An inside look at how, after four years in the making, the Arkansas Arts Center’s Becoming John Marin became the exhibition it is today.
Photography by Arshia Khan
IF IT'S DONE RIGHT, an art exhibition feels effortless. Of course that work was positioned next to this one, of course the walls are this color, of course that museum loaned this piece. The curator’s hand is, in essence, invisible. But here’s the truth: An exhibition like Arkansas Arts Center’s Becoming John Marin, currently on view, was more than four years—four very busy years—in the making. Come behind the scenes with us, spending time with the curator, Ann Prentice Wagner, as well as the preparators, the registrars, the exhibition designer and the like. Only then can you get the full picture.
1. THE GIFT
OUTSIDE OF THE art world, it may have seemed a curious thing that a collection of 290 drawings and watercolors by American modernist John Marin—an artist with deep connections to places like New Jersey, Manhattan, the Maine seashore—would end up, of all places, in Arkansas. But those in the know knew better.
“I am thrilled that this collection of my father-in-law’s watercolors and drawings is going to the Arkansas Arts Center, where it will give people a deeper understanding of his work,” read Norma Marin’s official statement in early 2014, after her gift to the institution became official. “The Arts Center has a long history of collecting and exhibiting great American works on paper, so I feel like we’ve found the perfect home for the collection.”
In receiving the gift, which included completed works, sketches and working drawings ranging from the 1880s to Marin’s death in 1953, the Arts Center became the second largest repository of Marin works in the world. Norma wanted these pieces to live somewhere away from the others (The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is the largest holder, with some 970 pieces), so that they’d be accessible to more people. Emphasis on accessible—the gift came with the caveat that the works would be cataloged and exhibited. When the gift was announced, in early 2014, a large-scale John Marin exhibition was penciled in for 2016.
It opened Jan. 26, 2018.
2. THE RESEARCH
“YOU’VE GOT TO know what you have so you know what the exhibition is introducing you to,” Ann Prentice Wagner, the Arts Center’s curator of drawings and the lead curator on Becoming John Marin, tells me from across an immense conference table in the museum’s boardroom. Gathered together to help take me behind the scenes are Sam Jones, the assistant preparator; Matthew Smith, the registrar for exhibitions; Katie Hall, the registrar for collections; Keith Melton, the exhibition designer; and Brian Lang, the chief curator and curator of contemporary craft. This might seem like a lot of cooks in the kitchen—until you realize that there are even more cooks not present today, namely Alex Moomey, the head preparator, and Josephine “Jody” White Rodgers of the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, who served as co-curator for the Arts Center’s Marin project. Step one of the four-year-long process, Ann says, was to figure out what exactly had just been bestowed upon them by Norma Marin.
To do this, she had to get out of Little Rock and on the road to check out existing collections of the artist’s work and to meet with other Marin scholars (Ann herself is one, having focused on the Stieglitz Circle artists, of which Marin is part, for her doctoral dissertation). She even took a trip up to Marin’s summer home in northern Maine, standing where he’d stood behind an easel, spending time with his family, trying to see things through the artist’s eyes.
3. THE LIST
AS RESEARCH CONTINUED, Ann had to determine the lineup of pieces from the collection that would be included in the exhibition, in concert with the museum’s executive director Todd Herman.
“We worked back and forth. Todd said, I want to make sure that this show introduces people to every aspect of the collection,” Ann says. “One of the troubles we discovered along the way during the research, is that there were pieces whose titles were changed, or our understanding of when, where and why it was done changed completely. So we would realize, Oh my god, I wish we had THAT in the show. So poor Matthew, the registrar for exhibitions, had to deal with constantly changing lists.”
4. THE CONSERVATION
“EVERY MUSEUM, WHAT you’re trying to do with the objects is preserve them as much as possible, but also to make them accessible,” Ann says. “You have to balance that as much as possible. The more accessible you make them, the more you physically endanger them. But the less accessible you make them, the less reason there is to keep them in shape to begin with.” Luckily, thanks to a cash injection of $350,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation in mid-2015, the Arts Center was able to secure funding to send each of their newly acquired Marin works off to be conserved—essentially, to be made more safe and stable.
The first batch—the 79 works that would appear in the exhibition—was sent to a private conservator in Nashville in the summer of 2015. (“Driven” might be a more appropriate term, as Ann and registrar Katie Hall, then in her first week on the job, hauled the works east to Memphis, where they rendezvoused with the conservator in a parking lot.)
After those came back to the vault, a group of 16 pieces was sent via a fine-art shipper to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. When those came back, 55 returned, and so on—the process is still continuing today.
As this was going on, Katie was working to ensure that they had quality photographs of each piece—front and back, detail shots of frames and inscriptions, etc.—as these would be used in the catalog and in the museum’s database. She also had to come up with a new numbering system that would enable museum associates and other scholars to identify the works.
“Whew, it’s all just a lot,” Ann continues with a laugh. “So if you see a typo on the wall, OK. Let us know, but let us know gently.”
5. THE LOANS
“THIS IS AN enormous amount of loans,” Brian Lang says. “If an exhibition is largely permanent collection-based, you’d expect 10, 12 loans, even fewer, from maybe three institutions. Here, there are 33, from nine lenders.” Those lenders include the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, among others.
The loan process starts well before the opening date. Formal requests made from director to director go out at least a year in advance, but before you do that, you’ve got to grease the wheel a bit. “You’ve got to make the informal contact,” Ann says. “I was back and forth with the curators, sometimes the directors, very often in person. We knew what we could ask for.
“When the National Gallery’s paper conservator saw our list of drawing requests, she knew we were drawing nerds. For a drawing curator, that’s the highest honor. We were going for some very subtle and highly unusual things.”
6. THE DESIGN
ONCE THE FINAL list was complete—or, you know, close to complete—exhibition designer Keith Melton got involved. He’s the one responsible for the physical layout of the space. Which might seem pretty straight-forward, until you learn that there are 27 movable walls in the gallery currently housing Becoming John Marin.
Let that sink in: Twenty. Seven. Walls.
“You kind of storyboard how you want the exhibition to go from start to finish, and this one was not strictly chronological, which is often the case,” he explains. “I plot it out linearly, A to Z, in a computer program called Sketchup, so I have an idea of how long it is. From there, you kind of work within those block themes and see how they play together. A lot of it’s just literally throwing things on a digital wall until it fits.”
From there, Ann weighed in. “She has a different perspective on it than I do, because I’m only responding to it visually,” Keith says. “I’m trying to look at it like I’m looking at the work for the first time, like my audience is, so I try to keep away from the details.”
But really, he’s the details guy. He’s the one who’s working up color concepts, fonts, graphics—the overall “brand” for the exhibition that goes across all platforms.
7. THE FRAMES
A GOOD FRAME is akin to a good curation—done right, it won’t even be noticed. But done “right” means it needs to be done authentically. The way Marin would have wanted it done.
“I decided that the watercolors, whether finished or unfinished, should be framed, to the extent we could afford it, in the aesthetic that they would have been shown in at the time,” Ann says. “I chose a firm where the head people had come here, looked at every piece, looked at the original frames they were going to conserve and determined a plan for each individual piece, both based on when the work was made and just on the aesthetics. ”
Twenty-seven pieces were framed this way up in Philadelphia. Fifty other pieces, once they came back from conservation, received the museum’s standard frames.
8. THE INSTALLATION
HERE’S THE THING: It all happens fast. The previous exhibition, The Art of Seating, came down, technically, on January 1. Then the contractors came in, took the walls apart, put them back together according to Keith’s layout, and then painted them. During this time, they lost two days to snow, because of course.
So, timeline: Keith and his team had 16 work days to get one show down (and boxed up and shipped out and vaulted and registered) and the next one installed. Sixteen days to finish out the space, install the title wall, install the wall text, install the labels, check levels, check lighting, open the doors and smile for the cameras. But who’s counting?
9. THE COURIERS
FINE ART IS like children under 14: It has to be accompanied as it travels. Not only does Matthew, the registrar for exhibitions, have to arrange for the works’ delivery to the building, he also has to make arrangements for the couriers (usually, a curator from the lending institution), too.
“The crating of the loans, the shipping of the loans, the framing, the conservation, the courier’s cost, the travel—we pay for all of that because it’s our show,” says Brian. Some couriers, like the one who came from The Met, are in and out in a jiffy. Others schedule extra time to take in the museum’s holdings. Usually, though, they come at the last minute so they can see their work installed alongside the other pieces—and so they can attend the reception.
10. THE LIGHTING
IT MAY SEEM dark when you enter the gallery, but there’s a good reason for it: Watercolors are particularly light-sensitive.
“Both from the point of view of conserving our works for the future, and also because it’s a contractual obligation with lenders, the level of light is something that Sam has to work really really hard on up there floating near the ceiling on the lift,” Ann says. The official range is 5 to 7 “foot-candles,” which is the measurement of light intensity used by museums.
“We try to preserve these works for as many future generations as possible,” she says. “When you see a watercolor that is lightstruck, usually some of the colors have been affected and others haven’t, which throws off the balance and you can never show it again. It’s gone.”
11. THE OUTREACH
REMEMBER NORMA MARIN’S request? That the works be as accessible as possible to as many as people as possible? The museum took that directive seriously. To that end, a complete catalog of each and every piece in the collection is currently being published by the University of Arkansas Press, and a website, chock-full of Ann’s and Jody’s research, is now online for all to see at becomingjohnmarin.org.
“We will continue to do other shows, and we will always have Marins up in the permanent-collection galleries,” Ann says. “I’m hoping for the future—these are just my ideas, I haven’t done anything formal yet—but I want to do one on architectural drawings and also one with zoo and circus imagery, which will just be tremendously fun.”
12. THE FUTURE
IF FOUR YEARS from conception to completion for a single exhibition seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But this? All of this work? It’s not just for Becoming John Marin. It’s to further establish the museum as a preeminent holder of significant American modernist art.
“This collection is here because of the strength of the reputation of the Arts Center and its drawings collection,” Brian says. “But this is a collection that will continue to raise the organization’s profile in the art world, both as a destination for the study of Marin works specifically, but, more broadly, for the Stieglitz Circle and American modernism. We should be proud to have a collection like this in the state.”
“This didn’t come into a vacuum,” Ann adds. “It came into an excellent existing context. But it’s such a salute. Deposits like this of major Marin work are out there in places like Washington and New York City and Chicago. But it’s very rare for you to get a really good thing that will tempt scholars, as well as just people who love art, to come long distances to see things outside of places like that. We are very unusual for having such a treasure.”