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Meet the New Curator of Fashion Design at Phoenix Art Museum

We catch up with the museum’s new Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design, Helen Jean.

By Olivia Munson

Following an extensive six-month search, Phoenix Art Museum announced in early March the appointment of Helen Jean as the new Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design. Jean, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Design from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and a Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design from the University of Nebraska, served as interim curator following the September 2018 resignation of Dennita Sewell, curator emerita.

We recently spoke with Jean about her appointment; her first major exhibit, “India: Fashion’s Muse”; and her plans for the future.

Phoenix Home & Garden: Tell us about your career at PAM.
Helen Jean: I joined PAM in 2007, right after graduate school. I began a curatorial assistant for fashion design and had the immense honor and pleasure of working for five years on more than 12 different exhibitions under curator emerita Dennita Sewell, the previous Jacquie Dorrance curator.

Helen Jean

PHG: Are you excited about your new position?

Jean: It is an immense honor. There aren’t many positions like this where you get to work with such an incredible collection and to tell such beautiful stories. It’s a very rare opportunity. I worked very hard for the last several months to be as helpful as I could and support the mission of the Museum. I am so honored to continue to do that.

PHG: How has the Fashion Design department changed since you first joined PAM?
Jean: When I started working at the museum, there were efforts to digitize collections. Just two days ago, I was in the gallery doing virtual tours. So that in itself is a huge jump in how PAM is able to present its collection to the community. The digitizing of the collections first occurred out of necessity to preserve the archives as well as to make them more accessible to researchers and curators. Now, it is a form of interacting with the exhibition, so that has been an incredible change.

PHG: Why is the department such an important part of PAM?
Jean: Not every art museum has a fashion component. It is a different way of telling our human story. The quality of the pieces, the types of designers and the amount of work representing them makes it an internationally significant collection. And the way it is used is definitely a standout, and that is something I intend to continue to do in my own way with my voice and style.

PHG: Dennita Sewell left big shoes to fill. How are you planning to put your own stamp on the department?
Jean: I am not going to fill anyone’s shoes; I brought my own. Dennita is amazing at what she does, what she did and how she did it. I aspire to be an equally successful educator, storyteller, curator and preserver of these incredible pieces. I am so excited to get to explore a new donation of work by renowned fashion designer Geoffrey Beene and decide how we are going to tell his story. (A collection of more than 350 custom-made pieces by Beene spanning the 1980s through the ’90s was donated to PAM in February.) This was a project Dennita had started, and I look forward to continuing and really growing it.

PHG: “India: Fashion’s Muse” is currently on display. What inspired this show?
Jean: The idea came from a personal interest of mine, coupled with the knowledge that the museum had recently dedicated a portion of the Asian Art Gallery to Sikh artwork. Realizing that outreach to the Arizona community and beyond had occurred, a quick look in the vault determined that we were in possession of many examples of garments that I knew I could use to begin to tell this story.

PHG: What was your favorite part of curating the exhibit?
Jean: It was spending the evenings alone in the gallery with the objects. Getting to install the pieces and working in the vault. Sharing the collection and celebrating it is absolutely joyful, but really getting to work with these objects is such an incredible opportunity.

PHG: What’s on the horizon for the Fashion Design department?
Jean: We have big plans for the future. In November, we look forward to opening “Fearless Fashion of Rudi Gernreich,” which is coming to us from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. We are really setting our sites on major exhibitions for the future. Like everyone else, we are taking current conditions day by day and determining how to best deliver our products to the community.

PHG: How do you want your legacy at PAM to be defined?
Jean: I want the legacy of the collection to continue to be one of positive and responsible growth. There are considerations now for collecting work by designers who think about sustainability and human conditions, and I am interested in growing the collection in ways that support those ideas. I look to curate creative exhibitions that tell stories and bring different communities together to engage in conversation about how our clothing has inspired each other. It is my hope that the work I do helps people understand how we use fashion to communicate. There are so many incredible ways that we move through the world, and our clothing helps to identify our place, intention, direction and path in elegant and interesting ways.

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