Art Notes: Hood Museum director curates show for AVA Gallery

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2023 6:32 PM

Around 18 months ago, John Stomberg pitched the idea of curating a show at AVA Gallery and Art Center as part of AVA’s 50th anniversary year.

It was not the kind of pitch AVA staff had to puzzle over. Stomberg, director of Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art since 2016, has spent his entire career working in college and university museums in New England. He has the contacts to put together a show worthy of AVA’s 50-year history.

“I said, ‘Well, of course,’ ” Samantha Eckert, AVA’s director of exhibitions, said in an interview.

The results of those efforts open on Friday with a gallery talk at 5 p.m., at which Stomberg will preside, followed by an opening reception from 6 to 8.

In an interview this week, Stomberg talked about why he wanted to curate a show at AVA, something he’d done a couple of times before, and how he went about it.

“I approached AVA with this idea because I think AVA is a very important place for our community,” he said.

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He wanted the art to have a relationship to AVA and to demonstrate AVA’s reach and capabilities. “I mined by personal Rolodex,” Stomberg said. (Kids, a Rolodex is device where grown-ups used to store phone numbers on paper cards.) “I wanted artists who would do me the honor of showing” at AVA.

He called on artists he’s known for years, from when he worked at Boston University and Williams College. Stomberg also directed the art museum at Mount Holyoke College before coming to Hanover and shepherding the $50 million renovation and expansion of the Hood to completion in 2019.

To showcase AVA’s way of working, he wanted art from across the range of media that AVA teaches: drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media. All of it, really. He also wanted a group show, in which work from multiple artists deploying multiple methods would play off and against each other, both stylistically and thematically, and a solo show that would demonstrate an artist’s progression over time.

From the Heart, the group exhibition, features work by three artists who met at Boston University: Sachiko Akiyama, who teaches at UNH; Chris Chou, a Boston resident; and Kayla Mohammadi, who has a studio in Maine and teaches in Boston. The solo show comprises a range of work by Tom Fels, a Bennington, Vt., artist and art writer.

The geographic distribution of the artists also was deliberate, Stomberg said. One from AVA’s home state and one from each neighboring New England state. Over the past decade or so, AVA has become as much a regional as a local organization, providing links to a wider range of practice in the visual arts.

The From the Heart artists in particular favor the kind of artmaking that AVA champions, Stomberg said, “the modern, personal expressive mode.” By this he means the artist is working as a kind of investigator, studying their personal relationship to the world and their place in it.

I haven’t seen the work in these shows yet, but it sounds like an antidote to contemporary life, which is so saturated with the striving for knowledge and its dumber cousin, knowingness, and the desire to be right at all costs that I wonder sometimes whether we’re losing the ability to appreciate the magic of the world around us. In the years I’ve been looking at art in the Upper Valley, AVA has done as much as any institution to help viewers connect with that aspect of seeing. Any visit there offers an opportunity for reorientation.

Once he’d brought the four artists on board, Stomberg visited each of their studios last summer. “It’s one of the joys of curatorial practice, to do studio visits,” he said.

Choosing the art was “just a matter of trying to figure out what’s going to look great,” Stomberg said.

While a curator is responsible for what ends up on a gallery’s or a museum’s walls, Stomberg sees choosing art as a collaborative process that asks the artist “how would you like to be seen,” he said.

“It was a dialogue,” he said.

And it’s a change from what he does at the Hood, which as a museum is designed around objects. Artists are there, but in the wings. At AVA, the artists are very much onstage.

“One of the things I love about AVA is that it’s artist-centric,” Stomberg said, adding that “it’s everywhere apparent that this is very much a humanist approach to art — see the work and meet the artist.”

Stomberg spent most of Saturday at AVA, where art leaned up against the walls, waiting to be put into some kind of order. “It’s like a good dinner party,” Stomberg said of deciding how to hang a show. “Are there going to be good conversations?”

The final step awaits, when the art is on the wall and under lights, ready for viewing.

Stomberg curated the two shows opening Friday as a service to AVA, a contribution. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of AVA to the community,” he said, describing it as a crossroads where artists, art students and the art-curious can meet and feel appreciated.

That it’s lasted 50 years, “that’s really astounding,” he said. “That’s a milestone.”

“From the Heart: Sachiko Akiyama, Chris Chou, Kayla Mohammadi” and “Tom Fels: Cyanotypes, Drawings, and Watercolors” open Friday at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon. The three “From the Heart” artists will be on hand for a panel discussion with Stomberg at 5 p.m., followed by a reception from 6 to 8; Fels and Stomberg will talk publicly about Fels’ work at 2 p.m. March 11. Both shows are on view through March 31. All events and the shows themselves are free and open to the public.

A year later in Ukraine

Our Fire Is Stronger Than Your Bombs, an exhibition of work by eight Ukranian illustrators, goes on view Friday, the anniversary of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, in Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library. Most of the illustrators in the show are still living and working in Ukraine and working with Western media outlets. For more information, go to exhibits.library.dartmouth.edu/s/ukraine/page/home. The show is on view through March 31 and is open to the public.

Ruths on the tube

A pair of films with local ties are coming to the public TV airwaves.

First, Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History, a film edited by Barnard resident Josh Melrod, airs Saturday on American Experience.

Then, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind, Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson’s terrific documentary about Vermont poet Ruth Stone, appears both on Vermont Public on March 2 and on PBS worldwide a day later. Check your local listings.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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