Michael Godfrey - whose wry wit, gentle manner and transcendent grasp of abstract masterpieces helped bring the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to life - unexpectedly died this week.
Godfrey, 56, fell ill over the weekend and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He had been resting at his Charlotte home, where friends found him dead Tuesday, said Pam Davis, the Bechtler's marketing director.
Godfrey had worked with the museum's benefactor, Andreas Bechtler, for 20 years. As curator of the museum, which opened Jan. 2 on South Tryon Street in uptown, Godfrey was in charge of developing exhibitions, advising on acquisitions and caring for the collection, which includes works by 20th-century artists Miró, Picasso, Calder and Warhol.
Friends say Godfrey probably knew the collection better than even Bechtler himself and knew even the smallest details and history of the works.
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"Michael brought an unmatched understanding of the collection, having worked with it for years and knowing the family's interest in it," said John Boyer, president of the Bechtler. "That depth of knowledge and curatorial expertise will be impossible to replace."
A Charlotte native and fiber artist in his own right, Godfrey had been active on the city's art scene for more than three decades. He taught art history and design part-time at Central Piedmont Community College beginning in the mid-1970s, had been an assistant curator at the Mint Museum of Art and was one of the founding partners of the Context Visual Arts Center.
He was also a partner in Curators' Forum, which involved him in the 1990s with the rotating exhibitions in the lobby of the then-new Carillon Building and led to his early association with Bechtler.
He conceived one of first locally produced exhibitions at the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte, "Hand Me Downs: Innovation Within a Tradition" in 1995.
"He made you do your best all the time because he had high standards and he let you know when you didn't live up to them," said June Lambla, an independent curator in Charlotte.
"He let you know when you succeeded, too. It was always intelligent feedback, and I depended upon him for that. You could count on him to be truthful."
Godfrey, a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Dilworth, worked in the 1980s as a designer at the Smithsonian Institution and as an assistant curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He was founding director of the Little Italy Peninsula Arts Center at Mountain Island Lake.
But it was his association with the Bechtler Museum that put Godfrey in the highest orbit of the city's art community and drew most intensely on his talents.
"Great curators are able to divine key themes and the links between works, regardless of period or nation of origin or style," Boyer said. "Michael was gifted in that regard. He saw a lot of connections that most people wouldn't."
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1000 E. Morehead St.