If you’ve visited the Dayton Art Institute lately, chances are you bumped into the museum’s new chief curator, Jerry Smith. He assumed his new role at the end of September and has been in “learning” mode — getting to know his colleagues and the museum’s extensive collection of more than 26,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of history.
“I’ve been spending time walking through the galleries to get a feel for the space,” he says. “It takes a while to get a feel for how one gallery flows into the next, or to internalize how angles of walls and the distances between spaces will influence the installation and reception of works of art.” Exhibitions for 2018 had been planned previous to Smith’s arrival, so he’s now working on shows for 2019 and beyond.
Smith comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he served as the Chief Curator and Interim Director. Before that, he held leadership positions at the Phoenix Art Museum. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from Arizona State University and has a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.
Q. Can you describe the role of a chief curator?
A. In many ways, the chief curator position is the best role at an art museum. It requires wearing many hats to help make the museum successful — from research and writing, to promoting the museum and its many programs, to acquiring works for the collection, to fund-raising. It requires being nimble since no two days are alike.
Working directly with the art, I oversee the care, growth, and presentation of the museum’s collection. This involves researching objects, artists and art movements, combined with the challenge of presenting works of art in ways that I hope people find visually interesting and intellectually stimulating. We present exhibits that draw on the DAI collection as well as art from private collectors and other institutions around the world.
Q. What’s the challenge of the job?
A. One of the challenges we grapple with is the notion that art museums are stuffy, boring or elitist. The DAI is an asset for the entire community and I want to do my own part to help all people feel welcome.
Q. What’s the joy in the job?
A. Being around amazing works of art on a daily basis is remarkable. As in many jobs, there are a lot of administrative tasks involved in museum work, and these can become tedious. But the beauty of this career is that whenever I need a mental break I can just walk out of my office and be surrounded by great art.
Q. What’s your earliest art memory?
A. Making collages on paper plates with colored paper and glue in kindergarten. Also of making a dog out of clay, painted blue and yellow, which I still have. My family had one of the early versions of the board game Masterpiece; it’s a little like Monopoly, but centers around buying and selling works of art. The works of art were famous paintings and I just loved looking at those pictures.
Q. Did you grow up in a family that was connected to the arts?
A. No, I didn’t. My mother sang in the church choir, but we weren’t a family that routinely went to art museums. My earliest experiences of visiting art museums were on school field trips.
Q. What is it that first attracted you to the idea of art as a profession?
A. It is the appeal of having direct contact with works of art, with the real things, that still attracts me to museum work. There is no replacement for seeing actual works of art and knowing that these amazing objects you see on view in a museum were made by other people. Humans have always made objects as a way to help explain or attempt to understand the world around us. To have a career that keeps me connected to that part of the human spirit, the expressive part of humanity, is remarkably rewarding.
Q. What are some of the shows you’ve been most proud to curate, and why?
A. At Phoenix Art Museum I was the curator for an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which explored his ideas about close observation. It featured Leonardo’s codex alongside other works that dated from the 1500s right up to the present: Drawings, paintings, prints, photography and even video art as well as Leonardo’s writings and sketches.
Q. How would you suggest parents expose their children to art?
A. Take in an art museum in small doses, seeing different parts on multiple visits, not all at once. If there is an area for interactive activities, visit that. You also don’t need a degree in art history to engage children with art. Ask them what they see, what colors or shapes stand out to them, how many objects they see. The experience of the visit is what they will take away.
Q. What art books would you recommend to someone who doesn’t know a lot about art?
A. In my opinion the best to cover the world of art history is Marilyn Stokstad’s “Art History.” My favorite art history book is probably Wanda Corn’s “The Great American Thing.” What I love about it is that Corn writes intelligently about art without using art jargon. Anyone with even a passing interest in art can enjoy the book.
Q. What advice do you have for first-time visitors?
A. You don’t need a background in art history to enjoy looking at art. Decide for yourself what you like and don’t like, and the more you look the more you will likely find of interest. Don’t try to make a museum visit an endurance test. I like to think of it as the difference between reading short stories and novels. You don’t expect to read an entire book in one sitting, but you can read a short story straight through.
See just a portion of the museum — maybe a few galleries or a single exhibition at a time, then visit the museum store or relax over a cup of coffee. That way the art experience will remain fresh. If you look at art for hours on end it can all start to blur together. This can be true even for seasoned museum visitors.
Q. What are some of the ways a curator seeks out new exhibits?
A. There are companies that put together traveling exhibitions and they send out proposals offering exhibitions for a rental fee. However, I find the most valuable way to seek out exhibitions is through networking with other curators and museum directors. Exhibitions can be extremely expensive to produce. There are shipping, insurance, crating, catalog production, photography, and a host of other costs that make exhibitions difficult if not impossible for a single institution to afford to make happen by themselves. Sometimes, projects can come together rather quickly, but usually exhibitions take years to come to fruition.
Q. Can you tell us about some of your favorite artists and what draws you to their work?
A. The ceramics artist Beatrice Wood is one of my favorites. Her luster glaze vessels and figures are beautiful and sometimes humorous, and she was such a warm and engaging person. I met her when she was 103 years old, and hearing her tell stories about being part of the original Dada movement in the 1910s was amazing.
I also like that period of art of the Gilded Age to early modernism, from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries, so I enjoy things as different as the realistic works of William Bouguereau to the whimsical paintings of Florine Stettheimer. I also love art that tell stories, so the Americans John Sloan and Edward Hopper are among my favorite artists. I also like printmaking and the idea that there can be multiple versions of an original work of art, so I like art by Albrecht Dürer to Andy Warhol.
Q. What do you hope patrons will take away from seeing an exhibit you have curated?
A. I hope people will share in the excitement I have for the art. Each visitor has his or her own interests and will take away something different, something personal. Hopefully, from exhibitions I oversee people will enjoy the experience, learn something about the given subject, and find some connection with the person or people who created the objects on view. I hope it is an experience people will remember, wish to share with others, and want to come back to see what comes next.
In this periodic series, arts writer Meredith Moss visits with folks who are making arts news in our community.If you have someone to recommend for this series, contact Meredith: MMoss@coxohio.comPlease leave a daytime phone number.