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Dennis Harper

Curator of collections and exhibitions
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art

Dennis Harper is curator of collections and exhibitions at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University. His recent curatorial projects include Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy; Facing South: Portraits of Southern Artists by Jerry Siegel; Bacon Level, Hickory Flat and the Illustrious Potteries of Randolph and Chambers Counties, Alabama; and As Above, So Below: Recent Work by Scherer & Ouporov, which was conferred the Southeastern Museums Conference Award of Excellence in 2011. Formerly curator of exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art, he also served as curatorial adviser for Georgia for the National Museum of Women in the Arts From the States exhibition in 2003 and was a founding board member and past vice president of ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art. He held previous positions at Wildenstein and Co., New York, and the Visual Arts Gallery of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In addition to his career in the museum field, Harper is a practicing artist with exhibitions across the United States and abroad. His art has been written about or appeared in American Artist, Art New England, Art Papers, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New American Paintings, New York Times, Oxford American and Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. Harper has taught studio classes at Auburn University, University of Georgia, UGA Studies Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy, and led workshops on egg tempera painting, fresco and gilding.

1. What do you do as a curator?

A curator's responsibilities vary depending upon the type of museum at which he or she works. It is different from one institution to another. A curator is usually in charge of overseeing a collection of objects, such as works of art. Because we have a relatively small staff, I have to wear many different hats. In my case, being a curator includes organizing exhibitions, doing research on the artwork and explaining those findings to our audiences, among other tasks. A satisfying part of the job is being able to look for meaningful works of art to add to the collection.

2. How do you choose exhibitions and collections?

Both are complicated processes that involve many considerations. In both cases, I want to make choices that best benefit the university and community. Exhibitions may be generated from within the museum, from proposals by other museums or organizations, or through collaborations with individual artists and scholars. We try to accommodate and engage a diverse constituency and range of interests, not only within the Auburn community, but also for an ever-larger group of visitors and researchers who follow our exhibitions and programs outside the region. I do not make decisions alone concerning the museum's collections and exhibitions, but work in concert with the museum director, staff and faculty, patrons and our board of advisers to chart that direction. Exhibitions and new acquisitions to the collection are always chosen for their opportunities to increase scholarship or educate our audiences in some aspect of art. I strive to keep diversity in the museum's exhibition schedule by incorporating as many different historical eras, geographic and cultural backgrounds and varying stylistic approaches to art making as possible. As a part of Auburn University, we want to foster an exciting learning environment for students from all disciplines and ages to benefit in valuable ways at JCSM.

3. How did you become interested in this field?

I have always been interested in art. My father was an artist and I was encouraged to draw and paint when I was a little kid. I have bachelor's and master's degrees in studio art, but I also have a deep background in art history. Although my schooling focused on painting, drawing and printmaking, I have always been practical in my expectations. I knew I needed to earn a living. Thus, I've worked in galleries and museums throughout college and afterwards while continuing to make my own art. I have also taught art classes at secondary to graduate school levels. While I did not set out to become a curator, my job arc has carried me there, and I find museum work to be extremely satisfying and creative.

4. Why do you love what you do?

It is an intellectual challenge. I enjoy learning about art, the processes of creating it, the reasons people do so and other elements that make up "art history." I enjoy learning how art connects to society and reflects culture at large. It is rigorous, but productive. It is like I gain another degree every year without paying tuition. Part of my job is to write about art and help interpret it for visitors to the museum. I try to share with them how art can elucidate and be relevant in their lives. I find those aspects of my job very gratifying. I love working not only with people who may have had a long experience with art, but also with those who are coming to think about art for the first time. They all bring their own unique perspectives. Seeing visitors make their own connections and discoveries about art is exciting. I learn from them as well.

5. What is your favorite type of art?

First of all, it's hard to define what art is because it can mean many different things and take various forms. I think that is why it is so compelling. I like a lot of different types of art, from medieval and earlier periods to contemporary works, ranging from monumental sculpture to miniature illuminations. I guess what distinguishes my favorites is that they are somehow "genuine" in intent, not formulaic, but display the maker's sincere quest to communicate his or her vision. Whether the artist is self-taught or academically trained, it makes no difference to me. What was the impetus behind the work and how they managed to express it is what moves me.

April 30, 2012