Curator of Art: My New Role at the Barry Art Museum

As I mentioned in my annual New Year’s post, I’ve got signifcant changes happening in my life this year. Among the most exciting developments is that I’m returning to museum work full-time as the inaugural Curator of Art at the Barry Art Museum, a role I officially started on January 10th. Today, let’s take a look at my new position.

One of the photos taken for the staff portrait used on the museum website. The painting I’m standing is front of is by Anne Neely. Image: a smiling white woman in front of an abstract green painting. Photo by Chuck Thomas.

About the Barry Art Museum

The Barry Art Museum was founded by Carolyn and Richard Barry, two Norfolk-based art collectors and philanthropists. Their collection spans a variety of media, but concentrates primarily on modern and contemporary glass, painting, and dolls. The collection is intimately linked with the lives and interests of the Barrys. They often acquire works to encourage visual conversations across different media, particularly between paintings and glassworks. Initially, their own home was to be the site of the museum, but they turned to Old Dominion University after encountering zoning issues. Today, they remain a vital part of the museum, and everyone on staff regularly interacts with them.

As far as museums go, the Barry Art Museum is a young institution. It opened to the public in late 2018. In December 2023, it celebrated its fifth anniversary.

An Established Partnership

As longtime readers of this blog know, I’m no stranger to the Barry Art Museum. In 2020, I began working with the museum on a part-time, contractual basis. Initially, I had been brought in to lead the curatorial team for the exhibition Motion/Emotion, which recontextualized the museum’s automata collection. Throughout that project, the staff and I developed a good rapport, so I agreed to stay on to work on other shows.

Motion/Emotion, the first exhibition I worked on for the Barry Art Museum, would lead to other projects. Image: a museum exhibition entrance with historical automata on display.

The arrangement worked out well for me. One of my biggest concerns with undertaking a Ph.D. was that I’d be absent from the museum field for a few years, but the Barry kept me engaged directly in curatorial work. The part-time schedule, in turn, enabled me to focus on my dissertation while maintaining side projects to help keep me from getting burned out on my primary research.

From Contractor to Full-Time Staff Member

Despite my established relationship with the Barry Art Museum, becoming its first full-time curator was not an inevitability. I knew that the museum’s long-term goal was to add a full-time position, but I didn’t know when exactly that role would open up. I also understood that the museum would ultimately hire whoever was the best fit for its needs, regardless of my familiarity with it.

Still, when the museum advertised the full-time position in the fall of 2023, I knew I’d apply. Although I was still several months out from finishing my dissertation, applying to the full-time role felt like a natural progression of my relationship with the Barry staff. Over the past three years, I’d started to learn the collection, particularly the dolls, and I had a sense of the museum’s long-term plans.

As I worked on job applications throughout the fall then, I included the Barry Art Museum in my materials. After I applied, I went through the multi-stage interview process. And at the end of it all, the museum decided to go with me.

The Barry Art Museum: Something Old, Something New

In some ways, the Barry Art Museum reminds me of other museums where I’ve worked. Visually, its white, contemporary interior most resembles the Dallas Museum of Art. Collection-wise, the dolls in particular remind me of Shelburne, while the glass and painting recall Dallas. The intimate size of the staff reminds me most of Roswell, with everyone working together to pull off events, educational programs, and more.

Over the next couple of years, this museum will significantly expand its size. Image: a contemporary museum with a brick exterior and lots of windows.

Yet the Barry is also very different from every other museum I’ve worked at so far. For starters, it’s located on a university campus. One of my main roles will be engaging students and faculty across different disciplines in the collection. It’s also a young institution. Most of the museums I’ve worked at have been at least seventy years old, places with established institutional identities. The Barry, however, is still defining its image, and it has a nimble quality I really appreciate. It’s also an institution on the cusp of massive growth, with a major expansion set to begin in late 2024.

Opportunities For Me

What especially excites me about joining the Barry Art Museum are the opportunities I have to try new things. In all my previous positions, I’ve inherited the curator role from someone else. As a result, the work I did was always compared to my predecessors, favorably or otherwise. Here, I get to define the role and set the initial precedents.

I’m also coming to a museum in a state of collections growth. All the previous museums I’d worked at featured well-established collections. I certainly acquired new material, but it was usually limited to donations, and even then, that remained contingent on space. While the Barry Art Museum also has a core collection, one of the long-term goals is to expand and diversify those holdings. Indeed, one of my first tasks is to develop a collections committee and decide in which directions to take our acquisitions.

Ending One Journey, Starting Another

But arguably what excites me the most is the opportunity to synthesize my academic and curatorial practices. To be clear, my doctoral research has little to do with dolls, paintings, or glass. My interest in institutional practices, however, relates to my museum work. For the past several years, I’ve researched museum histories. I’ve thought about how their operations influence their understanding of access. The Barry Art Museum is still actively defining its practices and institutional identity. As such, it feels like a good place to take some of my abstract thoughts and implement them more concretely.

While historical outreach exhibitions don’t relate directly to my work at the Barry Art Museum, thinking about museum operations and their influence on access most certainly does. Image: an open laptop and journal on a modern wooden desk.

I’m also looking forward to the chance to work with students. Throughout my assistantships, I’ve engaged students in different capacities, from reviewing resumes at the Career Center, to teaching. As much as I like teaching though, I’m not ready to give up museum work. By working at a university museum, I get to remain involved in both spheres. As I wrap up my dissertation, transitioning to the Barry enables me to continue pursuing my scholarly and professional interests.

In addition to professional opportunities, my role as Curator of Art also brings major personal changes for Brandon and myself. I’ll share those at a future time, but for now, I’ll just say we’re both excited for this next chapter.

Coming Features

James E. Buttersworth, American Frigate in a Hurricane, ca. 1855, gift of Carolyn K. and Richard F. Barry III, photo by Pat Cagney. This painting is one of the historical works that will appear in our upcoming exhibition. Image: an oil painting of a wooden ship in a storm.

So what’s coming at the Barry Art Museum? I have a lot of projects I’ll be addressing in future posts, but the most immediate one is an exhibition of maritime art. Titled Message in a Bottle, this show considers the rich maritime culture of the Hampton Roads region through a call and response between past and present. Selections from the Barry Art Museum’s permanent collection of 19th-century maritime art will appear alongside works from local museums as well as conceptual pieces from contemporary artists. The exhibition opens on April 12th, so if you’re in town, be sure to check it out!

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