Alumni Spotlight: Emily Lew Fry
Director of Interpretation
Art Institute of Chicago
About Emily Lew Fry
Emily Fry is the director of interpretation at the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspired by a good narrative, multiple avenues of inquiry, and new ideas, she is passionate about creating inclusive in-gallery and online experiences. Emily has led the Art Institute’s Interpretation department since around 2016, working with colleagues across the museum to facilitate lasting, meaningful connections between visitors and works of art.
In addition to her work at the museum, Emily has facilitated numerous interpretive writing workshops and has taught interpretation theory and practice to students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and for University of College London, Qatar. Before joining the Art Institute, she worked at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Emily holds an MA in art history and graduate certificates in museum education and free-choice learning.
How do you define museum interpretation, and can you describe the way you view your role?
I’m asked this sort of question a lot, and in general, my job is to make sure the galleries are accessible and relatable to visitors—that you don’t have to be a specialist in art history in order to connect with the material presented. When it’s successful, it facilitates meaningful relationships and deep connections with works of art.
Museum interpretation is highly collaborative and always visitor centered. Working with our curatorial colleagues, we identify which ideas and narratives in an exhibition or installation are likely to resonate with the museum’s diverse audiences and use them to guide the supporting materials we develop—everything from wall labels to audio guides to digital interactives.
I should note that interpretation for art museums is a burgeoning field, and I don’t take the responsibility of that lightly. We’re working to interrogate and open up long-held narratives, identify missing gaps and representations in our installations and presentations, and create experiences that are impactful and memorable for all who visit the museum. I think interpretation should be less about telling visitors about an artwork and more about giving them tools and a framework to use so they can make sense of it for themselves or identify its relevance to their own experiences.
Can you give an example of what your work looks like? Maybe how you get started?
We usually begin by learning as much as we can about the exhibition or presentation and its core themes. Some of the questions we ask curators in the early stages of an installation are:
- If a visitor left the gallery only retaining three pieces of information, what would you hope they would be?
- Imagine visitors walking through the finished gallery (or galleries). What kind of emotional experience do you imagine them having? Why?
- Are there people whose stories relate to this subject matter who have been historically overlooked? How might we give them a voice?
Once we’ve managed to answer these core questions, we can begin to shape the visitor experience.
You have a B.F.A., is there a particular artist or work that inspired your personal practice?
I studied sculpture in undergrad with a focus on welding. I absolutely loved manipulating material, especially metal—and it’s such a delicately difficult practice that I admire any artist who makes it look easy, especially Richard Hunt, who takes metal and scales it in monumental directions.
I’ve always been drawn to the history of sculpture and sculptors. I remember walking through the galleries on my first day as a staff member, and Eva Hesse’s Hang Upwas on view—it remains one of my favorite works. The ways in which she uses material to engage the viewer has always stayed with me. I honestly feel that my studio experience has made me better at my job—I am able to articulate artistic processes and techniques, which can come in useful when we need to describe them to visitors.
Excerpts from original interview conducted by Shannon Palmer for the Art Institute Chicago, October 2021.