If you love fashion there are a number of directions you may follow to find the career you want. If you truly love the history of fashion, the evolving of it, the construction and the stories behind the incredible vintage pieces that can still occasionally be found, you may have a future as the Fashion Department Curator of a Museum, overseeing the exhibition of amazing fashions from past decades.
Dennita Sewell is the Curator of the Fashion Department for the Phoenix Art Museum. She oversees a collection of thousands of pieces. These treasures have come to the museum from various sources and represent different times in history; a path of evolution to where we are now. After all, fashion is a reflection of our lifestyle and as it changes, so does fashion.
I had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Sewell in her office on the grounds of the beautiful Phoenix Art Museum.
Q. How long has the Phoenix Art Museum had a permanent fashion exhibit? What was in the first exhibit?
A. Actually, the gallery that houses the exhibits is permanent, but the exhibits aren’t, they change. The Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Department was founded in 1966 by the museum’s Board of Trustees. Jean Hildreth , the first curator, was hired in 1971 and the collection has been growing ever since. Her first exhibit was called “La Belle Epoque”, and featured dresses from the 1890’s.
Q. How many pieces are currently in the collection? Are pieces from any particular time more difficult to find than others? How are they acquired?
A. There’s currently over 5000 pieces representing various times in history. The more contemporary pieces are easier to find. Most of our pieces come from private donations, though some are purchased. The pieces from the 1800’s are the most difficult to find in good condition, and usually come from private collectors.
Q. How often do the exhibits change and how you decide what to exhibit next?
A. Textiles, like works on paper, are subject to light damage, so it needs to be on display for a limited time, generally, no longer than three to five months. There are usually two fashion exhibitions per year. It takes time to take them down and make sure they’re stored properly, then set up for a new exhibit. For the topics, I like to rotate concepts and reflect a broad diversity of fashion. Maybe do one historical followed by one really contemporary.
Q. How is the Arizona Costume Institute connected?
A. The Arizona Costume Institute is one of several volunteer groups that are part of the Phoenix Art Museum. It’s comprised of Phoenix Art Museum members, who, among other things, raise money to help with the purchase of fashion items for the exhibits. They do this through fundraisers and special events.
Q. Did you begin your career with an eye toward being a museum curator? Did you follow a particular course of study?
A. I grew up on a farm in Missouri, with a mother and grandmother who were wonderful seamstresses. I grew up sewing and developed a true passion for it. Eventually, I attended the University of Missouri, majoring in Clothing and Textile Management. After that I got my MFA from the Yale School of Drama, working in the Design Dept., with an emphasis on costume design. After college I worked for the Metropolitan Museum in New York as a Collections Assistant, then Collections Manager. I spent six years there before coming here to Phoenix.
Q. Which eras are your favorites?
A. It’s hard to choose just one. Whatever I’m working on tends to be my favorite at the time, but if I had to pick just one, I say probably the late 1700’s, or the very contemporary.
Q. Last time we chatted you mentioned that there are specific times that students can come in and sketch. Are there other special events for students?
A. That’s true. The museum permits anyone to come in and sketch in any department, so you can sketch paintings, sculptures or fashions. However, only sketchbooks and pencil are permitted. Also, there are a lot of events scheduled that we’re excited about. There are lectures, films and musical events. They’re mostly held on Wednesday evenings and unless otherwise indicated, are free.
Thank you, Dennita.
The Phoenix Art Museum is located at 1625 N Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004. For information on activities and events, check out the website at www.phxart.org, or call 602-257-1880. Don’t miss any of the exciting events scheduled for this year!
The Phoenix Art Museum is open to the public FREE on Wednesdays from 3:00pm to 9:00pm and includes entrance to the lectures and film events taking place on those evenings.
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Article by Liz Riley
“The Resource For All Things Fashionable”