a classroom for talks or performances, and outdoor sculpture area.

The new building will be a chance to “re-energize and re-oxygenate the collection itself,” she said.

While she’s only starting to familiarize herself with it, she said it’s “an encyclopedic collection” that has objects from Asia to Western American art, Indigenous work and everything from modernist and UM student work. She sees opportunities to rethink Western American art and “broaden that narrative” to include marginalized voices. There is also potential to work with students and contemporary artists to shed light on collection works. Overall, the collection’s storage, where it can’t be accessed for student work, is “tragic,” she said, and she’s excited about the chance to re-evaluate how to “be better caretakers of what we have.”

Students will likely be crucial in the long process of moving the thousands of collection pieces from storage to the new building.

“It gives a great opportunity for hands-on experience,” she said, such as inventory, assessing conservation issues and utilizing space.

She also worked at the Seattle Art Museum during its expansion and new construction, and thinks that experience “hopefully will help inform this process, too,” she said.