Talking Art with Gail Stavitsky, Chief Curator of the Montclair Art Museum

montclair art museum
Gail Stavitsky

Happy 100th Birthday! In anticipation of Montclair Art Museum‘s exhibition called “100 Works for 100 Years: A Centennial Celebration,” which premieres September 22, 2013, Baristanet sat down with MAM”s chief curator named Gail Stavitsky to learn more about her career and the art world.

Stavitsky earned her B.A. in Art History from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from New York University’s Fine Arts Institute. Harboring an interest in museum work, Stavitsky pursued a one-year Museum Fellowship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). She explained that the fellowship rotated her throughout numerous departments, allowing her to experiment with different interests. While she initially thought that she would pursue museum education, she got a job as a supervisor of volunteer docents, lecturers on art history. But after a curator was fired at LACMA, Stavitsky got her “lucky break,” as she described, as an assistant curator, eventually realizing at her true career path. Stavitsky emphatically stated, “It was serendipity.” Then, she became curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

With a desire to head back to the world of academia, Stavitsky received a Ph.D. from New York University’s Fine Arts Institute. Coming out of graduate school, she reconnected with a former friend, the director of Montclair Art Museum. Stavitsky commenced a project called Precisionism in America 1915-1941, which focused on American industrialism. But when a curator at MAM quit, Stavitsky was in the right place at the right time. Jumping at the chance to work for the museum, Stavitsky began a 20-year career as chief curator, beginning full time in May 1994. Montclair Museum of Art’s centennial celebration in 2014 will also mark her 20th year with the museum. She quips, “I find it amazing, because it means that for a fifth of the museum’s history, I have been here!”

Montclair Art Museum
Montclair Art Museum

Baristanet: Can you describe the process of curating an exhibition?
Gail Stavitsky: It is collaborative. Often times, I am talking with a collector or an art historian and we bring up a specific subject. Sometimes we will say, “It’s funny how there’s never been a show on this particular type of art.” Our show on Paul Cézanne was based on a discussion with a board member; we both realized that nothing had been done on the subject. Sometimes, ideas come from simply knowing an artist. I met Will Barnet while I was working on my dissertation. Barnet, who died last year at the age of 101, was a relatively well-known artist who never had a serious show. So we decided to give him a show! Curating is figuring out what hasn’t been done. I like to do things for the first time, instead of doing the next Picasso show when there have been a million of them.

B: What differentiates Montclair Art Museum from its peers?
GS: First of all, we have a very unique focus and mission, because the museum concentrates on American and Native American art while a lot of museums have a broader collection and focus. We are also a fairly small museum. Visitors can comfortably go through the museum in an hour and not be overwhelmed like when you go the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is a sense of community, intimacy, and unique personality because we are off-the-beaten path. Our location in relation to New York City presents its advantages and challenges. The challenge is that some people pass up the Montclair Art Museum for the big New York museums. But the advantage is that we don’t have to curate expensive blockbuster exhibitions. Instead, we can do smart shows that contribute something fresh to our knowledge of art history but still have popular appeal. For example, our best-attended show of all time was the Paul Cézanne exhibition that drew approximately 50,000 visitors in a fourteen-week period. You can do something very popular and still maintain a unique and experimental focus. Because the Montclair Art Museum is small, I am constantly busy with work and that is one of the primary reasons why I have been here for so long.

montclair art museum

B: What are the upcoming exhibitions for Montclair Art Museum?
GS: Because we have our “100 Works for 100 Years: A Centennial Celebration” beginning in September 2013, we are throwing a big birthday party for the community! The exhibition will show the first works from 1913 featuring Ralph Blakelock, Childe Hassam, and George Inness. Another exhibition will present thirty works (by artists such as Chuck Close and Kiki Smith from New Jersey) donated by Patricia Bell, who lives in South Orange, who has supported our contemporary art collection. The Montclair Art Museum will also host a show featuring Robert Barry who donated one of his works called “One Billion Colored Dots.” It is twenty-five volumes books with thousands of colorful dots. The conceptual artwork essentially shows how inconceivable it is to think of one billion as a number. That’s what is on the agenda for the next few months.

montclair art museum
Gail’s office

B: What are some of your career highlights and proudest achievements through the years?
GS: The project I worked on the longest and hardest was the “Cézanne and American Modernism” exhibition, which opened in 2009, because I worked on that for ten years. But the show that recently closed called “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913” was also one of my all-time favorites. Our show promoted the American artists such as Edward Hopper and Robert Henri who contributed to the Armory Show in New York that also featured Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. We had some great articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and ARTnews, which was really exciting. I miss it!

B: In a more general sense, is art definable? Can art be critiqued? Can art be good or bad?
GS: Art is in the eye of the beholder. I can’t say I always agree with the critics. Each critic may have his or her own particular prejudices or biases or even ways that they define modern art. So are there absolute standards? Perhaps there are, but maybe I’m just thinking of what guides me. For example, there’s a large contemporary piece it the Park Avenue Armory and if you’re under seventeen you can’t even attend. It’s deliberately obscene and offensive. If you’re judging it on the artist’s standards, then it’s very successful. Is art definable? I think it goes back to Marcel Duchamp who in 1913 overturned a bicycle wheel and attached it to a stool. His point of view, which revolutionized art, was that if he says it is art then it is. In fact, it was even anti-art because it was anti- traditional art. Perhaps there is a sort of beauty in that. He redefined the standards of art and beauty by using ready-made objects.

B: Do you have any words of wisdom for people who want to pursue a career in art?
GS: Get as much hands-on experience, whether it’s through volunteering or an internship, as you can. The Metropolitan Museum of Art actually has paid internships. If you can’t find anything, try to make personal connections. Demonstrating interest and networking is what it’s all about!

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