Curating A Show, Flexible Art, And Who’s Next

My friend Mike Smith owns At Home Gallery (2802 Shady Lawn Drive Greensboro, North Carolina 27408, 336.908.2915). It’s a very highly-respected gallery of visionary/self-taught/folk art, and the gallery space is all in his home.

On those walls are pieces by Richard Burnside, Minnie Evans, Howard Finster, James Harold Jennings, Royal Robertson, Bernice Sims, Mary T. Smith, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose T, and more. Many more.

This fall, he curated an exhibit called ‘American Vision’ at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History, & Science.

I’ve been meaning to ask him what goes into curating and what he thinks of certain things so we decided to do it q&a form and have it here on DFK…(and all the pics in this post appear here copyright of Mike Smith, used with his permission).

(Me:) I saw in the introduction to the ‘American Vision’ museum exhibit catalog that Marty Imbler, whose – along with his wife, that is – collection is the subject of the exhibit, named you as the person who introduced him to 20th century American folk art. He noted that you displayed the art in your home ” ‘en masse’ – grouped together on every single wall and table-top.” Your gallery is named the ‘At Home Gallery’ after all!

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) The Imblers are that rare mix of best friends and customers that I have had the joy of introducing the field to over the last 15- 20 years. My enthusiasm coupled with their obsession with collecting wonderful things was a marriage made in heaven. Frankly, as a neophyte collector and dealer when we first met Marty & Lisa and I learned much together exploring the field and working with tons of artists. As far as my “At Home Folk Art Gallery”, doesn’t every Folk Art collector display their collections like kudzu in a field? I remember the last time I visited the Hirsch horn Museum and found myself looking at all the blank area in between the art work and thinking, “God, I wish I had all that wall space left at home.”

Ultimately I really don’t know whether this characteristic has something to do with the way the art looks all together or if they should be doing a “hoarders” intervention on collectors.

(Me:) There is so much I don’t know about curating a show. How do you pick the pieces? Is it “this is what I think most people off the street would find most appealing” or more “these pieces are most interesting to me as a person who has studied this art for years”?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) The selection process was easy because Marty & Lisa have such a great collection that it was more a matter of what we left out than what we wanted in. The Imbler’s have a fantastic cross section of self taught art that covered many of the best known artists in the field coupled with a few surprises that may not be familiar to all the savvy collectors of the field. Also, I think the nature of the material, themes, medium and eclectic nature of the field as a whole can’t help but be entertaining to the average museum patron & the intense aficionado as well.

(Me:) Is there a rhyme and reason to what order you decide to display the art?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) There was an attempt to categorize the collection in a broad sense – art brut, traditional folk, prison self taught, but in the end it was showcased in one space that seemed to connect the many elements very nicely. This was largely due to the people who did the real work in installing the show and making the final decisions. (Mary Bower, John Streetman)

(Me:) I think the photograph in the catalog of Linvel and Lillian Barker’s carved wood pig (he carved, she sanded) shows just how flexible ‘outsider’ art can be. Can’t you just see someone with the DWR catalog or some other modern furnishings shop thinking about how streamlined and stark and crazy-beautiful the Barkers’ work is and labeling it anything other than ‘outsider’ art?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) Funny you should mention Linvel Barker’s work. That pig was the star of the show at the opening. The director of the museum, John Streetman, was comparing the piece to a New York fine artist carver whose works sold upwards to $150,000. Barker’s work has increased in value in a big way over the years but I can remember buying pieces from other dealers for $300 and less. It minimalist clean beauty illustrates elegance maybe not always
associated with folk art or outsider art.

(Me:) It has to strike anyone the sheer quantity of Southern outsider artists, and there are some *huge* Southern names in the exhibit: Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Clementine Hunter, Mose T, Thornton Dial. But I noticed you included several northerners. For instance, Malcah Zeldis. She was born in the Bronx, lived in Israel and Detroit too. Do you think that…how to put this…there’s a certain element to being Southern and living in our environment that is conducive to expressing oneself this way, or do you think that there are probably just as many northern folk artists, they just haven’t been discovered and appreciated for whatever reason?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) In many collections there does seem to be a slant towards the southern artists – someone once told me that maybe the south is more open to the eccentricities and the “southern outsider” was tolerated more sympathetically or just ignored. I don’t know about that but the Imbler’s show was titled “American Visions” and that includes all of America!

Malacah Zeldis resonated with the largely German/American community in Evansville because of her glorious talent and subject matter of the selected work. The Illinois – Indiana region is Lincoln country and the Zeldis painting depicting Lincoln on his deathbed. Ironically, the Evansville Museum includes many Lincoln artifacts including furniture and his writings. I believe there are wonderful artists in every niche in this country – it is just a matter of discovery and recognition.

(Me:) You wrote in the exhibit catalog that you left for a summer vacation two decades ago to “seek collect, and photograph this unrecognized world of self-taught art and artists…I met ministers and madmen, soft-spoken shy artisans, P.T. Barnum hucksters, soft breezes and hurricanes. I experienced a dazzling world of art hidden in the shadows of side streets in New Orleans, sleepy towns in Alabama, and hard core ghettos of Atlanta.” When you came back home from all that, I guess that was the impetus to start your gallery? Was it a case of “I can’t keep this to myself”?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) Oh yes, that was the trip that turned me around. I was working for a rep agency and traveling to sell house wares to chain stores. Guess what, I don’t play golf so I was at a big disadvantage and miserable so the dream of combining what I did for a living with something I really cared about finally dawned on me. It is a tough business but the experiences and exposure have taken me places I would have never had the opportunity to go otherwise. The influence on my kids’ lives alone has been worth it all.

(Me:) You’re credited with telling the world about James Harold Jennings. You’re going to do a book about him?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) Ironically Tom Patterson is credited with telling a writer that I brought James Harold Jennings to the world. That is more than an overstatement – Tom Patterson, George Jacobs and many more discovered that amazing man long before I hit the scene. I do hope to do a book of sorts featuring the extensive bank of photos I took over the years with my reminiscences. Everybody hold your breath.

(Me:) What artists are you most excited about right now? Who have we not heard of that will be huge ten years from now?

(Mike, At Home Gallery:) Gosh, my tastes have swerved in many different directions, all while trying to avoid all of the artists that are grave robbing the contemporary masters. I currently am excited about self taught underground cartoonists like Jeff Zenick and Jerry Smith. Mainly artists that aren’t trying to be the next Jimmy Lee Sudduth or Clementine Hunter. Whether or not they will be “huge” someday, I just don’t have that crystal ball.

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