Jonathan Tavares (MA 2007, PhD 2013) has recently been appointed associate curator for arms and armor and European decorative arts before 1600 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which he joined in January 2013 as a Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation Curatorial Fellow. While pursuing his graduate degrees at Bard Graduate Center, he received training in arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, first as a collections assistant and later as a Jane and Morgan Whitney Curatorial Fellow. With his extensive knowledge of decorative arts and design, he has taught courses at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and has lectured to scholarly groups including the American Society of Arms Collectors and the Armor and Arms Club of Manhattan. In 2015 he was named the Decorative Arts Society’s Sweeney Emerging Scholar Lecturer.

What attracted you to Bard Graduate Center’s program?

My undergraduate art history advisor helped me discover the program, knowing that I was most fascinated by objects. Throughout college, I was a sort of apprentice furniture restorer and was fascinated by process and materials. I thought Bard Graduate Center would be a perfect place to explore that. With its combination of object-based and theoretical courses, its museum connections, exhibition programs, and, most especially, its faculty’s dedication to intellectual and professional mentoring, the Center was undoubtedly the clearest choice to make. Above all, though, it was the program’s incredible flexibility that attracted me. I would venture to say that no other degree program provides such a well-rounded understanding of decorative arts and material culture, yet still offers the ability to effectively study such a narrow specialization as medieval to early modern arms and armor!

What was your focus of study here, how did you find yourself involved with it?

At some stage in the second year of my MA, I am almost certain the faculty must have jokingly thought when they saw my name on their roster: “OK, how is Jonathan going to work arms and armor into this class?” For me, the topic began as a childhood fascination I never grew out of. I credit Bard Graduate Center for turning that fascination into an academic and professional pursuit by fostering an internship that slipped my foot into the door at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and by showing me the way to a serious curatorial and academic path.

One of the most rewarding experiences for me included Bard Term Abroad in Sweden and Finland—three intensive weeks of study and camaraderie with fellow students, inspired by the leadership of such brilliant professors such as Eric de Jong and Pat Kirkham. Then there were the two exhibition project courses I participated in: first as an MA student with Lions, Dragons, & Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table, and then as a PhD student working on with Met curator Melinda Watt and BGC Professor Andrew Morrall, to whom I owe so much as an encouraging and motivating advisor over the years. Both exhibitions impacted the curatorial interpretation and installation design work I do now.

You have recently been named associate curator for ams and armor and European decorative arts before 1600 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Describe your position.

Since the age of seven, all I wanted to do was to get inside a museum case and touch the armor. Now I have the joy of doing that every day! Three years ago, while rounding the corner on my dissertation, a curatorial fellowship at the Art Institute arose. It was the opportunity to prepare their world-class arms and armor collection for redisplay as part of a larger reinstallation project of the medieval and Renaissance galleries due to open in March 2017. I was fortunate to find myself part of a curatorial team tasked to reevaluate the collection and create a new, contextualized display integrating paintings and sculpture with the decorative arts, as well as a new armor court that will ultimately include over 450 pieces of armor and weapons from the ninth century to about 1860. Some of the more exciting developments of this initiative have included making new acquisitions, bringing in private loans of Viking and medieval edged weapons, and working with designers. This last week I was on a research trip to Vienna with a costume historian to look at the few extant mid-sixteenth century horse trappings, in order to recreate one for our future mounted tournament armor. It is a thrill to bring together and work with such talented individuals from diverse disciplines, including an animal sculptor, clothing historian, and equestrian dressage trainer! In this curatorial role I also enjoy opportunities for public engagement and programing. I am just now am kicking off a challenging project that will reproduce the manufacture of one of our armors from start to finish, beginning with the refining of its iron ore and ending with its gilt decoration. Our goal is to make a digital interactive with footage of the various processes involved. The PBS series NOVA hopes to follow the process and make it into a documentary that will coincide with our galley opening next year.

What ultimately is your professional goal?

Ever since I learned what a curator was, as a young teenager, I knew that was the job for me. It’s been a long path, but I am very grateful to the many great mentors who helped me make the dream a reality. My new role at the Art Institute has just widened and extended that journey by tasking me not only to curate the arms and armor collection, but also to engage with a wide variety of earlier decorative arts. My goal is to share my passion for this material by making the collection come alive for our visitors through exhibitions and publishing. All too often I hear the collective anxiety of colleagues who worry about making the early modern period relevant for today. I think it’s a question of making an engaging platform from which to experience the past—it’s always relevant, and Bard Graduate Center has taught me that! Over the coming years, I look forward to growing with the decorative arts at the Art Institute.

February 2016