By TERRENCE SANDERS-SMITH, February 2022
Patron of the Arts, Architect and Developer Marcel Wisznia had recently informed me of the sale of the Saratoga and Maritime buildings to major Hotel chains. Both buildings housed art collections curated by me, with works on display for over a decade. As a result, we were presented with the unique opportunity to donate 162 works of art to a museum of choice. Marcel insisted that the collections stay in Louisiana. As the curator of both the Saratoga and the Smith & Wisznia Collection, I felt a responsibility to American society and my community. I wanted to donate the collections to a museum that would exhibit both collections in order to preserve, educate, and celebrate our contribution to the landscape of contemporary art. This is why I connected with Director Catherine McCrory Pears of the Alexandria Museum of Art in Alexandria, Louisiana.
The Alexandria Museum of Art is located in Alexandria, Louisiana and off the radar of the Art World and its gatekeepers but so was the Warhol Museum, The Museum of Art at Rhode Island School of Design, Live Oak Friends Meeting House, McNay Art Museum, The Wolfsonian, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (MI), Parrish Art Museum, Chinati Foundation, Crystal Bridges, and Mass MoCA, Dia: Beacon to name more than a few. Modern and Contemporary Art doesn’t exist exclusively in New York. LA, London, Basel or Miami.
I was fortunate to be born in Alexandria, Louisiana where I spent my summers and New York City’s Manhattan (Lower East Side) where I spent the school year. I had the best of both worlds.
I’m 54 years old, mid-career and in legacy mode. I have always been torn between NYC and Alexandria and how to pay it forward. The inner-city youth of New York City have countless non-profit art spaces, galleries, museums and community organized art programs to nurture their aspirations and dreams, but the minority youth of Alexandria and surrounding areas are from marginalized, disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and or isolated communities. They have far fewer options to support their respective vision, hopes and ambitions.
Marcel, Catherine, and I began a necessary dialog on what we all needed as patron, director, and curator/artist to bring this donation to fruition. The connective tissue, we wanted to preserve, nurture and educate past, present and future generations of artists, curators, museum directors, art enthusiasts and collectors.
“If you build it, they will come.”
Below is my conversation with Director Catherine McCrory Pears of the Alexandria Museum of Art on February 1st 2022 at 4:44PM.
Terrence Sanders-Smith: What is your role at the Alexandria Museum of Art (AMoA)?
Catherine McCrory Pears: I was hired as a part time curator, and in 2010 I became the executive director.
TSS: What has changed since you became the Director?
CMP: Prior to my leadership, the museum was accredited and had an acceptable but small collection. AMoA struggled for funding in the mid-2000s and was gifted to the local university’s foundation in an attempt to save the museum. AMoA entered a cooperative endeavor with LSU through LSUA for administration purposes. At that point, the museum was trying to find its bearings within its new role in conjunction with the university. What has changed the most since I have been director is that we have become more financially stable: hired professional staff, increased programming and have sought to mount exhibitions that reflect the current socio-political climate. We have expanded the AMoA collection to over 1000 works. I am very proud of the progress we have made to assure the museum will sustain and survive whatever obstacles lie ahead.
TSS: What is the role, focus and purpose of the museum? What is the museum’s commitment to its community and the landscape of modern and contemporary art?
CMP: AMoA now serves as a hybrid Community/University museum. We are embedded as an arts anchor in the cultural district in downtown Alexandria. We work closely with the CVB to serve visitors to our community, we partner with the city and arts councils for festivals and offer adult and family art classes, exhibition related programming, as well as yoga and other healthy living programming. On the university side, we train LSUA education students in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a teaching methodology based in art viewing that impacts literacy and problem solving among other important student outcomes. Those student teachers now enter the classroom with this important tool to utilize. We apply VTS on our tours here at the museum as well. When it comes to exhibitions, we have sought to challenge our community to have the hard conversations and consider social and sometimes political issues through the lens of Contemporary art.
TSS: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a museum based outside the major art hubs of New York City and Los Angeles?
CMP: Well, here in central Louisiana we do get some out of town visitors, but we are not a destination city, except for the surrounding rural region. While many museums in large cities can rely on tourists as their primary paying audience, we cannot. Another challenge is that our educational system defunded the arts long ago, which makes it challenging to build new audiences in a population that was not taught about the importance of art. That means that our educational, community and healthy living programming are important to bring local folks into the museum that wouldn’t ordinarily visit. Once they do come inside, many realize they enjoy viewing art in the galleries. We also open the doors of the museum for free on the second Saturday of the month and have a partnership with the public library. It is difficult to maintain an art museum with exhibition schedules and programming in an area with a large percentage of the population not educated beyond high school, as well as having high poverty levels in our region.
TSS: How many works of art are currently in the permanent collection of AMoA?
CMP: Currently, with the donation of the Saratoga and Smith & Wiszina Collections, there are 1305 pieces of art in the AMoA collection. Additionally, we are currently in discussion with donors and may soon grow to 1500. While our collection scope is Modern and Contemporary Louisiana, Southern and American Artists (in that order of importance), this donation adds a significant number of contemporary works into the collection as well as diversity.
TSS: Can you name a few artists of merit in the permanent collection?
CMP: We have works from many important historic artists including Ellsworth and William Woodward, Ida Kohlmeyer, Clyde Connell, Will Henry Stevens, Lynda Benglis, Emery Clark, and Clementine Hunter, as well as contemporary artists Margaret Evangeline, Hunt Slonem and local artist Pat Philips whose work was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
TSS: In your opinion what makes an artist important and relevant?
CMP: I believe that changes with time as far as medium, subject matter, or style. However, the artists that appear to possess the staying power to stay relevant are the ones that capture the zeitgeist of their time.
TSS: Do you focus solely on artists who live and work in Louisiana? If yes, why?
CMP: Our current collection gallery exhibition “Connected Visions” traces Louisiana’s artistic lineage - through works from our collection. It connects artists through professor – student and mentor situations, as well as other relationships. But, the focus of our collection goes beyond Louisiana as I said earlier. With our exhibitions, sometimes we are uplifting artists from our region within a theme, but often we are bringing the larger art world and works by important artists to our community as many in our community never have the opportunity to visit larger cities and other museums.
TSS: For the art enthusiasts that reside in Chicago, DC, Miami or somewhere in Europe or Asia: why should they visit AMoA when in Louisiana?
CMP: The feedback we receive from out of town visitors is overwhelmingly positive. Most of our out of state visitors are not expecting to find this kind of museum in a smaller city like Alexandria and are ultimately pleased with their discovery. I would strongly suggest a visit because you will be impressed with the focus, scale and scope of our collections and exhibitions.
TSS: What museums and or museum directors do you respect and or admire and why?
CMP: I am an artist who never expected to become a Museum Director, but somehow found myself in this position and taught myself the job with the assistance of the museum community. The Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), our regional organization, has incredible members and terrific professional development opportunities. There are several directors that I admire and that I can reach out to for advice or just to commiserate. Bill Eiland at the Georgia Museum of Art was really there for me as I guided the museum through a re-accreditation process. Mark Tullos former director of AMoA is now the director of the Mississippi Entertainment experience in Meridian and helped me to establish an unwavering confidence. Betsy Bradley at the Mississippi Museum of Art is an inspiration when it comes to addressing change in art museums of the south. David Butler at the Knoxville Museum of Art has been a loyal and great friend. George Bassi at the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel, Mississippi sets - a great example for what is possible in a small town. All of these museums are terrific. Of course, I love the Ogden and NOMA in New Orleans and I would advise anyone who hasn’t been to Crystal Bridges to make the trip.
TSS: Do you believe an art museum’s permanent collection and exhibitions should be the mirrored reflection of its arts community or the taste of its collectors, board members and donors?
CMP: That is inevitably part of the character of a museum’s collection. However, the professional employees should be tempering those desires based on taste with a focus on art that is important, relevant, and that stands the test of time.
TSS: Women, LGBTQ and artists of color are finally receiving recognition in the mainstream art world. What if anything is AMoA doing to pay it forward and educate your community to the contributions of artists of color women and the LGBTQ community?
CMP: Since 2012, I have been taking an activist stance to promote works by disenfranchised artists. Our Collection is over 20% women artists and over the past few years we have been actively seeking to grow the number of works by artists of color. This donation will increase works of art in both categories. We have introduced exhibitions to our community that explored gender, LGBTQ issues, slavery, the Japanese internment, and immigration, and the influence of cultures that comprise our state. We have explored barriers that women artists face and presented works on the topic of homelessness and poverty, and war. This year we were set to present an exhibition highlighting climate change and the impact on the environment but had to push it back to 2023 because of financial strains related to COVID. In addition, we host major exhibitions that celebrate beauty, and the mastery of various mediums by emerging, mid-career and or blue-chip artists.
TSS: At the end of your tenure as Director of the AMoA, what will be your legacy? What will be the museum’s legacy?
CMP: I hope that when our local community and society examine and or reflects on my time at AMoA, they view my tenure as a time of growth, vibrancy, and relevance. We have increased the collection significantly, strengthening our funding streams and programming. We have presented exhibitions that challenge our community to self-examine, in hopes we can learn about those different from ourselves, and to view the world through the lens of contemporary artists. I would also hope that I would be remembered as someone who embraced beauty and truth in the face of adversity – there have been many challenges during my time here. My wish for the museum’s legacy is to persist as a place that welcomes everyone. To remain vibrant and stable while continuing our mission and commitment to foster a culturally rich community by engaging, enlightening and inspiring individuals through innovative art experiences.
TSS: Thank you for taking the time and I appreciate you. WM
Terrence Sanders-Smith has contributed to the landscape of contemporary art as an artist, gallerist, curator, and publisher & editor-in-chief of Artvoices Magazine and Artvoices Art Books. Sanders-Smith’s mission as Editor-In-Chief of Artvoices Magazine (2008-2018) was to create a platform for emerging, neglected and under-recognized artists who were producing important and relevant works. In New Orleans Sanders-Smith created a memorial engraving of 1,800 names on the “Saratoga Building” (212 Loyola Avenue) dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The memorial's a welcoming gesture of forgiveness and unity for the city of New Orleans.view all articles from this author