Hail to the Chief

PROFILE-March 2009

by Debra Spark
Photography Irvin Serrano

The Farnsworth’s curator balances diverse passions

Birthdays can be daunting, and birthday celebrations can be more so, leaving a “What now?” feeling in their aftermath. Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum turned 60 last year, and the occasion—along with the arrival of Michael Komanecky, the new chief curator—provided a chance to reflect on the museum’s history and put some of the 13,000 pieces in its permanent collection on display. “Over the years,” says Komanecky, “space had been devoted to special exhibitions and less for showing our own collection.” And so the Farnsworth mounted a number of simultaneous shows, one featuring the Farnsworth’s folk art, another its photography, still others late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings, contemporary art, and work by Louise Nevelson, Alex Katz, and the Wyeth family. Now, a year later, the museum has experienced a small shake-up. The board is searching for a replacement for the most recent director—Lora Urbanelli, who moved on to a position in New Jersey—and Komanecky has added interim director duties to his list of responsibilities. “We were very sorry to see Lora go,” says Richard Aroneau, president of the Farnsworth’s board of trustees, “but there was no crisis because one of the things that Lora brought to the Museum was an extraordinary senior staff, and Michael was part of that.”

Farnsworth3_wUnder Komanecky’s guidance, the Farnsworth has remained true to its mission. As Komanecky explains, “We celebrate Maine’s role in the history of American art, which we take in broadest possible terms because so many important American artists have been in Maine or worked in Maine, and others were born here and didn’t work here, and they are also part of the story.”

The birthday exhibitions gave Komanecky a chance, as he says, to assess the institution’s holdings: “Nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting is our biggest strength, but within that we have areas that are stronger or weaker. We have five paintings by George Bellows and two by Marsden Hartley. Should we do something about that, and can we, especially since the work is so highly valued? Georgia O’Keeffe painted in Maine, and we would love to have a piece done during her time here.” As for post-birthday exhibitions, there is nothing ho-hum here, what with the museum capitalizing on existing strengths—namely its commitment to artists living and working in Maine—while mounting interesting new exhibits. The three upcoming Maine shows:

Four in Maine
In separate one-person shows, Four in Maine will look at four mid-career Maine artists, each of whom works in a different medium. The show will include Sam Van Aken’s interactive installations, Chris Pinchbeck’s pinhole-camera photography, Susan Groce’s wall-sized drawings, and Brian White’s pieces, which the Museum describes as “part sculpture, part clothing, and part assemblage.” (March 7–May 24, 2009)

Jamie Wyeth’s Seven Deadly Sins
The seven deadly sins, Komanecky notes, have often been the subject of great art and literature—think Dante, Bosch, and Chaucer—as well as the preoccupation of early Christian theologians. “It’s intriguing to think about why an artist in 2008 would choose to address this theme,” Komanecky says. (May 16–August 30, 2009)

Robert Indiana and the Star of HopeFarnsworth2_w
The season’s major exhibition, Robert Indiana and the Star of Hope, will focus on the latter part of the artist’s career. “Many don’t realize [Robert Indiana] has lived in Vinalhaven since 1978,” says Komanecky. “He just turned 80, and he’s got exciting, vibrant, powerful new work.” (June 20–November 25, 2009)

A route, arguably both circuitous and direct, brought Komanecky to Rockland. Initially, he was attracted to the Farnsworth itself—the museum struck him as a “gem”—but Rockland eventually charmed him, as well. He had visited the town fifteen years ago, but when he returned “the place had come alive.” Even now, he loves that his four-block walk to work takes him past a harbor and down a street lined with bookstores and coffee shops, a bustling little community to which the Farnsworth campus—the museum with its store, the Wyeth Center, and the Farnsworth homestead—has significantly contributed.

Komanecky comes to the Farnsworth after holding a variety of positions elsewhere. He has served in curatorial or directorial capacities for the Currier Gallery of Art, Phoenix Art Museum, and Dayton Art Institute. He has also been a senior fellow at the Smithsonian Art Museum, with stints along the way at the University of Washington and the Yale University Art Gallery. “When I was a grad student at Brown,” he says, “they had an unusual component, so every entering class worked on an exhibition at Rhode Island School of Design. So early on I was exposed to the world of museums. Then my experience as an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art made me want to commit myself.”Farnsworth_w

And he has. In addition to his leadership role at the Farnsworth, Komanecky has been writing books on topics as varied as 1575–1775 paintings on copper to folding screens by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western artists. He also authored the handbook for The Currier Gallery of Art’s collection. All this might not seem to indicate a governing personal passion, but Komanecky is a man with diverse enthusiasms. “I get interested in certain projects and whether I’m the best expert in the world is not an issue,” he says. “If I’m excited and motivated by the material, I go ahead. I’ve been blessed with the ability to work on the kind of projects that both interest me and are important for the institutions where I work.”

For more information, see Resources on page 88.

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