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Vermont Curators Group Envisions Statewide Project

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Vermont Curators Group meeting - at BigTown Gallery - AMY LILLY
  • Amy Lilly
  • Vermont Curators Group meetingat BigTown Gallery

When Andrea Rosen started her job as curator at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art in July 2015, she noticed something right away. The Fleming and BCA Center — two major art venues in Burlington — had scheduled openings for the same evening.

"I was struck by the fact that there wasn't enough communication happening [between curators]," recalled Rosen, now 30. In response, she invited several curators she met during her first six months on the job — from Middlebury College Museum of Art, Champlain College Gallery in Burlington, Shelburne Museum and Helen Day Art Center in Stowe — to meet informally for information sharing.

That first meeting, in February 2016, turned out to be the debut of the Vermont Curators Group. Rosen, who calls herself the VCG's founder-organizer, maintains an email list that now includes 70 curators representing 46 institutions of art, culture, history and science. Meetings take place three or four times a year at whichever institution offers to host, attended by whoever can make it.

"We think of new people to invite each time," Rosen said, adding that anyone the group hasn't yet identified can simply email her.

For the curator, statewide communication among her peers is de rigueur. After Rosen earned a master's in art history and museum studies at Tufts University, she took her first job — her only full-time one prior to the Fleming — as curatorial assistant at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. During her three years there, Rosen was one of the museum's representatives at the Maine Curators' Forum, which has existed since 1997.

The forum has organized a number of statewide exhibition initiatives, including the Maine Print Project (2006) and the Maine Drawing Project (2011). Rosen was involved in 2015's Maine Photo Project, which featured shows mounted by 31 participating nonprofit cultural institutions. A rack brochure, which folded out to a map, cross-marketed the institutions, helping visitors picture the scope of the project and sample its offerings wherever they were in the state. The endeavor drew 460,000 visitors, according to a follow-up report.

Shortly after the Vermont curators began meeting, Rosen floated the idea of organizing a similar project here. The ensemble agreed and settled on an ambitious theme for its first statewide exhibition initiative. Envisioned for two years from now, it would be called "2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology."

Based on the idea that "the year 2020 has often been used in pop culture as a shorthand for a distant, high-tech future," as Rosen's project proposal reads, "2020 Vision" would allow curators considerable latitude to show how technology has changed life in the past or present, or might in the future. Art museums and galleries could explore contemporary or earlier artists' uses of or responses to technology, history museums could highlight agricultural patents won in the Green Mountain State, science institutions could explain how certain technologies work, and so on.

"2020 Vision" is still in the big-idea stage, and roughly 20 curators who have so far expressed interest are only beginning to consider how they would approach the theme. Katherine French, gallery director at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, said she's thinking about certain artists' work that "focuses on the visual articulation of scientific — astrological, ecological, meteorological — data."

The statewide exhibition initiative was just one topic at the VCG's most recent meeting. The informal gathering took place on Thursday, May 10, at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, where owner-director Anni Mackay cooked lunch for 13 members and this reporter. Held outside in the gallery's roofed pagoda, the meeting got under way as soon as attendees had moved to salad and grapes. Rosen started by describing the Fleming's upcoming shows, and each curator followed suit.

The attendees represented a wide range of institutions. From the larger art venues came Rosen; Carolyn Bauer, assistant curator at Shelburne Museum; Jason Vrooman, curator of education and academic outreach at Middlebury College Museum of Art; French of Catamount Arts; Rachel Moore, executive director and director of exhibitions at the Helen Day Art Center; and Colin Storrs, gallery coordinator and curatorial assistant at BCA. New deputy director Amy Cunningham represented the Vermont Arts Council.

Other attendees came from commercial galleries: Mackay of BigTown; Sophie Bréchu-West of 571 Projects in Stowe; Kelly Holt, curator and creative director at Edgewater Gallery in Stowe; and Kathy Stark, artistic director of the G.R.A.C.E. Gallery in Hardwick. The group also included artist and independent curator Elizabeth Nelson and Miriam Block, who directs the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum.

When Block mentioned that her facility — home to a permanent exhibit about the area's textile mills and workers — would host a special exhibit of Lewis Hine's photographs, Rosen told her about the Fleming's collection of Hine images.

"That happens a lot at our meetings," Rosen said. "'Oh, you're doing a show about that? I'm doing a show about this. Maybe we can connect them in some way.' Or 'Oh, we have stuff you could use for that.'"

With its mix of non- and for-profit members, the VCG resembles less the Maine Curators' Forum — which includes only nonprofits — than the now-defunct Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance. The latter was a consortium of institutions that shared expertise on collections care and inventory through mentoring programs and workshops. It lasted from 1984 to 2009.

According to the VMGA's first executive director, Chris Hadsel, the organization was modeled on other states' museum alliances but was more inclusive in its reach.

"The innovation that set VMGA apart [at national meetings] was that it included everybody who collected — slate museums, doll collectors, galleries — and anyone who handled artifacts, whether they were artworks or stuffed birds," she said.

Hadsel estimated that the group had 150 members at its height and included a curators' group and a directors' group. Eileen Corcoran, executive director during the VMGA's final three and a half years, explained that the organization ended when discontinued collections-care funding led to insurmountable financial difficulties.

The VCG is less formal — for example, it doesn't have a board — and more focused on collaboration through exhibitions. While "2020 Vision" is drawing members into discussions that are generally not within the purview of curators — including marketing and fundraising — the group is undeniably energized by the prospects for creative cross-fertilization.

Hadsel cheers on Rosen's efforts. "The VMGA was about cooperation and getting more done by working together," she said. "I'm glad Andrea's doing what she's doing. I like to think it's part of a Vermont tradition. It's a new generation; it's a new day."

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For more information on the Vermont Curators Group, email andrea.rosen@uvm.edu.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Vermont Curators Connect — and Brainstorm a Statewide Project"

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