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'Squeeze pictures out of them'

'Degas & America':
Career canvas for curators

icon"Degas & America: The Early Collectors" studies the United States' discovery of the work of Edgar Degas -- through the careers of curators David Brenneman and Ann Dumas. This 1865 work is "A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpincon?)" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's H.O. Havemeyer Collection. Click here for a sampling of other canvases in the new show.  

March 6, 2001
Web posted at: 10:21 a.m. EST (1521 GMT)

In this story:

Wheeling, dealing

Getting started

"A love of objects"

Building a career


(CNN) -- Horses and jockeys, ballerinas and women engaged in life's daily tasks -- all beckon from French Impressionist Edgar Degas' works. Nearly 80 precious objects quietly demand investigation, each carefully selected and meticulously arranged in vivid galleries of yellow and teal.

Those trademark dancers pirouette, horses canter, women comb their hair: It's as if a slice of late 19th-century French life was brought to Atlanta's High Museum of Art, when a new show opened there on Saturday.

graphic What curators like Ann Dumas and David Brenneman do for a living often involves a "project pace." The Degas show, for example, was put together fast for such things, in just two years. How would you be in "project-paced" work?

I'd like it. I think working intensely on something, living with it, then unveiling it is great.
I might be OK with it if I could work on more than one project at once. I'd get less impatient that way.
Not me. Couldn't wait for two years, let alone five, to reveal something like this Degas show.
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"Degas & America: The Early Collectors," is at the High through May 27 before traveling to Minnesota's Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It's the first show to explore North Americans' response to Degas' work when they became aware of his paintings and sculptures 120 years ago. The exhibit is also an unprecedented chance for museum-goers in the Southeast to examine, firsthand, such a large collection of Degas' paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints.

And while concentrating on one response to the artist's fabled career, the show reflects the efforts of two art historians -- who put "Degas & America" together at a fevered pace.

"On the one hand, we're trying to produce a very well-rounded, balanced and varied selection of Degas because this is the first major Degas exhibition there's been in Atlanta," says Ann Dumas. She's an independent curator and Degas scholar from London and has been instrumental in the exhibit's development. "At the same time we're trying to tell the story about the history of Degas in America."

She has worked in this instance with colleague David Brenneman, the High's curator of European art, the two of them assembling the collection and telling the story of how the United States embraced Degas more than a century ago.

The story begins in 1878, when New York's young Louisine Elder (later Louisine Havemeyer) acquired what is believed to be the first Degas to be bought by a North American collector. The show goes on to trace the progress of American acquisitions through 1936, when the first Degas retrospective had its debut.

Wheeling, dealing

Dumas and Brenneman worked for two years putting the exhibition together -- a time frame considered all but breakneck for a major exhibition, which more frequently takes four or five years to stage.

The team began working in earnest in 1999, with extensive research to determine the show's concept and shape. And then the wheeling and dealing began.

Among the works seen in "Degas & America" is "The Ballet Class, ca. 1880, an oil on canvas from the Philadelphia Museum of Art  

A flood of letters went out to potential lenders, explaining the exhibition and requesting loans. Dumas and Brenneman traveled the country to lobby museum officials face-to-face to "squeeze the pictures out of them," according to Dumas.

The personal touch worked best, Brenneman says. "It's really amazingly effective, actually showing up," he says "It's a lot like being a traveling sales guy."

"There are so many exhibitions now," Dumas says, "particularly in this very popular area of 19th-century French painting, that you're always in competition with other people. And if you can really turn up and make your case, it really makes a big difference from just writing the letters."

With loans of art approved from large and small institutions across the U.S., Dumas and Brenneman then returned to the books. They had to research and write contributions to the exhibition's catalog, which serves as a scholarly record of the show long after the works have been returned. Then, and only then, could the nuts and bolts of assembling the show begin.

Some parts, they say, didn't always fit so smoothly.

Brenneman recalls the week before the exhibition's planned press preview on February 27. Works were still in crates, two important paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hadn't arrived, and High officials were staring at blank walls where paintings should be.

Networking is essential in curatorial work. "It's very helpful if you can call a friend up and say, 'Could we please borrow this pastel? I know you never lend it, but this is an important project.'"
— David Brenneman, High Museum curator of European art

"You just can't visualize the exhibition fully until you actually see them up on the walls," he says.

The work did make it to the walls in time, though, and the exhibit opened to a warm reception. "It is a pleasure to see (Degas') stature reaffirmed in this beautifully installed and well-thought-out exhibition," writes Catherine Fox for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The show is, she writes, a "panoramic vision" of the "adventurousness of this quintessential Parisian."

Getting started

Degas brought Brenneman and Dumas together for the Atlanta show, but different paths led each to a career in art.

Brenneman's interest in art started early and was cultivated by visits to museums with his parents.

Ann Dumas and David Brenneman, building "a critical mass of a reputation"  

"I went to college wanting to be an art historian, which was very strange," he says. "I think I was probably unusually focused at about 17 or 18."

A master's degree and Ph.D. from Brown University followed an undergraduate degree in art history from Pennsylvania State University. While working on his doctorate, Brenneman was an intern at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and worked as an assistant curator of paintings for two years at the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University.

He finished his doctoral studies and came to the High Museum in 1995, where he found a job he says he considers challenging.

"There's a kind of juggling that's always going on between what's temporary and needing attention, and the ongoing needs of the permanent collection," he says. "But these exhibitions help us a great deal because people come to the museum (who) wouldn't normally."

Dumas' work isn't centered as much as her peer's on permanent collections.

"The downside of it is that there's not the security of a regular job, and you don't always have that sort of institutional backing. But it suits me. I enjoy it."
— Ann Dumas, independent curator

As an independent art historian, she focuses almost exclusively on temporary exhibitions. Dumas pursues her engagements while serving as an adjunct curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She says she likes it that way.

"You have a lot of creative freedom in that you can come up with ideas and write proposals to a number of museums and eventually one of them may take you on," she says. "And there's a lot of variety because you get to work with different institutions and different colleagues.

"The downside of it is that there's not the security of a regular job, and you don't always have that sort of institutional backing," says Dumas, a former Mellon Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago. "But it suits me. I enjoy it."

Dumas received a master's in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art at London University and then served as an assistant curator of European painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

"A love of objects"

Art historians train to develop a sophisticated eye.

"You really have to have a love of objects and a desire to learn about them and share that with other people," Brenneman says.

As the New York Times' Lawrence Van Gelder writes, not all early-20th-century Americans liked "this French artist's portraits, depictions of the ballet and race course, nudes, academic drawings and studies of the human figure." At the High Museum in Atlanta, some early-21st-century Americans are getting to decide what they think about the same work  

Museums look for a special talent when scouting curatorial help, says Philip Verre, deputy director of the High. When assessing a candidate for a curator's job, Verre says, he tries to "get a sense of the quality of the eye of the individual. Ultimately, we rely on curators to provide that finely tuned aesthetic eye."

Verre looks at candidates' expertise in the field -- their awareness of the literature and collections -- and at their connections.

In the world of curators, as in so many other professions, it's who you know in a network of peers, says Verre. He wants employees who can "use the network to the advantage of the institution."

Networking is essential, Brenneman says. "It's very helpful if you can call a friend up and say, 'Could we please borrow this pastel? I know you never lend it, but this is an important project.'"

A Ph.D. is becoming increasingly important to career art historians, although it isn't impossible to find a job in the field without one, says James McCredie, director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Two-thirds of the institute's art history graduates get a master's and then look for jobs in their field, he estimated.

"It has become more and more necessary, though you don't have to get a Ph.D. to do something in the history of art," McCredie says. " But, yes, it's becoming more and more necessary to have the label."

Building a career

Pursuing a career in art history is not for the faint-hearted and retiring sort, say insiders. Job competition is keen.

"The problem is that a lot of people want to study art history; far more people study it than there are available professional opportunities later," Dumas says. "But I think for the ones that are really serious and really stay on and do interesting work at graduate level, there will continue to be opportunities."

image David Brenneman and Ann Dumas have brought together a survey of Edgar Degas' work that moves from the pastoral calm of "Race Horses at Longchamp" to the quiet intensity of "The Dance Examination," for which he's better known. Click here for a preview of work from "Degas & America."

Dumas and Brenneman have already built a strong foundation for their collaborative reputation. Prior to the Degas exhibition, the two worked together on the High's 1999 public and critical success "Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums."

And these exhibitions, say Dumas and Brenneman, benefit all. The public is exposed to more art. Museums get to showcase treasures from near and far. And the historians who package these shows gain in professional stature each time another exhibit bows.

"With each one (exhibition) you do, you build on a sort of critical mass of a reputation, which counts for quite a lot," Dumas says. "With each show it counts for more."


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