A Conversation with Grace Ambrose
by Alina Grabowski
Grace Ambrose loves Philadelphia. “I frankly find the city extremely inspiring; I feel very happy to be developing my practice and my work here,” she tells me over tea near the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she currently serves as the Spiegel Fellow. After graduating from Penn and attending a curatorial graduate program in London, Ambrose returned to Philly and began work on In Open Letters A Secret Appears: A People’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ambrose’s project weaves together Philadelphians and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a refreshingly personal way—through postcards. I talk to her about In Open Letters A Secret Appears: A People’s Guide to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, her relationship with the PMA, and why she thinks Philly is “the greatest place to live in the world.”
Alina Grabowski: Could you describe In Open Letters A Secret Appears for me?
Grace Ambrose: I was living abroad and got really into sending postcards about art objects to people. It was a way to engage with art and art objects that I didn’t normally do in my own practice as a curator and an art historian. For this project, I asked 49 other Philadelphians to choose an object from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An image of that object will go on one side of a postcard, and their writing about that object—which can take whatever form they like—will go on the back. The postcards will be mailed out once a week for a year to 100 different people in Philadelphia, and they’ll also be sent out by e-mail because the demand is so high.
AG: It seems like you’re interested in the play between private and public that is inherent in a postcard. Is that something you wanted to explore?
GA: Yeah, one of the ways that I became interested in the postcard is because I wrote postcards about art objects to someone I was in a really intense emotional relationship with while I lived in London. I wrote about the idea that postcards are public—they’re open backed—and anyone who encounters them can read them. In some sense they only achieve their full meaning when they’re in the hands of the intended recipient, because you can encode things in a postcard that only that person will understand. The project takes its name from the phrase “an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably,” which comes from a Jacques Derrida book called The Post Card. What Derrida writes in the book doesn’t really have much to do with what I did here, but I thought that the phrase was perfect. I also thought of the idea of secrets within the museum, and my own personal experience with the museum, and secrets that I’ve found in it, and how a public institution can function in very private ways to people who live in the city with it. Even though the museum is for everybody, it’s for everyone in different ways. So I’m hoping that this kind of writing will allow the participants in the project, whether they know it or not, to express their own secrets in the process.
AG: So the initial seed you had for the project was your relationship with someone in the States while you were in London?
GA: That’s where I realized that this is how I enjoy writing. I developed the project through thinking about how to engage with the community that surrounds the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was involved through their Junior Fellows Program (which is funding the project), and with my own community of artists and writers. And with random people in Philadelphia that I like—how can I engage them in this project? I like the idea of the museum as a place full of objects, where you go to see objects. So rather than just doing a website, I decided to do something where people receive objects, and look at them and distinguish them as objects—postcards, that is.
AG: Why did you choose the Philadelphia Museum of Art as the foundation of the project and not, say, the Barnes?
GA: The PMA is the encyclopedic museum in Philadelphia. For In Open Letters A Secret Appears, people have chosen to write about everything from a plastic radio to the great masterpieces that you’re familiar with. The museum is a place that holds a lot of meaning for the city as a symbol. I’ve worked at the PMA, so I have a very personal relationship to it. While at the museum I worked with the artist Zoe Strauss on her exhibition there, which was really transformative for the museum, reaching all kinds of new audiences that they hadn’t encountered for many years.
AG: What do people tend to write about?
GA: Some people write specifically about the object and the personal memory they have with it, about the object’s art historical significance, or the artist who made the object. And some people use the object as a starting point to write, say, a poem, or a short story—a very short story—or some people use it as a way of continuing their own writing practices. The poet CAConrad makes these things called (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises, and he wrote a miniature one to fit on the back of a postcard for the project.
AG: What are you hoping will happen to postcards after they’ve been sent out and received?
GA: I’m hoping that people will keep a little stack of them. I really wanted to create a handmade box for everyone to have to keep the postcards in, but there wasn’t enough funding to support that. In some sense they’re intended to become an artist’s book that accumulates over time. And I hope people keep them and treat them in a way that they would treat the Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook of the Collections, which is a book about objects in the collection. I hope people will keep their stacks of postcards next to their official handbook to the PMA, and have a different view of it.
AG: The project is obviously very Philly-centric. Would you say Philadelphia serves almost as the muse of the project?
GA: It’s one of the best places to be an artist or a writer, or a young person. You can have a job but also have the time to do the things you want to do. It’s a place that’s small enough that when you are able to do these types of things, a project can resonate. It’s a place where the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art can find out about your project and be interested in it. To me there’s a community that is very responsive to what goes on within the city. And that’s one of the reasons I came back here. It’s a place where what you do doesn’t just get lost in a sea of everyone doing things. What you do reverberates and makes a reaction, and people can relate to it and understand it. I plan to stay in Philly for a long time. So yeah, it is a muse; I love the city. I have some international subscribers, some people who live across the country, and some people who have never been to Philadelphia, and I hope that this project helps them see the city though a new light.
AG: Did you intentionally involve a wide variety people in the project, Philadelphians of all different disciplines?
GA: I invited people whose writing I liked and people I found so interesting that I thought they would be able to write something fantastic for this project, even if they didn’t necessarily identify as writers. So I asked people from all different aspects of my life in Philadelphia, like Zoe Strauss, Tony Smyrski from the Philadelphia photography magazine Megawords, Anthony Campuzano, who’s an artist, and CAConrad, who’s a poet. I asked people who I thought would be excited about this project, people who love this city and the objects within it. I asked a bunch of my current and former colleagues from the ICA. I think it’s a really good mix of art people and writing people, and also people who don’t identify as either. It’s been so exciting to see the objects people are picking. Some people are picking objects that the museum is known for, which is understandable. Some people have picked these incredible little objects that I didn’t even know existed, or photographs that have not been seen in the museum for 20 years and probably will not be shown again. It’s a really good way of mining the collection. It’s amazing for me to see what artworks people were drawn to in this collection of 25,000 objects—you can find little hooks that draw people in.