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The Mint Museum's Brad Thomas: Making space for modern art

By Linda Luise Brown
Charlotteviewpoint.org

Art curators have tough jobs. They have to be arbiters of taste, trend spotters, and crowd pleasers, provocative and diplomatic at the same time. That’s a job description that would scare off some folks, but not Brad Thomas.

As Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Charlotte’s venerable Mint Museum of Art, Thomas is a friendly guy who is always willing to share his enthusiasms: whether it’s about building a museum collection; the wonder and surprise involved in visiting artists’ studios; or the pleasures and demands of fatherhood. It’s clear that he really loves what he does.

Thomas joined the Mint Museum’s team of curators earlier this year, but the North Carolina native is not new to the world of contemporary art. He was Director and Curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College for 12 years, where he made a name for himself with a series of high-quality and innovative art exhibitions. Noteworthy among his curatorial feats were “Force of Nature” (2006), which featured site installations by 10 contemporary Japanese artists, and “Magdalena Abakanowicz” (2010), which showcased a series of large, awe-inspiring sculptures by Abakanowicz and packed a punch in the modestly scaled spaces of the college galleries. Earlier this year, Davidson announced the acquisition of a new Abakanowicz sculpture conceived specifically for the campus.

Teaching and high art

With the January release of Davidson Collects: 100 Writers Respond to Art, Thomas involved 100 student writers who contributed to the first publication about Davidson’s permanent collection. This notable initiative brought classroom teaching together with the world of high art in an approachable manner. Thomas’ ability to integrate teaching and curatorial skills likely will be well used in his new role at the Mint.

His track record, among other attributes, made Thomas a strong candidate to help the Mint extend its coverage of contemporary art in a city that has often been ambivalent to that milieu. Mint President and CEO Dr. Kathleen Jameson said hiring Thomas was “a tremendous step in strengthening the museum’s commitment to modern and contemporary art, which will be a strategic priority over the next five years and beyond.”

Plans for diversity

That commitment is very good news for Charlotte and its artistic hinterlands, and it sets Thomas a challenge. Naturally, Charlotte’s patrons, artists, collectors, and others in the visual art world are eager to know exactly what Thomas plans to achieve during his tenure. At the moment, his curatorial position is still being defined; he’s been on staff several months, during which he and the other museum staff have started getting used to each other. “It’s a dynamic role,” Thomas explained. “You have to wear a lot of hats.”

He quickly worked to grasp the extent of the permanent collection’s assets. “We created a Collection Development Plan for Modern and Contemporary Art,” he said. “Carla [Hanzal] and I collaborated on the plan with the guidance of Mint president, Kathleen Jameson.”

Thomas paid tribute to the work of Carla Hanzal, his predecessor who left the Mint earlier this year to work as a freelance curator and contemporary art consultant. Hanzal organized over 40 exhibitions during her tenure, and contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues including the acclaimed “Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections.”

“Carla was largely instrumental in developing the [modern and contemporary] collection over the past ten years and this new plan charts the course for the next five and beyond,” Thomas said.

After he joined the Mint staff, Thomas “dived in and did some research” about Charlotte’s Hispanic population, and how the Mint could relate better to that growing demographic, he said. In doing so, he found that according to the 2010 U.S. Census, North Carolina’s Hispanic population grew by 111% - to just over 800,000 - in 10 years.

The Mint already was becoming sensitized to this new opportunity for cultural outreach (and gift opportunities). An exhibition of the work of Medellín-born visual artist Débora Arango, an important and provocative Columbian painter who died in 2005 at age 98, was planned before Thomas joined the Mint. The exhibit, entitled “Sociales: Débora Arango Arrives Today,” will bedeck the galleries with politically charged, expressionistic paintings from February to June 2013, and is likely to provide a taste of things to come as Thomas hopes to explore ways to stimulate discussions on the growing diversity of Charlotte and the nation.

From artist to curator

Thomas took an unconventional path to his career as a museum coordinator. He began as an undergraduate art student at UNC-Charlotte in the early 1990s. Living as an itinerant visual artist in his 20s, Thomas worked in mixed media (pens, paint, and collage) on paper or in installation format and was represented by Charlotte’s Center of the Earth Gallery. He continues to create his own work, dynamically packing his imagery with layers of inspiration from pop art and advertising. Peppered with art in-jokes and visual signposts indicating possible meanings and clues, his art has a lot to offer the quizzical viewer.

“I am a collage sort of guy,” Thomas said.

The opportunity to be an interim gallery director lead him to work at Davidson College Galleries in 1999, and that post led to a full-time position. When asked why he made the decision to move from the galleries at Davidson College to the Mint, Thomas, now in his early 40s, replied, “I like the dynamics of working with a big team. For every ounce of idea, there is a ton of work.

Fecund collaborations

One of the group efforts coming in the spring of 2013 is a site-specific installation by well-known local artist John W. Love Jr. that was only in the conceptual stage when Thomas arrived at the Mint. A multidisciplinary performance artist, playwright, poet, stage/video director and actor, Love’s upcoming work is described by the McColl Center for Visual Art as “a performance, a gallery exhibition, web initiatives and workshops... complex, circuitous, textural, and contextual.”

Love’s multi-disciplinary “FECUND,” sponsored by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council, will be installed at the Mint Museum. Love was the first individual artist to receive the $25,000 McColl Award specifically to support the creation of a work of art.

Work will begin on May 6 for the installation in the Morrison Atrium. “FECUND” will culminate with a live performance entitled "The Diaries of Neequa or She Who Would Be King” in the Duke Auditorium on the evening of May 17.

“In terms of physical reality, the installation will activate the space and the viewer’s experience in new ways,” said Thomas.

The teamwork necessary to bring “FECUND” to fruition is typical of the synergy that Thomas sees as an exciting new dimension to his work at the Mint. Besides requiring extensive collaboration among staff members, this complex project also involves outside partners, most notably the Arts & Science Council and the McColl Center for Visual Art.

The nature of the contemporary collection

When discussing how the museum’s modern and contemporary holdings would be defined, Thomas mentioned the “Ballot Box Ball” as one lively and media-savvy way of involving the public in the process of curating the collection.

“The Vote For Art project culminated with the Ballot Ball Nov. 9, which was organized by three of our affiliate groups,” he said. “It was so festive and diverse. Almost 20,000 ballots were cast over a 6-week period by visitors of all ages. The public chose three works to be acquired by the Mint. The Ballot Box Ball signaled the acquisition of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s ‘The Birth of Venus, after Botticelli (Pictures of Junk),’ 2008, which was clearly the voting public’s choice for the work they most desired to join the Mint’s permanent collection.”

Thomas indicated that while objects destined for the permanent collection do not fall into any particular media grouping or theme, the current philosophy and trajectory of building the collection is definitely international in scope.

“The international roster of artists newly represented in the Mint’s collection includes Vik Muniz (South American), Mattia Biagi (Italian), and Mathias Bengtsson (Danish),” he said.

We can expect this to become a consistent refrain from Thomas and other Mint curators: no specific media will be sought for the collections, but the museum, in Thomas’ words, “will focus on acquisitions of modern and contemporary art that represent a global perspective and reflect the most dynamic growth of minority populations.”

This same interest in diversity is evident in Thomas’ desire to make a short documentary featuring Richard Hunt, the sculptor commissioned to create a new work for Charlotte’s Romare Bearden Park, under construction uptown in Third Ward. “Richard Hunt and Romare Bearden share the distinction of being the first African-Americans to have one-person exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art,” said Thomas.

“The year was 1971 and though there was a considerable age difference, the two were good friends and colleagues,” he said. “Capturing Richard’s personal thoughts on their relationship while he is working on his sculpture commission for Romare Bearden Park over the coming months will serve as a vital scholarly and educational resource for generations to come.”

Museums in the digital age

The enthusiasm, knowledge, and genial self-confidence that Thomas exudes demonstrate his capability to make a positive contribution in this relatively new position. Besides knowing the importance of attracting new talent to the area, Thomas, who has worked with college students for more than a decade, understands the equal importance of retaining young artists in the area. It will be interesting to see how he and the museum will achieve this critical goal.

The museum curators don’t seem short of innovative ideas but two questions remain: They talk well, but how good are they at listening? And will these ideas translate into effective follow-through? The answer is yes, if moving forward the Mint staff with Thomas’ guidance listens to and acts on the good ideas that bubble up from within our own artistic community.

This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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