Art Martin never minded pounding nails into the wall, but for now, he’ll put down the hammer and settle into a more scholarly and public role at Muskegon Museum of Art.
From computerizing records to hanging art and planning and curating exhibitions, Martin has been hands-on as an integral part of the museum’s small curatorial team over the last 15 years.
He has worked mostly behind the scenes and will hold on to some of those responsibilities, such as research, writing and offering his opinion on exhibition design. But Martin’s focus as the new senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions will be to conceptualize, plan and direct exhibitions, work with the collections committee on new acquisitions, and speak at openings and other events.
The museum’s major winter exhibition, Expressions of Faith, is his debut of sorts as lead curator.
“In the role of curator, you have the opportunity to teach, to work in the museum, to bring new art and new perspectives to people,” he said. “It’s a great way to combine that lifelong exposure to the arts and new information.”
Judith Hayner, executive director of the museum, said that it seemed fitting to pass the reins to him with the retirement of E. Jane Connell in late September.
“He worked with Jane very closely on creating many of the exhibitions over the last 10 years,” she said. “He’s one of our senior staff members and his experience with the collection is the deepest of any of the staff.”
Martin, who trained and was educated as a fine art painter, didn’t plan for a career in collections management and arts administration. Instead, he learned on the job.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing from Drake University and a master of fine arts degree in painting from Wichita State University. Although he has less time for making art between his day job and dad duties for a four-year-old, Martin still thinks of himself as an artist.
He grew up in the Great Plains states and was ready for a change when he moved from Kansas to Muskegon in August 2001.
“The climate, the landscape was very appealing,” he said. “And the scope and quality of the permanent collection was just really outstanding.”
As registrar, he computerized the records of the museum’s approximately 6,000 objects. Promoted to collections manager in 2006, he then added the title of associate curator and worked in partnership with Connell on several projects.
Martin said he quickly had a lot of freedom with the job, and it evolved to include exhibition design and installation, and helping to define new projects, meet new challenges, and move the institution in new directions.
“Every year, (the MMA’s) presence in the community was bigger and bigger and we could see that we were really making a contribution,” he said. “All of that is really rewarding. It keeps you challenged and it keeps you engaged.”
Martin has organized many smaller exhibitions over the years on studio glass and contemporary artists, along with several recent international fiber exhibitions.
He often could be found in the galleries helping preparator Lee Brown place and hang the work.
“It’s a little more logistics, the actually physical tracking and movement of the artwork, knowing where it is, having good records, making sure that you have good images and all the loans are taken care of,” he said of his former role. “Now, when I am designing and developing an exhibition, I’m also not the same person trying to figure out how to get (that exhibition) into the building.”
Martin’s replacement, Brent Williams, started in November as collections manager and associate preparator. Williams, a native of California, previously worked as an adjunct professor, studio associate and gallery manager at Wheaton College near Chicago.
He toured the galleries for the first time during his interview and was impressed by what he saw. Williams is also excited to be part of a small team where he can do a lot of different things.
“It felt like just a fantastic spot to be,” he said. “It’s rare to find such a well-curated collection.”
Martin looks forward to continuing the museum’s momentum as a leader in the local and regional arts scene and finding ways to bring in new audiences while engaging existing patrons.
“It’s fun to watch kids come in and not want to leave,” he said. “We also really want to start looking at what our presence is in the community and where are we underserving.Where are those opportunities for young families, younger professionals — people who don’t normally think of the museum as a resource? That’s my biggest aim, to work with the really great staff here, not necessarily to reposition, but aggressively position the museum as one of the hearts of the downtown.
“We love what we do, but it’s no fun if nobody’s looking at it.”