Unsung Hero: Curator puts art in best light
Domenica Bongiovanni, email@example.com 11:13 a.m. EST January 4, 2016
In my preview peek at "Creative Spirits" a few weeks ago, I did what I always do at exhibits. I let the work — in this case, ceramics, glass and mixed media created by the Debikey family — guide my feet. And I paid no attention to how I maneuvered through the art.
But Michael Crowthers did.
The Art Museum of Greater Lafayette's curator of exhibitions, collections and education was interested to see which path I took — where I stopped first and whether I had difficulty getting to where I wanted to look. After I'd seen all of the pieces, he told me my movements tested out his arrangement and the feel of the space.
"People walk in on opening night of an exhibit, and they see this beautiful display, and they don't think about the hours it's taken him to move pieces and rearrange to get the optimum view," said Diana Couk May, whose large clay and mixed media sculptures were paired with Dan Annarino's landscape paintings in "Push and Pull" earlier this year.
Crowthers will tell you he's OK with no one focusing on the arrangement. It means he's done his job right.
Positioning work in about 20 exhibitions a year is among the most visible of Crowthers' duties. The unseen portion includes communicating with artists, obtaining the appropriate documentation and agreements, and cataloging the condition of the art, among other tasks, said museum executive director Kendall Smith.
But that's still only one part of what Crowthers does.
He is in charge of maintaining the permanent collection. That means overseeing conservation, keeping a database with background details about each piece and storing it properly, Smith said. When work is displayed in the gallery, Crowthers assembles frames — and then dissembles them when the art must be put away again. The same goes for stands and other showcases for three-dimensional works.
For the education portion of Crowthers' job, he oversees studio art classes and trains those who give tours to visitors, Smith said.
To say the curator juggles myriad duties is an understatement. But Crowthers welcomes the changing nature of his job, saying it staves off monotony.
Although Crowthers, 28, won awards in high school for art, he set out to study biochemistry at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer and become a physical therapist. But Crowthers said when he started to pick apart exactly why he liked physical therapy, he found it was the human body that interested him.
He also enjoyed creating things and gravitated toward three-dimensional art.
"There's something when you interact with (ceramics and clay), it feels alive," said Crowthers, who's from Anderson.
Once he decided to pursue a different career, he studied at the Accademia Italiana in Florence, Italy, and attended the Art Institute of Chicago.
On top of his job at the museum, Crowthers makes ceramic and wood sculptures and said his work has been shown in Lafayette, Indianapolis, Anderson and Lebanon.
But becoming an artist wasn't the extent of his education. His teachers and mentors told him installation skills would be necessary, so Crowthers said he learned the tricks of the trade. The diverse nature of exhibits and range of sizes of work he helped set up provided opportunities for collaboration and problem solving. These abilities became imperative when he sought art jobs after college.
Crowthers begins thinking through how to arrange an exhibition before a committee at the Art Museum even chooses an artist or group of artists. Along with bringing solid research and a keen eye for quality art to committee meetings, Smith said the curator evaluates whether a prospective exhibit will work in the gallery spaces.
When he works with artists as they choose art for a show, Crowthers said he considers how the pieces will fit. He also thinks about whether the museum has the appropriate gallery furniture and, if not, whether he can construct what's needed.
Once the artwork has been chosen, Smith said the curator must establish a flow and storyline in the space. This year, for example, habitats Crowthers spearheaded added context and safety to the outdoor zoo animals Dale Teachout made from recycled materials. In Charles Gick's exhibit this summer, a large coat hung above a tray filled with 175 gallons of mud Crowthers helped install.
Couk May's exhibit was inspired by a trip to England and France, she said. She mimicked the old European chimney roof lines with up to 7½-foot clay and mixed media sculptures. The artist said Crowthers nailed her vision — to mirror the experience of walking among these objects on a rooftop. And it worked comfortably in the space with Annarino's paintings, she said, which contrasted her style.
"What makes the work special is because they're presented in a way that each piece is brought to light ... and there's space around everything you want to look at so that you can engage with it," said Smith, who said he receives a plethora of compliments about Crowthers from artists who have shown at the museum.
Crowthers imagines how viewers will respond to different types of work. For example, he said people follow arm movements and gazes, which can influence pieces around them.
What's more, his experience as a sculptor, he said, helps him think three dimensionally.
"He knows what it's like from our side of it when you're trying to portray something, so he understands the amount of time and effort it took to create this piece," Couk May said.
Couk May said Crowthers took the time to listen and focus 100 percent on her view for the display. For Crowthers, capturing artists' vision and energy is much of what keeps him excited about his job.
"Artists are so interesting — some of the most interesting people you'll find — and always so passionate about what they're doing, and that is always contagious," Crowthers said.
About this series
Each week, the Journal & Courier will feature an Unsung Hero who is working behind the scenes to make a difference in Greater Lafayette. Each person profiled will in turn nominate the next candidate.
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