Turner to Cézanne

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, June 2010

Andrew Connors’ office is flooded with paper. Thick stacks of newspapers, forms and pictures collapse into one another, like giant piles of cards being shuffled on a table. Hundreds of art books nudge each other on shelves, vying for wiggle room. Three massive Rolodexes stand at attention, eager to recall names, addresses, numbers. Andrew Connors’ office is like a brain—teeming with information, ideas, images and connections. It’s fitting, because Connors, the curator for the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, believes that art feeds the brain, that it makes neurons multiply and synapses pop.

What’s getting Connors’ brain sizzling now is the museum’s new exhibit, Turner to Cézanne, a 53-piece collection on loan from National Museum Wales. It’s the kind of exhibit Albuquerque rarely sees, featuring some of the great masterpieces from artistic history: Renoir’s La Parisienne, one of Monet’s Waterlilies and van Gogh’s Rain-Auvers, which had never before been seen in the United States, among them. Connors is ecstatic with the potential of the exhibit, which has been three years in the making. 

“I hope that people respond with a sense of pride and a sense of wonder at what great inventors have done for us,” he says. “I’d love for their experience to be a little more deep than simply appreciation for beauty. Maybe I’d like their brains to hurt a little bit from thinking hard. ... I’m just looking forward to having headaches from having to think so hard. And then to help the headaches subside, go into the gallery and just sort of celebrate the pure beauty of what all that thinking produced.”

All the works in the show are from, as Connors calls them, “great inventors.” Created primarily in the mid-1800s, the pieces were some of the first to push the boundaries of the popular, academic method of painting of the time and introduce Impressionism. The exhibit displays the works in chronological order, providing not only visual, but also written and aural history lessons through large placards and guided audio tours. The museum has worked to make the show highly interactive, with a side room featuring videos that further expand on the pieces’ history and an educational play room for kids, along with a number of educational programs that will run throughout the exhibit’s life at the museum.

The exhibit is taken from the Davies Collection, formed by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies between 1908 and 1923. The two Welsh sisters were devout philanthropists who volunteered for the French Red Cross, gave asylum to Belgian artists, and founded the Gregynog Press and Gregynog music festival, both named after their home, Gregynog Hall. 

They amassed their art collection as a way of bringing great masterpieces to the people of Wales. In 1913, they hosted an anonymous exhibit at Cardiff City Hall to help raise funds to build a museum. When they died, they left their estate to the University of Wales to use as an arts center and bequeathed their collection to National Museum Wales, which is now known for having one of the best Impressionist collections in Europe.

Prof. Michael Tooby, the director of Learning, Programmes and Development at National Museum Wales, has been involved in bringing the exhibit to the U.S. since 2002. National Museum Wales partnered with the American Federation of Arts to place the exhibit in five cities around the country, all of which Tooby visited two years ago to make sure they met the show’s requirements. Obviously, each museum needed to have the technical details to support the show. But National Museum Wales also wanted museums that, while they play a significant role in their regions, don’t often have major exhibits. The Davies sisters were interested in bringing great art to those who didn’t always get to see it, and National Museum Wales wanted to continue in that tradition.

Tooby thinks the sisters would have enjoyed knowing the show is in Albuquerque. “They would be intrigued,” he says. “They would be very excited, very pleased. And it’s important to remember that when they bequeathed their collections to the National Museum, they encouraged the National Museum to share collections.” He says the museum even “double, double” checked this request while planning the tour, re-reading the actual bequest documents. “They were very aware of what you might call access, to use a contemporary term,” he adds. “I think that they were the kind of women that saw the responsibility of wealth and were very aware of social and educational causes.”

The other cities that hosted the show are Columbia, S.C., Oklahoma City, Syracuse, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. Albuquerque made it on the list because of a relationship the Art Museum formed with the American Federation of Arts, which suggested shows to National Museum Wales for the tour. Albuquerque had worked with AFA twice before, bringing Millet to Mattisse here from Glasgow in 2004 and Temples and Tombs from the British Museum in London in 2007. When the Art Museum called AFA to find out what was coming up, it learned about Turner to Cézanne and got on board right away.

Cathy Wright, the Art Museum’s director, says it cost about $300,000 to bring the show here, all of which is paid for through the Albuquerque Museum Foundation. “It’s a really high-quality exhibit that, as far as renting exhibits go, is affordable for museums of our size and a little bigger,” she says. “When you get up to the King Tut kind of exhibits, we can’t do that at all here, those usually only go to really big cities.”

But exhibits of Turner to Cézanne’s caliber aren’t often found in cities Albuquerque’s size, either. “[People] would actually have to travel to Dallas or Houston or Denver to see an exhibit like this,” says Wright, “so we’re very proud that we’re able to bring it to New Mexico. I think the great appeal of this exhibit is that it’s more than just the usual Impressionist exhibit. It has a lot of great historic content to it and it shows an evolution of painting during that period.”

Connors hopes more exhibits like it will come to Albuquerque. He says it’s crucial for the state to have important installations because it’s known as an artistic hub. “There are so many artists in New Mexico. And so rarely do those artists have the opportunity to see the great masterpieces,” he says, adding that if the state is going to maintain its image as an arts center that artists need to be able to see collections of this magnitude and “be inspired by them and learn from them.”

In Albuquerque, Connors says the city administration shows its support for art. “You will find very few cities of this size that have a zoo of our caliber, an aquarium of our caliber, botanic gardens, an art and history museum,” he says. “It’s a good mother ship.” National Museum Wales’ Tooby agrees. “I think it’s a really interesting and rich place—rich in a cultural sense,” he says. “While Santa Fe has a reputation for great museums, great cultural life and so on, I think Albuquerque as a city is a place where an exhibition like this really works.”

Part of the reason why is the way people involved in the arts cooperate here, says Connors. “The arts community knows each other, we speak to each other and we’re fairly classless—meaning without class division, not that we have no style,” laughs Connors. he says that while in other “arts cities” there are distinct lines between wealthy art patrons and working-class artists, here everyone works together and gets along. But there are still plenty of Albuquerque denizens who don’t regularly make a point of viewing art, he says, and that’s an area ripe for growth. He hopes exhibits like Turner to Cézanne, which feature artists with household names, will sway more people toward the museum and art in general.

“I’m thrilled that people have the opportunity to see works of art of this caliber and spend time to hopefully understand why those of us in the art world celebrate these sort of objects,” He says. “Because there are times when people come into an art exhibit and say, The emperor has no clothes. But when you look at these works in this exhibition, people immediately are exposed to greatness and can see the greatness palpably in a way that you never can through reproductions. And that’s why museums exist, because the original is always better than a copy.”

It’s about more than showing art for art’s sake. Connors believes art actually makes people smarter. “The more people are exposed to the great questions of the past,” he says, “the more we might learn to think of proper responses to those questions. Most of these artists in this exhibition are pushing and questioning and experimenting, and taking risks. And in some cases, those risks were mortal.” He cites van Gogh’s death, caused by “his passion for experimentation and ideas and the lack of other people’s understanding of what he did,” as well as the financial setbacks and public ridicule most of the artists faced in their lifetimes. That’s why, he adds, it’s important to celebrate their achievements. 

In the U.S., arts programs are often among the first to be cut in times of budgetary crisis. As a result, Connors says, “our arts education generally in the United States is so minimal that we don’t sort of have a national consciousness that art is thinking and art is experimentation and art is good for the brain.” 

For many people, including those who cut budgets, he says, art is what people learn about when they’ve already studied “all the real things.” “But art is problem-solving,” he says, “art is invention and experimentation—deep, thoughtful inquiry. So without that rooted in young children’s consciousness, we have to sort of go back and re-educate some of the adults and 1) makes them feel welcome in an arts institution and 2) make them feel that it’s worth coming back.”