In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
As winter nears, there’s no better way to spend a chilly Saturday afternoon than strolling through the warm, peaceful halls of one of North Carolina’s many renowned art museums. But with so much to see, it can be overwhelming for the uninitiated.
“People often think that when you walk into a museum, you should already know something,” says Juliette Bianco, the Anne and Ben Cone Memorial Endowed Director at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro. “I can’t stress enough how unnecessary that is. I think it’s far more beneficial to go into it thinking, I might learn something new, instead of worrying about what you already know.”
If you’re hoping to cultivate your eye for art, look no further. We asked three North Carolina art experts to help us break down what goes into curation, their secrets for starting your own personal collection, and the “right way” to view art like a pro (pssst … there is no right way).
Dianna Cameron Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Director at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum
Juliette Bianco Anne and Ben Cone Memorial Endowed Director at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro
Linda Dougherty Chief Curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh
Before we get into your tips for art newbies, what exactly does a curator do?
Dianna: Curators are conversationalists. They take care of works of art and historical artifacts, but they also help interpret what those works can mean. They can serve as a liaison to the artist, offering space for the artist to communicate their messages through their work within a gallery space. They converse with artists and other curators to get those kinds of messages across in a way that’s relatable to people.
Linda: The curator is the caretaker of the museum’s collection. That involves everything from researching the works of art that are already there to writing wall labels to giving talks or tours to planning installations. Half of the job is looking after the collection, and the other half is coming up with ideas and planning and organizing temporary exhibitions.
What goes into the curation process?
Dianna: We show a broad range of work, so I’m always looking at a lot of different kinds of artwork all the time. Curators don’t necessarily try to just pick the good from the bad. Instead, I try to find things that may meet a certain goal, and I think about the kind of experience I want visitors to have when they come into the museum when I’m putting together an exhibition. If there’s a specific featured topic, curators may bring together works by different artists and try to convey the message that way.
What’s your thought process when you first approach a work of art?
Juliette: There’s an impulse when you look at a work of art to ask yourself, What’s it about? Sometimes, if I ask myself that too soon, I’m going to lose some of the details that would help me understand how to answer that question more fully. I really try to take in the details — I’m looking at the colors, the textures, what the materials are, how it was put together, and anything else I notice about the work so I can really become familiar with it before I start trying to think about what it’s saying.
So how can regular folks cultivate an eye for art?
Dianna: I think just having an openness initially is a good approach. When you go to a gallery or a museum, just be open to what you’re seeing — that just allows you to see a lot. Paying attention to what you’re drawn to and trying not to question it too much is a good way to begin.
Juliette: It’s really helpful to start out by visiting with another person because you can ask each other questions. Start with, What do you see? And then explore the art from there. Making it part of a conversation can really help you slow down and spend more time with a piece. Standing in front of a work of art for a long time by yourself can maybe feel a little uncomfortable, and you’re not sure what to do next. Visiting with someone else turns that conversation into something really exciting.
What are some of your favorite places to see art in North Carolina that you’d recommend to beginners?
Linda: I love the GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro. Artspace in Raleigh often has interesting work. There are a lot of galleries in Asheville I like to go to, like Blue Spiral and a new photography gallery called Tracey Morgan. I go to as many museums as I can — the Asheville Art Museum, the Weatherspoon in Greensboro, the Cameron [Art Museum] in Wilmington, and the Mint [Museum] in Charlotte. SOCO Gallery in Charlotte is another great place that shows both emerging and established artists and a really great place for people who are beginning to collect.
Dianna: I used to work at the Turchin Center [for the Visual Arts] in Boone when I was a student [at Appalachian State University], and they show some really wonderful exhibitions. I love visiting the Weatherspoon in Greensboro. I grew up in Greensboro, and I grew up going to that museum from the age of 4. I love going to the Mint Museum Uptown, the Mint Museum Randolph, and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte; the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh; the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington; and the Asheville Art Museum.
Let’s talk collecting — what advice do you have for a beginner looking to build his or her own collection?
Linda: Starting local is good. If there’s an arts council where you live, they will often do shows of artists or art spaces that have open art studios and will allow you to go visit them and talk to them about their work. That relationship with an artist — finding out what their inspiration is and what they’re thinking about and what their intent is — can really develop a new way of looking at work and may also draw out interests that you might not have thought of. Art is incredibly subjective. Everyone has very personal taste about what they like and what they’re drawn to, and you should trust that. When I go into a museum, I like things that push the envelope and challenge me, but I’m not so sure I want to live with that. Some people do enjoy that and like the provocation and excitement of it, and others prefer work that’s more meditative and contemplative. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here; it’s more of a subjective point of view about what you are drawn to.
Juliette: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Your space is your own. Some people love to be challenged in their space, and some people want to be soothed or delighted. The art that you choose for your home should be something that you engage with and that is connected to who you are and how you want to see your space. That’s what I do — I like having pieces in my home that bring me joy or remind me to be more thoughtful.
Art can be pretty pricey. When you buy a piece, how do you know if you’re making a good investment?
Dianna: Sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, you’re just going with your gut and purchasing what you like. That can be a good way to start, but I think that if you find other collectors and you have those conversations about which artists are up-and-coming or which works they’ve been purchasing, or, if you’re interested in investment, find out which works may have sold recently in an auction and for how much, those kinds of things can inform a purchase that is a good financial investment. Investment in the arts isn’t all necessarily just about the finances. It can be a lifelong investment with the relationships that you can build and the work that you see and what you can learn from it and how you enjoy it.
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