Episode 3: Jennifer Dasal of the North Carolina Museum of Art

Jennifer Dasal, host of ArtCuriousMy guest is Jennifer Dasal, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She’s also the host of the ArtCurious podcast. In each episode of ArtCurious, Jennifer sheds light on some of the most unexpected, mysterious, and, well, curious stories in art history. And she does so in a way that is not only unique but also, as Salon.com put it, “non-boring”.

As anyone who works at a museum knows, different visitors have different levels of interest in the work you do and the objects you collect. Think of the teenager who is tagging along with their parents, or the person just trying to impress a first date by taking them to a museum. To them, your galleries are just filled with old… stuff. How do you engage those people with the stories behind the stuff? Well, Jennifer understands those people because, as she told me, she used to be one of them.

I asked Jennifer where her story ideas come from, how much work goes into an episode, and, what would the mission statement be if her podcast were a museum?


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On, the Cuberis Podcast. I’m Nick Faber.

My guest today is Jennifer Dasal, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She’s also the host of the ArtCurious podcast.

You know, we like to joke around at Cuberis about how boring the word “Content” is. It feels sterile, devoid of humanity, obligatory. But what we really mean when we talk about your museum’s content — your blogs, your digital stories, your podcasts — is storytelling. Every object in your museum’s collection has a story, or sometimes, usually, many stories. Especially when you look at them through the perspective of different people, like your educators, or your curators, or even you visitors. Technology has made it easier than ever to produce “content”. The difficult part is deciding which stories to tell, and how to tell them.

In each episode of her podcast, ArtCurious, Jennifer Dasal sheds light on some of the most unexpected, mysterious, and, well, curious stories in art history. And she does so in a way that is not only unique — with humor and the type of intrigue you would expect from a true crime podcast — but also, as Salon.com put it, “non-boring”.

As anyone who works at a museum knows, different visitors have different levels of interest in the work you do and the objects you collect. Think of the teenager who is tagging along with their parents, or the person just trying to impress a first date by taking them to a museum. To them, your galleries are just filled with old… stuff. How do you engage those people with the stories behind the stuff? Well, Jennifer understands those people because, as she told me, she used to be one of them. And that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation.

JENNIFER: So one of the reasons I started the podcast was actually because I used to be somebody who did not like art, at all. It wasn’t something that I grew up being exposed to. We had art class in my school when I was growing up, in elementary school, but I didn’t find it interesting. It wasn’t something that happened frequently. It was extremely occasionally that we would have a class. And for me, it was all pretty torturous because I didn’t feel like I had any artistic skill, nor did I know anything about the art that I was supposed to be looking at and enjoying. So I grew up thinking art was pretty boring.

Fast-forward about twenty years, and suddenly I’m an art history major. Long story short, I discovered that art was actually not boring when you have the right teacher telling you about it and giving you the right cool stories behind it. And I was so excited, that that sensation of learning and having a teacher who was really inspiring to me always stuck with me.

And even now, in my day job as a curator, I feel like I run into two groups of people. And the first group of people are the people who say I’m at the museum all the time, I’m a member, I love being here. And then there’s the people who are like I used to be. And they would say, I’m only here because my mom wanted me to be here today and I’m so bored and it just doesn’t do it for me. And I’ve had people tell me, over and over again, that to them it’s just a picture on the wall, and that it doesn’t have any sort of life or energy to it. And I always kept coming back to thinking that that was a shame, but that I understand that impulse because I used to feel the exact same way.

So I was thinking the best way to do it sometimes is just to tell these weird stories that you might not have heard before. And part of that is, for people who might not have heard these stories before, maybe they’re novices. Maybe it can get them interested in art a little bit more. But then, for people who already say that the like art, maybe these are stories that they never heard in their traditional art history courses. So I try to tell stories that are a little — I call them — unexpected, slightly odd, and strangely wonderful. So a little bit off the beaten path.

NICK: What was the moment… why did you decide a podcast was the right medium for doing this, as opposed to, say, a blog or just the work that you do in the museum?

JENNIFER: And you know, thinking about it now in retrospect and with 20-20 vision, I always think, oh how bizarre that I chose to do a podcast for a visual medium. But I think it really just came down to storytelling for me.

For me, I’ve been listening to podcasts for years, and I think that they’re — it’s like grown-up storytime, and I am constantly listening to them. It’s the background noise of my life, and I learn so much from podcasts, and I find so much enjoyment.

And I think I was one of those people that doesn’t realize how difficult podcasting could actually be and how much time it takes. And so it was simply a matter of thinking, ooh, I like podcasting, that looks like fun, I’ll do it! And also the thing I like about podcasting is that I think it’s a very accessible medium. As long as you have access to a smartphone, or a computer, or something like that, you have the technology available. Because it’s free! And as long as you have that, you know how to access a podcast, I’m going to give you all this free material. So I hope it’s something fun and educational at the same time.

NICK: So when you jumped in without really knowing all that goes into a podcast, what sort of things surprised you as you started producing your own?

JENNIFER: The time and the workload, I think, was the big thing. I knew nothing about editing before starting this. I had to learn everything on my own, crash course, as I was experiencing it. So knowing that what would end up being a half-hour episode or a 45-minute episode, would take me weeks to complete from start to finish was a very enlightening experience. It was really eye-opening.

Eventually, I had to cut down what was, now I see as being a really unrealistic amount of episodes I had in mind for myself, and an episode delivery calendar, and narrow down simply because the workload was very intense. But now that I think about it, I don’t know that I would have wanted to know just how intense it was because not knowing really gave myself permissions to just do it and see what happens without being nervous or frustrated up front.

NICK: Yeah, yeah, and I think that’s something that keeps a lot of people from trying new things or innovative things because it seems so daunting. And so without knowing that ahead of time, you were in it already, so you had to keep going.

So, you mentioned the editorial calendar and how you had originally planned to have more stories than you have produced, or are able to produce. How do you pick which stories to tell when, and what does having a calendar and an editorial plan do to really help you produce regular stories for your podcast?

JENNIFER: Just with the podcast, and also just with any job in a creative field like a museum, I feel like you’re surrounded by people who have so many ideas and stories to tell, and so for me, organization is key. It’s the bottom line. So I have to have a physical calendar, a paper calendar, that I look at and that helps me to see how I can divide my time, and also to see if there are any interesting correlations I can make in the stories I want to tell.

I don’t have a whole lot of those in this current season, but I have done them before where I will plan an episode about two artists that are in a relationship together around Valentine’s Day. Or I will put some information out about artists who were in World War II around Armed Forces Day, for example. So a lot of that is also just planning ahead and looking at the calendar, and seeing what connections I can make.

But in terms of coming up with now with the stories and how I determine the stories I want to tell, I originally began during my first season of my podcast by telling whatever story I wanted whenever it came up. The idea would come up and I’d say, oh great, that’ll be my next episode! Then I’d go forward with writing. Now I’m a lot more thoughtful and careful about it in that I’ve come up with themes for a whole season. And then I plan a number of episodes around that theme. And I’m more thoughtful about in what order I want them to be produced. Before, I did not do that at all, and so now it’s much more detailed like that.

NICK: Could you talk a little bit about, specifically, what goes into the episodes? So you talked about how you pick the stories, then where does the content come from?

JENNIFER: Yeah. I begin everything with a series of research. Now I have a really good advantage in that I’m an art museum curator and, literally, 20 steps away from my desk at work is an art research library. It’s very well maintained, I have hundreds and thousands of books I can choose from to do research from, and same with periodicals, online materials. So I use that to my advantage to start doing the groundwork for any episode that I’m going to be doing.

And I have a serious period of anywhere from about five days to two weeks, depending on my episode and how significant I feel the workload will be, to specifically research how I want to frame my story, what the facts are, and then how I want to spin it into a cohesive narrative. So that’s the most difficult and time-intensive process.

Then, when I actually have the narrative written out, I write every single episode out, it’s a solo voice, a single-voice podcast, and it’s all scripted. Then I go into my recording studio, which is my closet, then I record it. And then I go into the post-production period. I’m very lucky in that I now have somebody who produces my show for me. So I hand over the file, and then he does all the editing work and all the post-production. But it takes him, I still think, a few days to turn something around once you come up with all the edits and the cleanups, adding music, adding anything else, additional ads and so forth.

So at any given time, I usually am working on two to three episodes. I would have one that I’m just finishing writing, one that’s in the process of being produced, and one that I’m starting the research process of. So, I’m usually trying to juggle a couple things at once.

NICK: Where does the seed of any given idea come from?

JENNIFER: Some if comes from just things that I remember when I was in school. Like the very first episode that I did for ArtCurious stemmed from really a haphazard thought that one of my art professors threw out when I was in college and we were learning about Renaissance art. And she was telling us all about the Mona Lisa, and in the middle of just discussing why this is an important and famous painting, she said, oh but, by the way, it’s fake.

And I said I have no idea what you’re talking about right now. And she really didn’t go into a huge amount of detail, but enough just to say, oh, it was stolen a few times, and in the 20th Century, when one of the people who stole it was a known art thief, and art forger, so it’s entirely possible that in that time they created an amazing forgery, and that’s what I think is on view at the Louvre. And onward to the next subject.

So she never talked about it, I never thought to follow up and ask, but that story stuck with me for, literally it’s been decades now. And that was the first episode because I thought, I really want to know that story. I want to know what would make somebody who seems very logical, and thoughtful, and obviously hugely intelligent, think that the most famous piece of art in the world is not the real deal. And that is what started the podcast.

NICK: With a story like that, you are sort of setting a tone and coming up with your own perspective and voice for all the subsequent episodes after that. Could you talk a little about how that experience with imagining and producing the first episode sort of led to, OK, now I kind of get what the tone, or what the sort of theme of my podcast is.

JENNIFER: Yeah, I would say a lot of things I’m going for is sometimes an element, a little bit of mystery, or something very different and unexpected. So I might go a little bit into what an art term like chiaroscuro means, but I’m not going to lecture you on art history or why a work of art is such a masterpiece. I mainly want to give you the human story, or just a weird story. Something that will make you look at something and want to go a little bit deeper instead of just saying, oh, that’s a pretty sculpture. Moving on.

So I do want to have that kind of weird element to it. So this season, I’m going into a whole slew of episodes that’s all about rivalries. And I figure that that central idea of conflict is something that everyone has experienced, that everyone can understand. And it might bring something that looks like an old work of art — something that’s 400, 500 years old — to light in a new way when you think about the struggles that people had between one another in creating these works of art. You know, were they in competition with one another? Were they artists who used to be friends and then got in a big squabble? Were they enemies? And just really get you to look at art in a different way. That’s my number one goal.

NICK: Great. And how would you say that relates to the work you do as a curator, or if at all? And does one influence the other?

JENNIFER: Definitely. I would say I’ve specifically chosen not to talk about contemporary art. I’ve specifically chosen to look at what I lovingly call “the old stuff”. Part of that’s because I don’t spend my day looking at the old stuff, I spend my day with the newest, and the freshest and most exciting works of art, in my opinion. So I like to do that so that there’s a differentiation between my day job and my little passion project on the side.

The other thing is that I don’t necessarily want there to be an overlap because I find fulfillment in my day job and I don’t want to overdo it enough in my side project there. So it’s a way for me to kind of get this larger, holistic view of art history and enjoy both parts of it, if that makes any sense.

NICK: Totally. Yeah, that’s great. So if you were, say, a museum, what would you say your mission with the podcast is, and, more concretely, what the goal for it is?

JENNIFER: I think the mission for it is just to expand art, visual art in particular, and art history to a large audience. Because something we see in the museum, and in museums in general, that I think also relates to the podcast is that there’s still this sensation that art is very singular in that it’s meant for one particular group of people.

We’ve been talking a lot recently across the museum board, as a museum community, about diversity in museums, about degentrification, because art is still seen as being something that is really meant for the elite.

And there is also this sensation that it’s really hard to understand. And those people are really hard for people to overcome. Myself, having that experience of feeling like art wasn’t for me, art was boring, I didn’t have access to it. And I simply, personally believe, that that’s not true. I believe that that’s not true. I believe everybody can and should, if they would like, to be able to experience and understand art. And that, I think, is one of the missions of the museum, and also of the podcast, is to be able to open up this world to people who might already be there, and already might feel like they don’t understand but they would like to belong.

NICK: Do you ever hear from your listeners with their own stories of how you’ve helped them see something differently or given them a new perspective?

JENNIFER: I do, and I would say that that’s probably one of my absolute favorite parts of doing this podcast. People tweet me, or they contact me through my website, they email me, and a lot of people like to give me ideas for future episodes, which is hugely helpful. Because it’s always nice to hear what other people want to hear. And I’ve definitely done episodes based on people’s recommendations.

And then it’s also really gratifying when I hear exactly what I wished the podcast would do, and somebody tells me that it’s done that for them. So the one story that sticks with me most is that I had woman contact me on Instagram about a year ago and said that because of my podcast, she is a visual artist, and she was studying to get an MFA and she was adding on a minor section in art history, specifically because she got excited about art history from hearing my episodes.

NICK: Wow. That’s awesome.

JENNIFER: That was huge. I’m pretty sure I cried that day.

NICK: Yeah, wow. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

What would you say to somebody who might be surrounded by these stories but not quite think that they have it in them to tell them?

JENNIFER: I would first of all say that I completely understand because I feel that way even now. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a natural writer, I’m not a natural storyteller. Sometimes it’s just about convincing yourself that you a) can do it, and b) taking the time just to jump in and do it. So I think now that I would think about, I would want people maybe not to necessarily jump in blindly like I did, because it can be a bit of a shock to the system to see what it’s like to create your own podcast, or a film, or a blog, or whatever it is that you’re doing.

But at the same time, don’t get hung up on the details of the process. I would say, give yourself permission to try and also give yourself permission to fail. If it doesn’t work, I think that’s OK, but everybody is talented and everybody is capable of creating. Creating isn’t something that’s just for “creative people”. I think that’s something that everybody falls back on saying, is “I’m not creative”.

NICK: Right. That kind of says that other forms of creativity aren’t the same as art, or being artistic. Problem-solving is creative, coding is creative, and there’s a lot of ways to be creative. And so, yeah, that’s good to remind folks that that is just something innate in everybody and you might have had it beaten out of you over the years, but it’s still somewhere in there.

JENNIFER: I think there’s a lot of overlap, too, in definitions of what art can be or what creativity can be that I think wasn’t something that was understood or maybe allowed ten years ago. Like now, there’s so much flow. I even see it in contemporary art today between something that isn’t a painting, but it’s not a drawing, but it’s not a sculpture. It’s like there’s these weird overlaps, and I think that applies to the world in general. There’s a lot more fluidity now.

NICK: Yeah, and I’m sure as a curator of contemporary art, that you see so many things that somebody without the background knowledge or the context would look at that and be like, why is that art?

JENNIFER: Every day.

NICK: Yeah, “I could do that!”

JENNIFER: Every day. There was a cartoon I saw once. I don’t know if it was in the New Yorker, or if it was something else, and it was just a simple math equation. And it said, “Modern Art = My Kid Can Do That + Yeah, But He Didn’t”. And I thought, perfect, that’s exactly right.

NICK: There you go. There you go.

So, if there is a museum professional out there who is thinking about creating a podcast for their museum, specifically, and they haven’t been scared off yet by the amount of work and effort that goes into it, what sort of concrete tips would you give as far as what sort of equipment do they need? Or what tools would they use? Or who on their staff would they turn to for their stories?

JENNIFER: I think the big thing about podcasting, which I’m sure is the same as writing or making art of any kind, is that it really can be as inexpensive as you want, or as expensive as you want. So the number one thing is you need a microphone, you need a computer, you need something you’re going to be editing — editing software — on. And some of that stuff is free. Like we were speaking earlier off mic about using Audacity, which is a free editing program. And a lot of this stuff doesn’t have to break the bank to do. A good set of headphones can cost you anywhere from $15-$30, it doesn’t have to be $100. So within a museum’s overall marketing or A/V budget, I think it could probably be fairly small.

The one thing about a museum that I think would be very helpful, as opposed to doing an independent podcast like mine, is that, in terms of the workload, you already have usually teams of people who can pair up or bond together to create this. So whereas I am mostly doing the podcast on my own, a lot of the work falls on my shoulders. But if you have a marketing team that’s predominantly doing this, you all of the sudden have a lot of backup. So something that might seem like it takes a lot of work becomes quicker and second nature.

If you happen to have a space that you can repurpose, someone’s office, or a closet in my case that you can repurpose as a recording studio, you can leave your equipment up. You don’t have to worry about taking stuff down all the time. It takes me 15 minutes to probably put together my studio every time I want to use it.

But really, to do a podcast, you don’t need much. And you don’t even need a studio if you if you want it to be very casual, and very conversational. You can record it outside of a museum, you can record in the galleries, there’s all kinds of options that would make it really easy.

The thing that I think is really fun with podcasting, the same with blogs, is that it can be very casual. We’ve talked a lot about accessibility and I think podcasts are very accessible in that you don’t have to tell something in a very firm way. You’re not following any of the rules that you might have to follow for a wall label, for example. The world all of the sudden opens up to you.

And, personally, I kind of like even just a story that’s someone’s opinion. It doesn’t have to be, what does this artwork about? It can be, what does it mean to you? Which is just as valid. So I would say, if you’re struggling to find a story that you personally want to tell, go to the person who sits in the office next to you, or the cubicle next to you, and say, what is your favorite work of art in the collection? And tell me why. Just five minutes of your time.

NICK: That was Jennifer Dasal, host of the ArtCurious podcast and Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

I want to thank Jennifer for taking time to speak with me at the museum offices in Raleigh, and I want to thank you for listening.

If you want to subscribe to future episodes of What’s On, or download our Ebook, The Art of Storytelling, head on over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”.

And don’t forget to check out ArtCurious. It’s at artcuriouspodcast.com. For the more inquisitive listener, you can dive even deeper thanks to the links and images Jennifer shares with every episode.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?