Curator as dynamo

Jennifer Edwards, the new curator at Charlotte’s Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, is an expert on Niki de Saint Phalle, creator of the “Firebird” sculpture outside the museum.
Jennifer Edwards, the new curator at Charlotte’s Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, is an expert on Niki de Saint Phalle, creator of the “Firebird” sculpture outside the museum. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Though she’s light on professional experience, it would be hard to image a better fit for a new curator for the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which stands on Charlotte’s South Tryon Street behind its landmark greeter, the “Firebird.”

Jennifer Edwards takes over as the second curator in the Bechtler’s five-year history on June 15. She is a leading expert on Niki de Saint Phalle, who created the whimsical “Firebird” that draws a steady stream of visitors for Kodak moments.

Edwards is a student of European modern artists, those active from 1900 to 1970.

“Many of those artists are in the Bechtler’s collection,” she says. “Many have fascinating, disturbing stories in the post-war. I knew I could tell those stories here.”

Many of those artists, Edwards says, tell stories profoundly relevant to life today. “In the 20th century, Europe was besotted by war. There was uncertainty and fear going on. That comes through in abstract art.”

Four months after it opened in 2010, Bechtler curator Michael Godfrey died at 56 after a short illness. As the recession painted a cloud of financial uncertainty over the fledgling museum, curatorial duties were absorbed by president John Boyer to save money.

“A lot of work could have happened in the last five years that didn’t happen,” says Boyer, “but will happen now.”

Made her own way

Edwards, 44, grew up in the New York suburb of Freehold, N.J., where her father commuted into the city for an advertising job at J.C. Penney. Her mother was an English tutor who liked to take Edwards to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drawn by its Asian collection.

“Which bored me to death,” says Edwards.

When she was about 7, her mother would let her go unescorted (or apparently so; Edwards learned years later her mom would lurk behind to make sure she knew where she was going) to the museum’s Temple of Dendur, a 2,000-year-old sandstone relic given in 1967 as a gift by Egypt to the museum.

Edwards loved the exotic Egyptian exhibits – and the independence her mother had granted her. “It was about power and art and serenity,” she says.

Edwards graduated from New York University with an English major and art history minor in 1992. She enjoyed the street art era around Greenwich Village and spent about three years doing poetry in the Lower East Side.

“I was a crass, loud feminist,” she says. “I shudder at the pretensions.”

She worked in a series of jobs for nonprofits and wrote grants for Rockefeller University. She was living near Ground Zero when the terrorist attacks occurred at the World Trade Center in 2001. In 2004, Edwards graduated with an M.A. from Hunter College with high honors, followed by jobs in museums and academia.

While pursuing her Ph.D. in fine arts from New York University, she lived in Los Angeles and held curatorial jobs at Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif.

Drawn to de Saint Phalle

Edwards chose the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle as the topic for her dissertation. Born in 1930 to an aristocratic family that lost its fortune in the Depression, de Saint Phalle was influenced by the works of modernists Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau and Jackson Pollock.

In the 1960s, she gained attention for her “Tirs,” a commentary on social violence. She discharged firearms into bags of paint, which bled onto plaster in a dispersion of color.

She collaborated with Mario Botta (architect of the Bechtler) on “Noah’s Ark,” an outdoor sculpture in Jerusalem. She assembled the Firebird in 1991 and died of pneumonia in 2002 at age 71, after years of respiratory problems caused by breathing the polyester fibers and chemicals used in her work.

One of her dissertation advisers at NYU was Robert Storr, who insisted students not write about any object they hadn’t seen in person. So Edwards spent two years traipsing through 32 cities in Europe, a young son in tow, examining de Saint Phalle’s works. She received her Ph.D. in January 2014.

Bechtler connection

Karen Stock, an associate professor of fine arts at Winthrop University and occasional lecturer at the Bechtler, suggested that Boyer get in touch with Edwards when the museum was pulling together its 2011 exhibition on de Saint Phalle.

Stock and Edwards had gone to college together in New York and she had heard Edwards give a talk on de Saint Phalle. Boyer was impressed with Edwards’ command of the artist’s work and life.

Stock says Edwards has an unusually wide knowledge of different disciplines – art, music, film and pop culture.

“She is down-to-earth, and that’s not something you find a whole lot in academia or the art world,” says Stock. “Jen is personable, easy to talk to. She brings a wonderful knowledge and accessibility to that knowledge.”

Arrives with a plan

Though weeks away from formally starting work, Edwards has already sketched out a five-year plan for exhibitions.

Two shows are in the works: On the California-born abstract expressionist Sam Francis (1923-1994), opening Aug. 14; and a retrospective of the works in the Bechtler’s permanent collection.

She hopes to do a show on Portuguese-French abstractionist artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) that would include works that haven’t been on view from the Bechtler’s collection.

Edwards wants to do scholarly catalogs from exhibitions and is considering ways to make the lobby more of space to bring the collection toward the street.

Right skills for the job

Boyer, the Bechtler president, says Edwards was an impressive candidate.

“What we needed,” he says, “was someone who understands the aesthetic period and the culture that informed it.”

Edwards is an expert on European modern art and de Saint Phalle, Boyer says, and has language skills to advance deep research. “Because of her European research, she has connections to institutions that matter to us. She’s a dynamo. She gets things done.”

As curator, Boyer says, Edwards will be brokering deals internationally to get museums to loan important works to the Bechtler. She will allow the museum to develop scholarly publications and raise the Bechtler’s professional profile.

She arrives at a time when the museum needs to develop new momentum. Though it has been in the black every year since it opened, the museum has rigorously controlled costs to remain profitable.

Bechtler advancing

With an annual budget of $2.5 million and a staff of only 11 full-timers, the Bechtler draws about 50,000 visitors a year. It is the only major modern art museum in the Southeast, founded upon the collection donated by Charlotte businessman Andreas Bechtler, whose Swiss family spent years collecting.

Boyer points to the museum’s accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums only four years after opening as validation of success.

Hiring Edwards, he says, is another sign of advancement.

“Everyone said she’s a joy to work with, and in a small shop like ours that’s so important,” Boyer says. “A small shop that’s so collaborative. It takes a village to do what we do here.”

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Jennifer Edwards

Job: New curator, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.

Age: 44.

Family: Husband, Gavin Edwards, who writes for Rolling Stone. Two sons, 6 and 9. Also, a rescue chinchilla named Pilot and a Westfield terrier named Mojo.

Education: B.A., New York University, 1992; M.A., Hunter College/CUNY, 2004; Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, 2014.

Foreign languages: French; reads German and Italian.

Why move to Charlotte from L.A.? “I want to raise my kids in a nice place and have a job that is challenging and dynamic. I don’t want to deal with the commute. I want 15 minutes work to door.”