Arts and minds
There is much we can learn about our world, about ourselves and others, about proximity and difference, by looking at art.
Stand in front of a painting, a sculpture, a drawing, it’s hard not to find something to connect with. Perhaps you notice a particular shade of red, or the way a shadow falls on a woman’s arm just so. Maybe you don’t know what that bronze sculpture is, but to you it looks like it’s melting into the floor. Maybe you’ve heard that this artist faced terrible hardship in her life and made beautiful work from it.
Being open to these feelings, these thoughts, says art historian and curator Andrea Douglas, can help us grow as people. But so many of us close ourselves off to the possibility, saying, “I don’t understand art. It’s not for me.”
But that’s simply not true, says Douglas. Art museums and galleries exist to provide a space for viewers to have conversations with the art, conversations that lead to the opportunity to both appreciate and struggle with wonder, with beauty, with difficult questions in an essentially sacred space—an exercise that can serve us well outside museum and gallery walls.
Charlottesville museums and galleries, most of which are free and open to the public, are working to expand audiences, engage new ideas, and put art newbies at ease.
“Even if it’s stuffy, even if you walk in and you feel as if this is not your place,” Douglas says, once you’re inside, the conversation that you have with the work inside is nobody’s conversation but your own.
Through the eyes of a curator
Local galleries commit to access and expanding perspectives
Andrea Douglas has always been moved by art.
She started painting when she was very young, and while still very young, she realized she would not be an Italian Renaissance painter. She was devastated, but she continued to paint—nobody told her not to.
When Douglas was about 15, her sister leaned on one of Douglas’ freshly painted works, tore it and devastated Douglas all over again. “The grief I felt from that moment was so deep, that then I realized I did not ever want to feel that again,” she says, and she started to shift toward a different life in the arts.
“That’s how I became a curator and art historian: to move out of my devastation,” Douglas says with a laugh. “The artist makes the work and the curator presents the work.”
Douglas, who was curator of exhibitions and contemporary art at The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA (then the Bayly Art Museum) before becoming executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (where she designs permanent historical and rotating contemporary exhibitions), curates because she deeply appreciates that art makes her feel.
She’s felt the joy of witnessing beauty in a painting and the devastation that comes with seeing it torn. She’s felt her breath quicken when noticing how photographer Roy DeCarava treats lights, darks, and shadow. She’s been rendered inconsolable by photographs of the women who started the anti-apartheid movement, the determination on their faces captured on film.
Those feelings didn’t just come from the artists’ works; they came from the way the works spoke to one another, and to Douglas, in each exhibition. Curators prompted those conversations.
Just as an artist never simply “makes the work,” a curator never simply “presents the work.” Curators spend years honing their craft, and they consider hosts of things when developing exhibitions: Exhibitions require months—sometimes years—of research before anyone hammers a nail into the wall to hang the first picture.
Charlottesville museums and galleries offer dozens of opportunities to be affected by art. What’s more, the exhibitions change regularly, so there’s always something new to see…or a new way to see something familiar.
“I don’t want Charlottesville to be behind in what they’re seeing,” says Kristen Chiacchia, executive director and chief curator of Second Street Gallery, which for 45 years has focused on bringing the best in contemporary art to central Virginia. Contemporary art is art of our time, not just our place, says Chiacchia, which is why she exhibits work by local and regional artists as well as international artists, like Nigerian American sculptor Adejoke Tugbiyele and Aboriginal Australian artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson, among others, all with the intent of expanding the perspective of viewers and any local artist who might come see the work and even meet the artists themselves. “One way you improve, whether you’re a writer, a musician or a visual artist, is to surround yourself with other people doing these sorts of things, who will challenge you and get you thinking,” says Chiacchia.
Greg Kelly, an artist and a co-founder of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative who now chooses shows for the Studio IX co-working space gallery, curates because he finds other people’s ideas more interesting than his own. Kelly prefers to show work that engages “timely and relevant issues that are impacting us nationally,” such as immigration, drug addiction, and human trafficking, and he often prizes content and message over formal quality.
Kelly welcomes guest curators to Studio IX as well, folks who have a vision for how to present, say, a themed show about motherhood, an experience he doesn’t know firsthand.
Henry Skerritt, curator at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection—the only museum outside of Australia dedicated to Aboriginal Australian art—also relinquishes curatorial control, and on a much larger scale. “These are not my stories; they belong to the indigenous people of Australia,” says Skerritt of the Kluge-Ruhe’s exhibitions, which often feature work by contemporary artists who travel halfway around the world, sometimes from very remote communities, to show their work and lead workshops at the Kluge-Ruhe. Indigenous Australian people—their voices, their practices, their culture—have long been oppressed by colonizers, and allowing these artists the option to curate their own shows ensures that they have full agency over how their work and their culture is presented.
Skerritt says he’s more of a facilitator than a curator, giving space and respect to an artist’s vision while facilitating a conversation between the artist and the viewer of their work. It’s not so much curating art as it is curating communities, says Skerritt.
Community is a particular focus of the New City Arts Initiative’s Welcome Gallery, which director Maureen Brondyke says was created—and named—with the intention of welcoming emerging artists and community members into the local art scene.
People often think they have to know what to wear, what to say, how to look at art before setting foot in a gallery, Brondyke says, when in reality, there’s no right or wrong way to look at art—connecting with the work is always personal, always unique.
Curators curate because they value that connection so much, they have to help others feel it, too. But in order to do so, they have to get people in the museum, in the gallery. Matthew McLendon, who started as director and chief curator of The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA last year, says that an important step in getting more people to engage with art is to show a viewer that he is represented in the artwork on display.
This means mounting exhibitions with more diversity of race, gender, perspective, medium, and culture. Currently on view at The Fralin is an exhibition of Native American art, curated by Adriana Greci Green, The Fralin’s curator of the Indigenous arts of the Americas, that merges pieces from the museum’s collection with pieces from contemporary Native American artists; exhibitions like this are not common in Charlottesville (or most places in the U.S., for that matter). McLendon feels personally committed to making The Fralin’s exhibitions and permanent collection more diverse, acknowledging that there are still great strides to be made in this direction. Showing diverse art by diverse artists is “a direct way of showing someone that they are valued,” says McLendon. “When you see yourself represented, you know you’re valued.”
In curating the JSAAHC gallery exhibitions, Douglas focuses on exactly this. By exhibiting work by artists of color or focused on people of color (particularly black people) in a credentialed, curated space, the gallery offers visibility that, while increasing in this moment in time, has not always existed in the local art scene.
Charlottesville fancies itself an arts town, and it’s true that there’s an abundance of art happening here, in museums and galleries, on stages, in living rooms and basement studios. But curators of local galleries express frustration with the amount of actual support that Charlottesvillians give their artists outside of that “arts town” declaration.
Deborah McLeod, who founded the Chroma Projects gallery in 2010, says that compared to other places she’s lived and run arts spaces, people in Charlottesville more readily spend their disposable income on food and drink, not art. She and other curators lament the fact that artists are not often paid well (if at all) for their work, even when the work is extraordinary. This makes it difficult for artists to live and work in Charlottesville without holding down another, more reliable job to pay rent and keep food on the table.
McLeod, who has moved her gallery (and had to close working studio spaces) multiple times because of rising rent costs, acknowledges that not everyone has the extra money to spend on art for their homes—that’s why museums and galleries, often free here in town, are so precious—but there are plenty who could. She challenges companies and corporations to lead by example and buy artists’ work to display in their offices instead of opening up in-office galleries where they can enjoy free art all the time and pay artists in “exposure.”
If our community is to understand art as a valuable means of understanding ourselves and our world, curators say we should support our artists, not just in word but in action. We should support artists because art can change us, for the better.
Skerritt says that in an increasingly global world, where different people are more connected than ever due to technology, widespread effects of climate change, migration, and more, it’s paramount to engage with one of the most important questions of our day: How do we deal with increasing proximity of difference?
We can look at art.
“Having these really contemplative spaces where you can go and contemplate what it would mean to communicate cross-culturally, in the most profound and beautiful way,” by looking at humankind’s ability to comprehend our world through art and thereby engaging at once with difference and sameness in a way that is not shouting or arguing but is gentle, is an extraordinary thing, says Skerritt.
“It’s the role of a gallery in any community [to be] a place where you can come in, sit, and quietly engage in something that has a language that you resonate with,” says Douglas, speaking not just as a curator but from experience. “And if it doesn’t have the language that you resonate with, it then has a language that you might struggle with, but you’ve gotta be willing to do the struggle. And the act of that? If you’ve got 100 people who have engaged in that action? For a community, that’s a place of growth.”
Hung up on the future
Wallpaper re-frames perspective on design
Some consider wallpaper to be a tacky design choice that went out of style decades ago, but artist and Charlottesville native Avery Lawrence sees it as an art form worth pursuing.
Lawrence’s “‘Moving a Tree’” is partially plastered across the entrance to The Fralin’s “In My Room” exhibition. The original version of this work is a complex performance video, and what is on display at The Fralin constitutes the backdrop of the video, a red-and-cream wallpaper design digitally created by Lawrence. The pattern is alternately restrictive and wild, featuring portraits of the same despondent man and woman alongside imagery of chopped lumber and skulls.
Lawrence acknowledges that there’s a lot to unpack in the design. “‘Moving a Tree’ is an homage to my grandparents’ 60-year marriage,” he says, explaining that the piece aims to explore every aspect, positive and negative, of the decades-long romance. He couldn’t think of a better medium to represent that dichotomy than wallpaper. “It’s beautifully decorative,” Lawrence says of the art form. “But also, it can be oppressive with certain patterns.” The wallpaper is meant to ask: “What happens at the end of a relationship?”
It’s not the easiest medium to move from gallery to gallery, he admits. “Wallpaper—that’s an issue, right? It’s not something framed on the gallery wall that can be removed, put in storage, shipped and crated to other places.” The solution turned out to be advancements in digital art. “I just sent a digital file of the wallpaper to the curators at The Fralin,” he says. “They printed it out and installed it, and I didn’t have to do anything.”
Lawrence couldn’t be happier with the final result. “I think they did a lovely job,” he says. “I think it does have that beautiful, oppressive feel I wanted.”
A peek inside the Kluge-Ruhe
“So many people come to the Kluge-Ruhe expecting to see ancient things,” says curator Henry Skerritt. And perhaps some of the works look ancient to Western eyes—particularly the bark paintings—but Aboriginal Australian art is contemporary art, made by artists living in cities, towns, and remote communities half a world away from Charlottesville.
It’s art of our time that also looks back to a 50,000-year-old tradition.
Skerritt and Margo Smith, the museum’s director who also served as its curator until Skerritt arrived two years ago, aim to show the U.S. how this work is not just aesthetically pleasing, but highly informed and often very political, engaging topics of race, colonization, globalization, and identity, among others. They’ve shared some pieces from the collection here—some that are on view and some that are currently in storage—to get you thinking about and seeing art in new ways.
The big picture
Hanging out with the local art installers
What brings you into one of Charlottesville’s art galleries or museums?
Perhaps it’s a sculptor who incorporates unexpected materials in his art, or a photographer exhibiting images from your hometown. It might even be a well-curated appetizer platter and wine selection while you wait for dinner during First Fridays.
Somewhere between cheese plate and exhibition planning, there are art installers—the people who bring to life the vision of an artist, curator, or director. They spackle, paint, hammer, drill, and climb up and down ladders more than they’d like to count. They ensure even spacing between artworks, and center them around a common sightline—all while factoring in unlevel floors, uneven walls, and ceiling height. They twist and turn lights to illuminate the best of every artwork’s surface features. When an exhibition ends, they undo all of the above. And if they are good at their job, you never know they were there at all.
Andrew Bain grew up in Batesville and moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue his photography studies. Despite an art installation career that includes seven years at contemporary gallery Hemphill Fine Arts, and four years at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Bain moved back in with his parents in 2014. He cites low wages and high living costs as part of the reason he relocated to Batesville, and says he regrets his decision now and then.
During his first month at the Hirshhorn, Bain loaded dollies stacked with paintings by 20th-century abstractionists Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon into what he says was his “early freight elevator big money art ride.”
“I was like, ‘Man, these are some important works. I hope the elevator doesn’t get stuck.’ It was millions of dollars of work,” says Bain. In 2012, de Kooning’s “Interchange” and a Jackson Pollock sold for a combined $500 million. One year later, Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for $142.4 million, a world record at the time. Bain eventually realized that he was carting nearly half-a-billion dollars in abstract expressionist works during his first weeks on the job, but, he says, “That’s the boring side of things—thinking that there’s a commodity side to these works. It’s not really that cool.”
Another Hirshhorn show Bain helped install was Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?” 2012 exhibition—the Hirshhorn’s first show featuring the Chinese artist and activist’s work. He remembers installing Weiwei’s unwieldy and labor intensive work as an invigorating experience, “a mostly fun and good circus.”
The lucky ones
Nicole Wade and Joe Sheridan call themselves lucky to have held full-time positions in art handling and collections work. Eleven years ago, they both helped install a politically charged exhibition at The Fralin Museum of Art, then the Bayly. It was photographer William Christenberry’s “Site/Possession” show—a yearlong series of Christenberry’s documentary work grappling with his identity as a white Southern male. It was Wade’s first week as curatorial assistant for The Fralin, and she says she was struck by the “staggering, foreboding, and beautiful” exhibition.
Five years and 113 exhibitions later in 2012, Wade joined the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection as collections manager and registrar.
Working with four full-time co-workers in a Colonial Revival home, Wade does everything from ensuring objects clear customs to installing light bulbs. With much of the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection painted on bark or a wood substrate, Wade monitors every work’s condition and reaction to humidity and temperature. If an object expands or contracts too quickly, paint on top “can shift like tectonic plates in an earthquake. It’s not something most people think about at an art exhibition,” says Wade.
Wade also has occasion to see Indigenous Australians reconnect with their cultural items.“It’s not an experience many visitors or museum staff members get. It’s a luxury, surreal, and powerful in a way that I have not experienced with art anywhere else.”
Like Wade, Sheridan’s career began at The Fralin. He was working as a security guard, and one day while holding the door for air conditioning repairmen in 1984, he became the museum’s first preparator.
“The curatorial team said, ‘Oh my gosh we need artwork framed.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’ Then they said, ‘We need pedestals built,’ and I said, ‘I can do that,’” says Sheridan. Working with his hands was second-nature to Sheridan, who says he has a good eye, an intuitive sense of how to display art, and can cut a straight line with a utility knife. “Whenever there is an art emergency, I’m there,” he says.
Sheridan left The Fralin to pursue his MFA and work for John W. Kluge as art curator, handler, and archivist. In his 14 years with Kluge, he cared for the billionaire’s 7,379-acre property (including Morven Farm), oversaw Kluge’s personal papers, Japanese gardens, and collection of art around the country ranging from ancient Greek bronzes to modern advertising posters.
He played an influential role in creating Kluge’s Carriage House Museum, which displayed art objects like the largest sculpted piece of glass in the world and 73 horse-drawn carriages. The carriage collection included one designed by automotive engineer Ettore Bugatti, carriages from the royal Belgium family, and leather, silver, and ivory harnesses designed by Thierry Hermès before he founded a fashion house. After Kluge died and Patricia Kluge sold the estate, the Carriage House building became part of Trump Winery.
“A business is only as viable as the community it does business in,” Sheridan says, paraphrasing Kluge’s Art and Industry speech at Millikin University in 1960. “The business owner has responsibility for caring for the community. One way of doing that is through supporting the arts.”
Though Sheridan now focuses on Montfair and his art-making, he occasionally installs for Second Street Gallery with Bain, and sometimes at Les Yeux du Monde. Joining Sheridan in contract installation jobs throughout town are Ed Montecalvo, Caleb Hendrickson, and Nick Watson [the writer’s husband]. All three have other full-time positions and are actively exhibiting or lapsed artists, as Hendrickson says.
Montecalvo is a photographer and a sales representative for tennis court surface manufacturer Har-Tru. He calls his 21 years of art installation one of his labors of love. He misses the LOOK3 Festival, where he served as a volunteer at the first installation in 2007 and nine festivals after that before LOOK3 ceased operations last January.
“When people go to a show and they see something hanging, a lot of people, unless they’re artists, don’t have an understanding of what has happened before,” says Montecalvo. “Hanging is one small part of it. You have to be careful and exact. It’s different than going to an art opening because you’re working with each piece and no one else is around, so you get a chance to really look at it.”
When Hendrickson isn’t writing his dissertation on the theory of vision, visual idioms, languages, and motifs in 20th-century Jewish and Christian religious discourse, he draws and collages. After he receives his Ph. D., Hendrickson hopes to keep working with art galleries, though he isn’t sure in what capacity.
“The nonprofit art world is a pretty shit backup plan,” he says. “Unless you’re full-time lead preparator at a large museum, it’s hard to make it your main thing. That would be an awesome job if you get it.”
Watson agrees. “There’s not a huge demand for it. Places that have art shows all the time might have somebody on staff do it, but that’s not their dedicated job,” he says. Watson’s dedicated job is lead knife maker at Monolith Knives in Ivy — often incorporating his metalworking skills to create the abstract sculpture he exhibits in Charlottesville and Maryland.
“There are fewer freelance people that make a living off it,” he says.
In his third year at UVA, Watson completed his first art installation in a private home. He found the opportunity in an email from UVA’s art department. It was conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s “Five Pointed Stars,” a 36-piece series of 8.5-inch printed panels with every two-color combination of white, gray, black, red, yellow, and blue. To install the piece, Watson precisely followed LeWitt’s accompanying instructions. LeWitt often included exacting, self-written installation guidelines with his pieces, and some of his art is actually created by the installer through a set of instructions that can be replicated in any location.
“Maybe you do it and maybe you don’t. That’s the art. He gives you the parameters, but you might not do it,” Watson says. “Is it the installer’s art, or it is Sol LeWitt’s? He didn’t do it. He just told you how to do it. Are you an installer, or are you an artist?”
—Mary Shea Watson
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