That’s what an old Registrar told me back when I started working in an art museum. I was young and optimistic and would ask him about some of the artists that he worked with. At the time I couldn’t understand the attitude. Now, after more than 20 years of working with artists, and not only artists, curator’s, who write about art and seem to have even bigger egos, I more than understand.

I’m an exhibition designer so I figure out the physical space within a museum where the art is installed. I mostly work with a curator on these designs but sometimes when an exhibition is a retrospective or a particular series of a single living artist, they become involved. The extent of that involvement usually depends on a few factors, how established they are, and how many commitments they have being the main ones.

Not for nuthin but I’ve found the older the artist the more pleasant they are to work with. Younger artists, meaning anyone younger than me at any given time exhibit a sense of entitlement that you’d think should be reserved for older established artists. It’s the take out all the brown m&ms or I want only green m&ms syndrome depending on whether you’re a Van Halen or Aerosmith fan. I have found this to be the rule and not the exception. The few young artists that were the exception happened to be photographers and happened to be from Europe. I’m not sure what that says, but its interesting.

Established artists are a different story. Some realize that we are there to make their work look its best in our institution and they are helpful and considerate. Others want to design the exhibition themselves or with their “team”. Sometimes it works but more often it doesn’t and they quickly realize what I’m proposing is the better option.

After 23 years in three different art museums I can honestly say that only three artists made me feel glad I worked with them. I met Jacob Lawrence and Bernarda Bryson Shahn while working at the Montclair Art Museum. We were having a social realism exhibition and lecture series which they were included in. In a small museum one wears many hats. I had to pick Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwen up from the airport and take them to their hotel. They were very down to earth, humble people and except for requesting that I stop at the nearest liquor store, they asked for nothing. Bernarda Bryson Shahn was the same. We spent hours listening about the old days, the WPA and working with some of the other artists in 1930s New York. I guess what struck a chord with me was that they were truly appreciative of being included in the exhibition and lecture series.

George McNeil was a student of Hans Hofmann and taught at Pratt Institute for years. I visited him at his Brooklyn studio while planning an exhibition of his prints. We hit it off and soon became friends. After the exhibition we wrote each other letters for a few years. I shot pictures of him in his studio and painted this portrait. George died a few years later as did Jacob Lawrence. In 2004 Bernarda Bryson Shahn died. While for me these artists were the exception to the rule, until I work with another living artist like one of them I think the old adage holds true.

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