From curation to exhibition: an inside peek at the Loeb

The Frances Lehmen Loeb Art Center houses over 19,000 works that are on display for the Vassar community. Additionally many temporary and internationally renowned exhibitions are housed here. Photo By: Spencer Davis
The Frances Lehmen Loeb Art Center houses over 19,000 works that are on display for the Vassar community. Additionally many temporary and internationally renowned exhibitions are housed here. Photo By: Spencer Davis
The Frances Lehmen Loeb Art Center houses over 19,000 works that are on display for the Vassar
community. Additionally many temporary and internationally renowned exhibitions are housed here. Photo By: Spencer Davis

Often when we walk into museums, we become so absorbed in our own thoughts that we overlook those who helped bring the art in front of us to life. Often we just smile placidly at the docents who sometimes stand with their arms at their sides, in the periphery. Seldom do we reflect on the work of museum staff—the curators, collection managers, coordinators, docents and directors—that make the experience of being the museum as special as it is.

“I’d like to think that we are one of the country’s finest art museums in terms of experience, although we do not rival many in terms of size of budget or staff,” wrote James Mundy, the Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Frances Lehmen Loeb Art Center, in an emailed statement.

“There are few museums where the visitor leaves more energized and stimulated than he or she arrived and that to my mind is a hallmark of a really good museum. I would like us to be one of those museums.”

Mundy has served as the Anne Handricks Bass Director for over 23 years. He articulated the Loeb’s goal for any visitors.

“We like to help facilitate the dialogue between the visitor and the art but the best thing we can do is to provide an environment where your experience of the art is under your control and you are responsible for its efficacy,” he wrote.

To help foster such an environment, the docents who lead museum tours frequently engage with museum visitors and tourists. Calvin Lamothe ’17 elaborated upon the daily happenings for student docents (or tour-givers).

“On any given day, a docent might be floating through the galleries, interacting with visitors, giving a daily guided tour or a group tour, researching pieces in the collection, or working on posts for the Art Center’s blog, Off the Wall,” Lamothe wrote in an emailed statement. “Giving tours is our main responsibility; we try to structure the daily-guided tours around the visitors’ interests. We work fairly closely with the museum’s curators as new exhibitions open, as they often walk us through the exhibits so that we are equipped to talk about them with visitors.”

The two curators of the museum, Patricia Phagan, The Phillip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, and Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning, work with some of the 19,000 works in the Loeb’s permanent collection.

The curators, in organizing and relating works of art with each other, actively give new meaning and life to the pieces of work on display. According to Mundy, the process of curating is usually incremental. The exhibition begins with an idea and takes life as pieces, loaned or donated, join the collection. Phagan and Lombino often try to resurface  works that have not been shown in the gallery for a while.

Phagan is now working on a project that explores the use of light in art, and Lombino is currently working on a show based around the theme of Outsider Art. The show will be on display this summer.

Director Mundy, meanwhile, is responsible for the entire artistic program of the museum. Much of his energy goes to looking after the projects that are underway, working with alumni and friends who support the museum’s programs, collection development and building maintenance.

“We are open to the public and need to present a good face to the public and this requires attention to a lot of details, from making sure burned out lightbulbs are replaced to keeping the facility safe for works of art in terms of its environmental conditions,” Mundy wrote. “The most difficult part of my job is making people happy. The most rewarding part is making people happy.”

Mundy describes the museum’s growth as a series of increments over the past 150 years, although the Loeb’s resources have grown significantly over the past 20 due to generous gifts and bequests. Mundy and the two curators are planning on organizing an exhibition that will show both at Vassar and around the country every two or three years.

The most recent of these major exhibits was titled “The Polaroid Years: Instant Photography and Experimentation.” After showing at Vassar, “The Polaroid Years” made its way to the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach. The show brought together Polaroid photographs from 40 widely celebrated artists, including Ansel Adams, Chuck Close, David Hockney and Andy Warhol.

Before “The Polaroid Years,” “Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England” went to a museum at Northwestern University, and the 2008 exhibition, “Paris-New York: Modern Paintings in the 19th and 20th Century. Masterworks from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center” also journeyed to five different museums in Japan.

Mundy and all those involved with organizing exhibitions are currently working on a for-travel exhibition based on the work of Richard Artschwager, a conceptual artist.

Exhibitions presently on display at the Loeb include “Malick Sidibé: Chemises and Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection.”

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