Currier celebrates 75 years of art through the eyes of students

MANCHESTER – Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art is celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout the month of February, with special exhibitions and programming that feature Art Center students and faculty from past and present.

Few cultural institutions can boast a lifespan that encompasses more than four generations. Art Center alumni include nationally known artists, such as sculptor and furniture-maker Jon Brooks and painters Katherine Paras and George Woodman. Past Art Center instructors include former New Hampshire Artist Laureate and ceramicist Gerry Williams, enamellist Joseph Trippetti, and painter Robert Eshoo.

Currier Museum Art Center Director Bruce McColl said they museum had a vision in mind when beginnig the task of celebrating the 75 years of the Currier.

“A year ago, we were looking at a window of time within the museum’s exhibition schedule that was five weeks to seven weeks between major exhibitions that were being brought on-site from outside the museum,” he said. “As the Art Center director, I was well aware that 2014 was the 75th anniversary of the museum, so for me, it was a no-brainer.”

McColl brought up the subject at an exhibition meeting, with the idea of doing a broad view of 75 years at the museum.

“Seventy-five years is a great anniversary,” he said. “The Currier Art Center is pretty unique in northern New England, both in its mission, and that is to provide outstanding educational opportunities in a museum context but even more than that, because the Currier has such an outstanding collection.

“We have essentially four generations of students inspired by the work that’s in the museum collection,” McColl added. “To have them both see the work in the collections and then go back to the studios and work from that inspiration is truly a unique situation for our students.

“So with our 75th, not only is it a milestone for the Currier, but in fact a milestone for commuity visual arts education nationally. There are very few schools like ours that have the reach, to have the impact that this school has made in this amount of time.”

Putting on his director’s cap, McColl began creating an exhibition that encapsulated the ideal set of components for the Arts Center.

“There are many visual arts community schools nationally, but few have the collection aspect,” he said. “So I put together a list of seven decades and chose two to three key art works from the museum collection starting from 1929-2013. … So in essence, what you’re seeing when you walk into the gallery, is student work made today that’s inspired by eight decades of collecting from the museum. If I were a 60-year-old visitor to the museum and had taken classes at the Art Center in the 1940s, my hope was that I would see a student art work on the wall or on a pedestal that reminded me of what I worked from 60 years ago.”

McColl said the teachers not only were able to teach their students about a certain Picasso or other work of art, but the class was able to view and experience the piece of art.

They “spent a good half hour looking at the Picasso, and having an experience in front of the Picasso, to talk about it, to talk about how it was made, to talk about the principals in the work and the elements, and then they would come back to the studios and they would do their work,” he said. “That’s the first layer of the exhibition.”

The second layer is the history. In 1939, Maud Briggs Knowlton, Currier Gallery of Art director, established the Children’s Annex studio program.

As a painter and educator, Knowlton believed that in-studio experiences enhance art appreciation. The studio program was housed in the Kennard House, a two-story residence situated directly north of the Currier Museum.

The Kennard House, which was moved to the intersection of Beech Street and Orange Street in 2005, was home to Art Center programs from 1939 to 1996.

“We found a manuscript from 1937, that was the first example of her idea for the Children’s Annex or the Children’s School, which later became the Arts Center,” McColl said.

In spring 1958, artist and educator Robert Eshoo became director of the Currier Art Center, a position he held for more than 30 years. Eshoo emphasized arts education for children and teens, establishing the programs for which the Art Center is best known today. One of Eshoo’s instructors, Phyllis Randall, would become director after Eshoo’s retirement in 1996. Under her tenure, the Art Center moved from Kennard House to its current location in the Pearl Manor building at 180 Pearl St.

In 2005, McColl was hired as director of the newly named Currier Museum Art Center. McColl expanded outreach and created new offerings for children, teens and adults, as well as classes with living artists who are represented in the Currier collection. Today, more than 35 faculty members teach an average of 1,500 students annually.

“Ultimately, this exhibition is not only capturing what these students are doing today, and how students are being inspired by teachers and these collections, but I also wanted to show the positive impact that visual arts can have on individuals and families,” McColl said. “The broad strokes of the show is demonstrating what a positive impact the Currier and the Arts Center have on our community.”

The Currier Museum of Art, at 150 Ash St., Manchester, is open from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Wednesday-Friday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, with free admission to New Hampshire residents from 10 a.m.-noon, and is open the first Thursday of each month from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

The museum is closed Tuesdays.