Responding To the Art World: Thomas Piche as the
Curator at the Everson Museum of Art

By Hall Groat II

Hall Groat II:

How is Tom Piche different from other curators throughout the United States?

Tom Piche:

First, the experiences I’ve had in education and the kind of art I’ve seen and have taken an interest in. The other factor would be the collections I have worked with, and the area of the country I’ve lived in. Having worked at the Everson for the past fifteen years has certainly shaped a certain vision of art. And before that, working at Syracuse University, which is a much broader collection. I think having been at the Everson Museum and working with American Art and with a very strong collection of ceramics has shaped what I’m about.

"The Eastman Johnson painting of corn huskers is the most significant piece in the collection."

HGII: When did you first realize you had an interest in art and art history?

TP: In high school I always liked to draw. So I took art class through high school. When I got to college I took an art history class the second semester of my freshman year and immediately decided to become an art history major. So I have been pretty much single-mindedly involved with art since 1972. I also have a minor in studio.

HGII: You studied art in high school and college –did you ever think about practicing art full-time back then?

TP: No, I liked art as a hobby, and it never occurred to me to pursue it.

HGII: There are a lot of people who really do not understand what a museum curator is. Could you talk about your responsibilities as Senior Curator at the Everson?

TP: The meanings of curator changes, depending on what institution you’re in. If you’re in a very large institution it is most likely that the curator will concentrate on one subject that that person is an expert in.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, there is someone who deals with Egyptian, and then someone who deals with African and Oceanic. They stick to that one field. But at a museum like the Everson where the curatorial staff is quit small, I am responsible for all the collections. Some museums, even the size of the Everson would have a curator of collections and a curator of exhibitions. But here I function as both. My job entails organizing the exhibition schedule for each year. That could involve finding traveling exhibitions to bring to the museum as well as originating exhibitions from the permanent collection.

HGII: I think there is a misunderstanding between what a museum constitutes versus a large art gallery.

For example, there is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and the Everson Museum in Syracuse. What makes a museum different from a gallery?

TP: I think it just has to do with when these institutions were founded. I think the Albright-Knox was founded in the early 20th century, and we were founded right at the turn of the century.

HGII: What about the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute?

TP: There are at least three structures under the word institution. There are the performing arts, the art school, and the museum.

TP: Typically the thing that separates art institutions is whether they are collecting or not. For instance, a lot of contemporary art museums are not collecting. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City is not a collecting institution. The Contemporary Art Museum in Houston does not collect. So they are purely exhibition facilities.

HGII: What type of experience did you have in the field before beginning your position at the Everson?

TP: I’ve had an unusual museum experience --although, maybe there’s no typical one. I received my Masters Degree in Museum Studies from Syracuse University, and my first job was in the Syracuse University art collection, where I was an assistant curator. After four years there I took a job at the Everson as Public Information Officer, which involved working with publications, and in public relations. It was a different way of interacting with art. After doing that for a number of years I became curator.

HGII: Do you feel working as Public Information Officer at the Everson first has added to your strengths?

TP: Sometimes curators don’t interact with the public as much as they need to. They are used to being academics. Having worked in public relations first, I have become more aware of how the museum needs to be perceived by the public. I feel as a curator this has helped me sell the museum, and has made me aware of the types of things the public wants from the museum.

HGII: If you had a wish list for any single work or series of works of art to acquire for the Everson what would you choose?

TP: It is a big list.

HGII: Your favorites!

TP: The museum started collecting in a very serious way in about 1910. They had a director than by the name of Fernando Carter who was also an artist from Boston. He knew a lot about the contemporary art scene, and started a group called The Friends of Contemporary Art. They put together money and bought work from living American artists from 1910-1930. It was quite unusual then, most people considered American art very provincial in those days; most museums weren’t collecting American art. This is something they did with a great degree of insight and good taste. They put together works of art from that time period: American Impressionism, American Tonalism, and the Ashcan school (Group of Eight). These are some things the museum collected in a very serious way at that time period. Various directors have refined the collection

over the years that have wanted to see it go in other ways. So some of the works from that time period are not here anymore. I think that’s a shame because that shows the history of the museum, and the history of Syracuse, and the intellectual taste from a particular time period. At one time we had all the Eight in the collection, and we had most of the American Impressionists. There are big holes in those areas, and I would love to have them fully represented. In the 19th century we need a first rate example of a Hudson River School painting. In terms of American painting, the collection goes from the 1740’s to the present day, but not in a comprehensive way, and with no great depth. There are individual good works, but they don’t tell an in depth story. In terms of contemporary art, we would love a good Alexander Calder mobile. What is available at the O’Hara Gallery in New York is a really good-sized Calder for the sculpture court, but it is four million dollars.

HGII: What would you consider to be the most significant piece in the collection at the Everson?

TP: I think that it is widely agreed upon that the Eastman Johnson painting of corn huskers is the most significant piece in the collection. In the ceramic sphere, the American collection as a whole is considered to be significant. It is a very deep collection with a strong history. There is our singular holding of the work of Adelaide Robineau, which is widely acknowledged to be a treasure. We have the largest collection of her work anywhere. She was America’s foremost studio potter, and lived in Syracuse from 1900-29.

HGII: What types of exhibitions tend to be the most popular with the public?

TP: I think our public typically likes representational art. In our hundredth anniversary year, which was in 1997, we had a Charles Burchfield show that was very popular. A national touring organization circulated it, therefore it had a lot of advanced publicity. There was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about it. There was another Burchfield show at the same time, so there was a lot of interest in Burchfield generated at the same time. We had a review in the Wall Street Journal, and people were making the Everson Museum a destination at that point to see the show. People coming through the region on vacation were visiting the museum to see the show. With our own CNY audience it was also very popular. That same fall we had a Dale Chihuly exhibition of his sea forms made of glass, which was also exceptionally popular. He is a national figure who is dealt with on television and in magazines. I think people respond to things they know a lot about in advance.


HGII: Has there ever been discussion about bringing in a major show that would attract people from around the country, such as an Impressionist exhibition?

TP: The museum has a mission. We collect American Art, except in the area of ceramics, which is an international collection. This has been the case with the museum ever since 1910. Since a long range planning conference that the museum had with its board of trustees and community members about five or six years ago we re-emphasized our commitment to American Art. The collections, except in ceramics, are almost exclusively American – painting, sculpture graphics, photography, and video. Even the ceramic collection, which is about five thousand pieces, is comprised of mostly American Art. Typically the exhibition programs and the education programs revolve around the permanent collection. As an educational institution we try to make the collection available to the public through exhibition, publication, and research. Even the shows we bring into the museum typically revolve around aspects of the permanent collection so they are able to explain more fully either gaps in our collection or works that are in the permanent collection. So the Burchfield exhibit for example; the museum had a long involvement with Burchfield. We have a watercolor that was acquired from him in the 1930’s. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was involved with the museum as a juror for shows. It made sense for us to have a Charles Burchfield show.

HGII: What about an Edward Hopper show?

TP: An Edward Hopper show would make sense for us because it is part of American Art History, and it talks about a cultural period in American Art that is certainly represented by other works in our permanent collection.

HGII: I know the Whitney Museum had an Edward Hopper show a few years back.

TP: Yes, we called the Whitney about that show. When you take a show from another institution you pay a participation fee, shipping, handling, and insurance costs. Participation fees run a broad gamut. The Hopper show was two hundred thousand dollars. People talk about blockbusters all the time where you charge admission. The number of people that would have to go through and pay money to help make back the money you would be spending on the show – I’m not sure we have the physical plant that would allow for that kind of undertaking. We are trying to raise money for a show that is about American Art. It is called The World Between the Circus in Twentieth Century American Art. It has works from 1905-1998, and includes people like Maxfield Parish, the Ashcan Artists, the American Regionalists, and Alexander Calder. In the more recent work it has Bruce Nauman, and his clown torture video. It covers a really broad range of media, and includes about ninety artworks. It is all about artists who are in the permanent collection, or artists who would fit in well with other artists from our permanent collection. It is also a subject that seems to be democratically popular. You do not have to have a great knowledge of art to appreciate a show about the circus. It allows us to be very popular and bring people in, and to talk about American Art History. This is a show that is expensive for us, but is one we are seriously trying to fund raise for. It would be in the fall of 2001. This is the type of large-scale undertaking we should be thinking of. It has lots of spin-offs.

We are going to try to work with a local organization to bring the circus to town at the same time the show is here. We would work with the zoo, with school groups, with the library; we would try to have a film series at the Landmark Theatre. We could do something with the new puppet museum. It has the potential to be a real community wide event that’s centered on the museum and on art.

"I think tastes in America have become more sophisticated."

HGII: Could you speak about a few of the new additions that have been made to the Everson such as the Children’s Gallery?

TP: The interactive Children’s Gallery is the brainchild of the Curator of Education, Marianne Wilson. The first station is about portraiture. We have two works from the permanent collection that hang in the Children’s Gallery. There is a Cindy Sherman photograph of her in one of her costume pieces, and there’s a nineteenth century portrait of a well-to-do man. There is a place for children to dress up in costumes, and then sit in front of backdrops that are in front the paintings, and have their pictures taken with a digital camera that allows them to see themselves on the television. We are hoping this will allow children to think about the idea of portraiture. How are portraits put together? What do portraits tell you about people? What do cloths tell you about people? It gets across the whole idea of looking; you are being looked at; you are looking back; who sees you? There are also areas where kids can do self portraits while looking in a mirror. Also, there are magnetic puzzles made out of works in the permanent collection, and there are wooden blocks that you can create architectural structures with, along with two computers for creating graphics on. A classroom is also attached to this area where art classes are held for young children.

HPII: I’ve noticed the Everson has been hosting events such as the Contmporary Film Series, and the First Thursdays After Hours. Are there any other ideas in the workings for attracting visitors to the Everson?

TP: We are trying to have a lot more activities surrounding the First Thursdays. You will be seeing lectures beforehand, and films afterwards, so that there is really a full evening. We are also going to be doing more short informal talks in the galleries either with exhibiting artists, or people connected with the exhibitions. Our Member’s Council has just instituted Lunch and Learn. They just held it on four consecutive Thursdays in October, and invited four artists from the community to come in and either talk about their own work or something in the permanent collection that was of interest to them. So you get a buffet lunch upstairs with a half-hour talk by an artist.

HGII: Since you have been at the Everson have you noticed any changes in the public’s taste in art?

TP: I think tastes in America have become more sophisticated. It seemed to me for a while that people were not willing to be challenged by works of art. There were great exceptions to this such as, Robert Maplethorpe, and now this whole thing in Brooklyn. But I think in Central New York we have not experienced that in quit a while.

HGII: What do you think the art scene will be like in Syracuse in ten to twenty years? Do you see Syracuse ever beginning an art trend?

TP: Even though the art world has decentralized, it is still largely located in New York City.

Since Syracuse is so close to New York City, I think the temptation is for artists to be highly influenced by what happens there.

HGII: Do you think the Everson is supportive to working artists in our community?

TP: I think that we offer more exhibition opportunities to area artists than some of our other institutions in the Central New York area. We all do a biannual or regional show of one sort or another, and that is one way that area artists are able to exhibit. We have a history of showing area artists in small solo shows. At the same time we are not going to show everybody. We want to offer the best that our region has in it.

HGII: How do you know when an artist is really being sincere about their work and not just trying to shock?

TP: I’m always having an internal dialogue in myself with what’s going on in a particular work. What’s also helpful is to do studio visits with artists and talk to them about their work. You can determine fairly quickly during a studio visit what type of involvement an artist has with their work, where they are heading, and what they are thinking.

HGII: What artists are most influential?

TP: I think that it is a whole group of things. There are curators, artists in institutions,

Galleries, and art press, that work together to present a certain "face."

HGII: How do you think the public is responding to new mediums such as video and computer art?

TP: Video art takes a certain commitment from people. You have to spend time with it, unless it is very grabbing. I was at the Venice Biennial last summer, and some of the best works were video projections, which did not make huge demands on your time, and the work had a narrative flow that you could enter into very easily. I think these are some key elements in having video reach a wide audience.

HGII: Do you feel that there are social issues that need to be explored through new technology?

TP: We have an exhibit up of digital imagery by Frank Gillette. He was known during the 1970’s through the 1980’s as a video artist, and then began working with computer imagery during the 1990’s. He feels that it is the duty of the artist to engage with the technology of their time, and to drag it into the aesthetic domain.