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Highlights of Ten Years at the MAG

by Cynthia Culbert, Assistant Curator

Last week, I had lunch with the director of the Gallery and several co-workers who were also celebrating important anniversary dates. For me it was the 10th. Ten years working at the Memorial Art Gallery. A lunch marked the first day I came to the Gallery as a volunteer as well. That year it was the Trashpicker’s lunch – a long-held custom for the weary Gallery staff after Clothesline weekend. I was unaware of the event at the time, but when I called Margie Searl on that September Monday morning, she said “We’ve just finished cleaning up after Clothesline, want to join us for the Trashpicker’s lunch?” So I did and then volunteered for several months. I was eventually hired part-time and then full-time when we received a grant to get our collection into a database and prepare for a future catalog of the best works in the American Collection.

seeingamerica-cover21Seven years later, one of the most exciting feelings I’ve ever had was holding the first copy of Seeing America. In it, I was listed as the Project Coordinator. It was the reason I got a job here all those years ago. So much time, so much work by so many people and here was the first copy. It was finally finished and it looked so real and beautiful! I couldn’t look inside it for at least a year for fear of finding some mistake. I haven’t found any yet. (And nobody else dares to tell me if they did!)

6427_a21Then there was the time when the Gallery Council asked if we could move the Alexander Calder mobile to the Charlotte Whitney Allen garden for the “Art in Bloom” garden tour. I wrote my thesis at Syracuse University on that garden and the Calder and the Gaston Lachaise sculpture that stood over the pool. To see it in its original spot, the place it was designed for outside among the trees was so exciting. People who knew Mrs. Whitney Allen and had been to the garden when she was alive came throughout the day to share their stories and ask questions. An object hardly ever gets to return to its original place once it has entered a museum collection, and after having studied it and written about it, I felt so lucky to actually be able to see it floating down there at the end of the allée as Calder intended.

3033_a11There are many more mundane but still sublime experiences I’ve had over these past ten years at the Gallery. Moving a Thai Head of a Buddha gave me an unexplainable feeling – he was so peaceful. Or walking into the Asian gallery when the motion-activated lights are off and having them suddenly go on to reveal a Bodhisattva – that’s one you can experience if you are lucky enough to go into the upstairs galleries when no one is up there. Moving an enormous tapestry was a little more stressful, but it sure was amazing being able to work together, come up with a plan, do it, and have it somehow work perfectly. It sure is tiring, though. Some of my most exhausting days have been photo shoots, where most of the time it seems as though I’m sitting in the dark watching the photos being taken and enjoying seeing the work in the best light they’ll ever be in, but I go home practically unable to move. It’s the concentration that it takes to move all the artwork so carefully all day. Like driving for 8 hours at a stretch. But the view sure is worth it.

I’ve been arranging and rearranging my “collections” of glass animals, shells or dolls and showing them off to my friends since I was a little girl, and now I get to do it for real with a world-class art collection. Whether it’s a study case or a Lockhart show, going through storage, pulling pieces and arranging and rearranging them until something says “Stop, that’s it” feels pretty special. And then I decide what to tell people about the objects – should I talk about the artist, the materials, the social relevance, how it was made, why it was made, what the critics thought, how it came into the collection? There is too much to tell all at once.

croppedThen there are the people. I knew when I volunteered here that it would be a great place to work, and soon after that I knew that people were doing their best to get me hired, and they did! People here have so many strengths – some always keep their cool and never cease to find wonder around every corner; others are able to plan unimaginably complicated rotations for storing art so that a new roof can be installed; some work like a surgeon gracefully and deftly performing their tasks; others’ ability to multitask, organize and explain is beyond compare. And they all share wonder and delight in working with the collection, solving mysteries through research and study, sharing ideas and interests. And that’s just the people that work here now. The people that worked here in the beginning and for most of their lives were amazing also and their dedication and love of the collection is still evident.

Last but not least, there are the objects, old friends now, really. Over the years, I have done research on many different works in the collection, and with each one it is like getting to know someone. When I see them on the wall as I walk through the Gallery after it is closed, they are not just a pretty picture any more but they have a history – I know where they came from, how they were made, what they are about, what their problems are, whether they are fragile or well-made, whether they were loved or hated when they first came on the scene, what brought them here. And I say goodnight to each one.


Comment from Colleen Piccone
Time: June 16, 2009, 4:33 pm

Congratulations on 10 years at the MAG and for sharing your thoughts and experiences! Your walk down memory lane helps others to understand what curatorial work involves. You captured the enthusiasm we all feel for our gallery and wonderful collection. Here’s to many more years at the MAG. Thanks for the memories, Colleen

Comment from Kelly Fallon
Time: June 18, 2009, 11:02 am

I have been noodling around the gallery site, trying to decide if I want to pay a visit on this dark and rainy Thursday. I happened on your blog and found your warm and appreciative 10 year experience at the gallery so much fun to read. I have recently retired from Harley School after teaching art and hanging shows for the last 40 years! Somewhere along the way I began to include a writeup about the assignment and main goals, art terms and processes so the students, staff,and teachers would have an idea what the students were working on. I always received thanks from the adults especially. The maintenance staff had something complementary to say too, and I noticed how careful they were with handling student work,if necessary. I got the ideas from visiting the Gallery, I’m sure. Thanks for the inspiration. Kelly

Comment from Debora McDell-Hernandez
Time: June 18, 2009, 12:28 pm

Congratulations on your 10th anniversary with MAG! Your story resembles that of so many other MAG employees who feel so lucky to work here. Many start out as volunteers and then become employees. MAG Family Day volunteers often ask if there are any job openings at MAG. They love it here! Friendly staff and beautiful collection. Cheers, Debora

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