Graduate assistant Meggin Hicklin takes the reigns on the blog today to share what it’s like on this side of the curtain as we prepare for the upcoming season of visual arts exhibitions in the Moss Arts Center!

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It’s a busy and exciting time in the Moss Arts Center galleries. The curatorial staff (which includes me; Margo Crutchfield, our curator; and Briana Blanchard, another curatorial assistant) is hard at work coordinating and researching our upcoming exhibitions.

As a graduate assistant, much of this process is still very new to me, and is always fascinating. I thought I’d share some behind-the-scenes insight on how our gallery team works and, ultimately, how a gallery show is born.

Our exhibitions, like all others, start with an idea—a story. To make a very long job description sound deceptively short, this is the role of a curator. Among many other things, a curator is–chiefly–a storyteller. For example, our upcoming show, Evolving Geometries: Line, Form and Colortells a story about geometry in modern art: how artists have used rigid mathematical structures in combination with color, scale, or animation to tell stories of their own–stories about everything from music and African textiles to struggles with racial and cultural identity.

Once our curator defines the “story” and the artists she’d like to feature, we begin researching their lives and work. We look for books, articles, and galleries that have featured the artists, as well as information on interpretations of and influences on their art. The curator chooses specific works of art and we contact galleries and private owners to request loans. Art loans are a major component of our work here. The visual arts spaces in the Moss Arts Center are galleries, not dedicated museum spaces–meaning we do not house a collection of works like other institutions (Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Art and Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art are some nearby institutions with great collections), but rather we borrow art from other parties.

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Exhibiting works on loan is a tremendous responsibility, whether it’s work from a well-known artist or from local school children. Throughout the exhibition, including the time during which work is unpacked, hung, or repacked for shipping, we are the caretakers of irreplaceable objects. While the center is insured, the ethical and–at times–emotional pressure to protect such beautiful things weighs heavily on the staff. But with this pressure also comes great joy. I tell friends that working in a gallery is like having Christmas or a birthday over and over, all year long.  The work arrives and we “unwrap” it, oohing and ahhhing over each piece. We then work tirelessly for days to paint and prepare the gallery spaces, arrange and hang the work, and then meticulously clean and fine-tune until the final exhibition looks pristine and effortless. I can tell you from firsthand experience—a lot of work goes into these shows.

Nothing compares to the moment a show opens to the public. While we’ve worked on it for months in advance and stared at it for days as we straightened paintings, patched holes and hung labels, there is something very special about sharing it with our visitors. People begin to see the story told by each artist as interpreted by our curator, then further interpreted by the exhibition design, including paint colors, lighting, and arrangement, and finally (and most importantly), visitors help create a new story with their own interpretations and reactions to the work. Amazing.

Then, much like Christmas or a party, the time comes to pack everything away. It is always bittersweet, saying goodbye to beautiful things, but as the walls once again become bare and white, you become anxious for the next show. Strangely enough, an empty gallery can be almost as inspiring as a full one—it is a magical space. I think of the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter novels–an enchanted space that, with thought and focus, will become what it wants and needs to be. It’s remarkable what our galleries can do.

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As we prepare for Evolving Geometries: Line, Form and Color (which opens Sept. 25 and, as of today, includes booking travel arrangements for visiting artists and designing our gallery brochure), we hope you’ll visit us for Collegiate Legacy: Emeritus Faculty Exhibition, presented by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) to celebrate their 50th anniversary, on view from August 21 through September 14.

Want to know more about how we create our visual arts exhibitions? Follow the Center for the Arts on Twitter (@artscenteratvt) for information on #AskaCurator Day, September 17.