Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

The Faces of the Academy Art Museum

Mar 17, 2014 01:16PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By BETH RUBIN // Photography by TONY LEWIS, JR.

A five-minute stroll from Easton’s central shopping district, the Academy Art Museum is a cultural beacon in a town with a population of less than 16,000. And the museum’s light beams well beyond the town—to shine on Talbot County, the entire Eastern Shore, and points farther afield. While the majority of museum visitors hail from the Eastern Shore, a growing number travel from the western shore, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. Owing to a strong and committed board, a multitalented and forward-thinking staff, and a supportive local arts community, the museum continues to gain accolades.

“We are not just a museum,” says art historian Erik H. Neil, who took over as director in 2010. “We have lectures, classes, trips, the Waterfowl Festival, an annual Members Exhibition and, for the first time, a Faculty Exhibition.” In addition to the wide selection of art classes, the dance classes are very popular, Neil says. “Students come in at all hours.”

A transplant to the Eastern Shore by way of New Orleans and Huntington, New York, Neil says he and his family feel right at home. They are enjoying the “good quality of life” that Talbot County affords. And he also likes the proximity to New York, his old stamping grounds and the hub of the international art world. “I’m close enough to go to New York City for the day,” which he did last November, heading north for the IFPDA (International Fine Print Dealers Association) Print Fair. Since he’s been at the helm, Neil has been part of two major changes at the Academy Art Museum: “We’ve dramatically expanded our ArtReach program to five counties on the Eastern Shore, and we’ve upped the quality of exhibitions.”

Under Neil’s tutelage, the museum presented paintings by one of the 20th century’s top artists, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Another coup was landing New Yorker Pat Stier, a former book illustrator and designer best known for her monochromatic paintings, “which hang in the most prestigious art museums.” Even more impressive, Neil says, was exhibiting internationally acclaimed light and space artist James Turrell, who owns a home on the Eastern Shore, which he and his wife, artist Kyung-Lim Turrell, visit often. A MacArthur Fellow with an international following, Turrell has shown at the Guggenheim, Whitney, and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Not bad company for a museum in a town with fewer than 16,000. With Turrell, Neil says, “we showed the new work of a very important artist. As an art historian, I’m impressed.”

Trustee Dick Bodorff (chairman from September 2011 to 2013, before handing the gavel to Kay Perkins), divides his time between Washington, D.C., where he’s a communications attorney, and his Easton home. Not one to mince words, he says the museum is “the fine arts and education center of the Eastern Shore. It is a cultural gem for a community of its size and a center for high-quality exhibitions and educational opportunities.” With an interest in photography, Bodorff is particularly excited about the new digital media lab, “modeled after the one at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art),” which opened earlier this year.

In its former lives, the building at 106 South Street was home for more than 100 years to a series of schools beginning with Easton’s first charter school in 1820. The site also was a funeral home and an antiques emporium before six locals came together in 1958 to create The Academy of the Arts (the museum’s former name) as a place “dedicated to the knowledge, practice and appreciation of the arts.” After two years in a church, the museum moved to its present home. Strong community support (and cramped quarters) led to the purchase of the Thomas-Hardcastle house next door. Offices and classrooms were added in a new two-story glass atrium and, over the years, further renovations have made way for more galleries, an auditorium, a dance studio, a library, and a music studio.

That the museum is in a good place financially, Neil says, reflects “sound long-term management by the board and it directors. And it takes discipline. Not every non-profit is operating that way.” The museum is mostly funded by individuals, with additional monies from the Maryland State Arts Council, membership, classes, and an annual appeal. “We’re diversified,” Neil says, “but individual giving is our most important asset.” He pauses. “The largest asset of the museum is our members. Our bread and butter are the people from our community.”

Curator Anke Van Wagenberg has done curatorial work throughout her professional life and also taught college-level art history. Prior to coming onboard more than three years ago, she had been curator at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore; Salisbury University; and Washington College, after positions with the Walters Gallery and the National Gallery of Art.

“I whip up 21 exhibitions a year, large and small,” Van Wagenberg says. Most exhibitions are up for two and a half months. When considering the subject for a show, she says, “we look for originality and variety. We don’t want to do five photography exhibitions in a row. And we don’t want to compete with local galleries.” Van Wagenberg says she pays “a huge amount” of attention to the local population. “We are a member organization. You can dream big but the price has to be right.”

“We are also an educational institution—and not just in the classroom. We want to show new and different things,” Van Wagenberg says. That sometimes means partnering with other museums, like the National Gallery of Art for the Mark Rothko show in 2012. “Several works had never been shown publicly,” she says. Another high-end show was Pat Steir, whom Van Wagenberg calls “a great, internationally known artist not well known in Easton, who does very abstract work.” The James Turrell show last summer was another milestone. He is one of the top 10 living U.S. artists, she notes. “We are bringing new work to people.” But preferential treatment for big names does not enter the picture. The museum’s first faculty show (October 2013 through January 2014) is “as important as a big fancy exhibition,” she says.

Constance Del Nero, director of ArtReach and community programs, is a classically trained artist with an impressive body of works in several media. “Every ArtReach event or field trip is based on something we have on display in the museum,” she says. For a project last fall, students visited the historic Wye House to complement the museum’s exhibit of excavated items culled from an eight-year dig of the historic property outside Easton. “People were pack rats,” Del Nero says. “They left written records, pottery fragments, coins, buckles...” She arranged a fake archeological dig for the children where “brown pom-poms simulated dirt. The students had a chance to find things in the dirt, then filled out questionnaires, and measured and described what they’d found.”

Some exhibitions present more of a challenge. For Eva Lundsager’s paintings ”Her sense of color is phenomenal. Her work is abstract yet her paintings feel like landscapes.” Del Nero says the students toured the gallery then “created their own version of abstract that looks like a landscape.” But not every exhibit lends itself to “an appropriate studio project.” Korean sculptor Chul Huyn Ahn (“Charlie”), uses light, color, and illusion, “materials that are too complex to offer as a hands-on project,” Del Nero says. “But, knowing youngsters’ affinity for three-dimensional art, they love looking at it.”

A second outreach program, Art To Go, transports art to “populations that can’t come to the museum,” such as Alzheimers patients and developmentally disabled adults. For this segment, “we do mostly hands-on projects,” Del Nero says. She also teaches home-schooled kids in classes and designs summer camps for children in preschool through high school. “We want to increase teen involvement,” she says, acknowledging, “It is not easy population to work with.” Adults are more compliant. Who wouldn’t enjoy a field trip―to The Phillips Collection in D.C., New York City museums, or Philadelphia Art Show (transportation, admission and driver tip included!) “It’s a chance to explore your creativity and have fun.”

Katie Cassidy, an artist (her pastel of a man fly-fishing and a still life of roses were included in the 2013 Faculty Exhibition) and teacher, coordinates the adult class curriculum which includes drawing, pastels, oil painting, watercolor, palette-knife painting, book illustration, printmaking, pottery, and stained glass. In Open Studios, students explore portrait painting, live-model drawing, and collage without an instructor.

About eight years ago, Cassidy sold her house and left her job with a high-powered graphic design firm in D.C. because she felt herself moving further away from “the world of art.” Not knowing a soul beside her parents, she moved to Easton and began teaching art classes. Erik Neil encouraged her to put together a curriculum and hire teachers. Now the museum offers more than 20 adult classes, most of which run for six weeks. Next summer, two nationally known artists will give workshops. “We are getting more depth in our offerings,” she says. “People will travel for a class. We have students from Chestertown, Salisbury and beyond. We need to think of this museum as a regional art center.”

And like so many others around her—both novice and experienced art students alike, young children gaining invaluable cultural exposure, acclaimed artists, and passionate volunteers of all ages—Cassidy has found a home at the Academy Art Museum.