Monica Obniski (MA 2006) is the Demmer Curator of 20th and 21st Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Previously she was the inaugural Ann S. and Samuel M. Mencoff Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago and had been a research assistant in the Department of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She will defend her dissertation, “Accumulating Things: Folk Art and Modern Design in the Postwar American Projects of Alexander H. Girard (1907-1993)” at the University of Illinois at Chicago this spring. Monica recently answered a few questions about her studies and career.

What attracted you to Bard Graduate Center?

In 2002, I was interning at the Art Institute of Chicago while applying to graduate programs, and the curator for whom I worked suggested that I take a look at Bard. Once I examined the program, it was clear to me that this was an extraordinarily special place that would allow me to pursue my interest in the decorative arts within a community of like-minded individuals. The professors wrote thought-provoking articles and books; the course catalog was compelling; and I appreciated the strong connection to different museums through the internship program. Not only was the program based in New York City, which meant being surrounded by art and culture, but the opportunity for Bard Term Abroad allowed for expanded study in Europe. This was the place for me!

What was your focus of study here?

I focused on American decorative arts and design of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I loved Ken Ames’ course on American Furniture of the Nineteenth Century and Pat Kirkham’s on Women Designers. Amy Ogata’s class on world’s fairs provided me the time and space to think through issues related to modern American design and Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34) for a final paper. I used this as a foundation for my master’s thesis, which was eventually published in the Journal of Design History. I also greatly appreciated the visiting professors, namely Tim Benton and Caroline Maniaque, from whom I developed a sincere interest in modern architecture (which I pursued in my doctoral work) and Helena Kaberg, from whom I learned about Swedish modern design.

Describe your current position at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

I am in charge of the design collection. My current focus is planning the design galleries, which will open in November 2015 within the newly renovated museum (a collection of three buildings designed by Eero Saarinen, David Kahler, and Santiago Calatrava). It is truly exciting because there will not only be more gallery space devoted to design but this is also a concerted effort to expand its profile at the museum. To this end, I have been charged with acquiring contemporary design, and originating exhibitions that explore design. I have a few exhibition ideas, including examining the work of architect-designer Alexander Girard. In a few short weeks, I am defending my dissertation, which treats his postwar projects. Parlaying this work into an exhibition would be extremely satisfying.

What ultimately is your professional goal?

I hope to contribute to design scholarship through substantial museum exhibitions. As a corollary, I also wish to introduce more people to the wonderful world of things within the museum through programming (for a local audience) and digital initiatives (for a global one). Design is one of the most accessible areas within art museums because, fundamentally, it is everywhere. Hopefully, more people will become enamored of its power.