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How to put together a major museum exhibition in two years and 10 not-so-easy steps. 

Curating 101

A "process" is typically understood as a linear series of actions that bring about a certain result. Process is all around us — "processing an application," "processed cheese," "a funeral procession." In art, process begins with an idea that ultimately results in a tangible object. Much is made of this process from an artist's perspective, but what about those who do not make the object but seek to understand it, preserve it, display it and convey its power to a larger audience? Such is the role of a curator.

The process of organizing a major museum exhibition has been a long, arduous, but exciting one for Margo Crutchfield, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. One cannot help but be affected by her contagious exuberance over her show of sculptor Martin Puryear, which opens Tuesday, March 6. There is good reason for excitement, since she and the museum have been trying to organize such an exhibition since the late 1980s.

Following the legacy of minimalist sculptors, Puryear employs simple, reductive forms that are not influenced by a machine aesthetic, but rather a more cultural inspiration that includes Native American, African, Scandinavian, Japanese and Arctic art. Born in 1941, Puryear is known for his large wood pieces, often latticed and woven into organic, monumental forms. Since the 1970s, his mature works have earned him numerous grants and recognition, including an invitation to the 1989 Sao Paolo Bienal, the prestigious contemporary art competition in Brazil. He won the grand prize there, and he was the first African-American artist to represent the United States.

Despite these accolades, the true reason Crutchfield wanted to show Puryear's work was simply because of its impact on the viewer. "Anyone who encounters his art is affected by its magnificence," she says. Such was the impetus for truly setting the wheels in motion for a full-fledged Puryear solo show. The process began in earnest two years ago.

Upon obtaining permission for an exhibition through constant dialogue with Puryear, the next step for Crutchfield was to secure gallery space. This has become quite a challenge for curators at the museum. "Many people know that we simply do not have enough gallery space," Crutchfield says. "Getting space is like obtaining prime property." Thus, that she was able to negotiate the entire north wing of the museum, including the lobby, is a major feat.

The exhibition features 12 of Puryear's sculptures made in the last decade, and two auxiliary presentations of prints and earlier 1970s wall sculptures. It encompasses more than 8,000 square feet of premium gallery space, as Crutchfield wished, so that the pieces can breathe. "Puryear's art is the kind of work that needs space and atmosphere so that it can be fully absorbed into the viewer's consciousness," she says.

Puryear's art is particularly challenging to display because many of the pieces are large and fragile. "Ladder to Booker T. Washington," for example, is a 361/2-foot ash ladder that will be suspended on an angle from the ceiling. "We've had to widen the contemporary gallery entrances by removing actual bricks and metal door frames," Crutchfield says. The crating used to transport these traveling pieces are works of art themselves, she adds.

Which brings us to another step in the curatorial process — obtaining permission to borrow works from museums, galleries and private collections. The 12 pieces in the Puryear show are from museums throughout the United States (including one piece owned by the Virginia Museum) and the artist's own collection. Trying to borrow Puryear's art is "a process of persuasion and prying," Crutchfield says. "All the museums that own his art treasure the pieces because they are so unusual and popular, and they just don't want to be without their Puryear."

But the process isn't over with these dealings. One of the most crucial steps is to obtain funding for an exhibition. This can make or break many a curatorial endeavor. The Puryear show is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts grant and other private sponsors, including the principal sponsor, the Truland Foundation.

Once money was secured, Crutchfield spent the past year commissioning photography, writing the catalog, working with editors, publishers, exhibition and lighting designers and coordinating all these efforts with museums in Miami, San Francisco and Seattle that will receive the show after it leaves Richmond. All in all, approximately 40 people at the museum have been involved in bringing Puryear to Virginia.

But once the gallery doors are open we won't see the scaffolding, the wet paint, the carpenter's tools, the crates and the sweat that went into mounting the exhibition. Before our eyes will be the wonderful, stable and suspended, wooden world of Martin Puryear.

"Puryear's works are quiet and understated and yet incredibly powerful. …. There is something for everyone in his art," Crutchfield says. "They are not meant to be difficult; people can come to them and let them sink into their minds; bring their own meanings to them."

And so, as one process comes to an end, a new process — the interaction and experience between a viewer and art —
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