Matthew McLendon’s curatorial career has taken him all over the world, from studies in Florence, Italy and a stint working at London’s famed Tate Britain Museum, to his recent six-year tenure at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
Now, he is bringing his talents and experience to Charlottesville as the director and chief curator of The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, where he started Jan. 9.
Since his time at the Tate, where he focused on public programming, McLendon has been interested in the museum’s role in education and the unique position of university museums, which can draw on the interdisciplinary activity swirling around them.
“I always think about the etymology of the word ‘museum,’ which means ‘seat of the muses,’” he said. “The museum, particularly the university museum, can become that nexus of exchange and dialogue, bringing together multiple disciplines across the university.”
Before starting at The Ringling, which is affiliated with Florida State University, McLendon was the curator of academic initiatives at The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. He studied music and art history at Florida State before earning master’s and doctoral art history degrees from The Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London.
As he settled into his new role, McLendon spoke with UVA Today about his goals for The Fralin Museum of Art, the artists who inspire him and the importance of slowing down and contemplating art in our fast-paced, 21st-century world.
Q. As you get to know the museum, what has stood out to you so far?
A. Getting to know the people who have been dedicated to the museum for so many years, has been the most striking part of my first weeks. Some on our volunteer board, for example, have been volunteering for decades, helping us achieve our mission.
I am also quite impressed with our UVA student docents. Most university museums have student docents, but they don’t typically make the two- or three-year commitment that the majority of UVA student docents make. I have talked with former student docents who, decades later, still keep in touch with friends they met in the program. The relationships that they are building through their service to the museum are incredible, as is the diversity of disciplines. In addition to art and art history students, we have docents studying engineering, psychology, biology and many other disciplines.
Q. What are your top priorities for your tenure here?
A. I have lots of ideas but I also want to be on the ground for awhile, learning more about UVA and Charlottesville before charging ahead. I want to grow both the constituencies that we currently serve, as well as the constituencies we should be serving.
Growth is a top priority. To continue the outstanding work our staff has done, we also have to grow our physical space. We are at capacity right now. With UVA’s bicentennial approaching, it is such an exciting time to be here. We will be working with stakeholders to think seriously about our needs not only today, but 10, 15 or 20 years from now, as the University continues into its third century.
Q. Looking back over exhibitions you have seen or worked on, which have been particularly influential on your career?
A. When I first visited the Tate Britain, Mark Dion [UVA’s 2016 Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence] had a project there called the “Tate Thames Dig.” It was a huge cabinet with windows and drawers you could open, to explore the artifacts that his team pulled from the banks of the Thames River. It reminded me of visiting the Florida Museum of Natural History as a child, opening the specimen drawers and feeling that wonder of discovery. It is that wonder that keeps me engaged in museums. I was thrilled to realize Mark was at UVA and that he’ll return to do more work on his project this spring.
It’s difficult to choose among exhibitions I have been involved with. I enjoyed leading the Ringling’s R. Luke DuBois exhibition, a three-year project that charted the course for how we defined the Ringling’s contemporary program. I loved working with James Turrell, one of the most renowned artists around today, on the “Joseph’s Coat Skyspace” installation at The Ringling, which uses LED lights to change your perception of the color of the sky and its spatial relationship to you. It is experiential, it surrounds you, and expands your awareness of what art is.
Q. What are some of the works, artists and time periods that inspire you?
A. Professionally, I have worked almost exclusively with living artists, mostly interdisciplinary artists who spark discussion across multiple platforms. In graduate school, I studied early-20th-century European art, which includes “isms” like Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism. My doctorate focused on Italian Futurism, an art and social movement emphasizing speed, technology, youth and urbanism. They were also very interdisciplinary in their approach, bringing in literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture and more.
As the world becomes more fractured and divided, for a variety of reasons, I believe the 21st-century museum is called to be socially engaged and interdisciplinary, sparking conversations about what it means to live in the 21st century and be a global citizen. We are so fortunate to be tending to this heritage that we have in our collection. We should use it to make meaningful connections to the past, present and future.
Q. How did your time working abroad shape your subsequent work as a curator and, now, a museum director?
A. I am a huge proponent of study abroad. My undergraduate study-abroad experiences in Florence and London completely charted the course of my life.
I returned to London to work in education and public programming at the Tate, which taught me the importance of the museum as an educational experience. Some art can appear foreign or arcane to non-specialized audiences. It is the museum’s responsibility to bridge that gap and help audiences understand why the work is relevant today. I truly believe that something like a 17th-century Dutch still life can still teach us much about ourselves. It just takes a bit of work to get there and museums can provide the context and the tools.
Q. What can students and community members expect to see in the museum’s spring exhibitions?
A. We are finishing up wonderful exhibitions showcasing contemporary female artists Dorothea Rockburne and Ann Gale. Gale is a stunningly beautiful painter and Rockburne’s work is particularly relevant to a university museum, as she is influenced by theoretical mathematics and astronomy in her practice.
We just opened an exhibition showing UVA art professor Kevin’s Everson’s fantastic film of the moon, “Rough and Unequal,” which was commissioned by the museum and filmed at the McCormick Observatory.
We are also really investigating the heart of the museum’s permanent collection. The upcoming “Collect, Care, Conserve, Curate: The Life of the Art Object” exhibition, curated by collections manager Jean Lancaster, looks behind the scenes at everything that happens to an object once it comes to the museum.
People tend to think of museums as static, but we really do have something new or different every week. Museums are dynamic, while also offering a place for quiet contemplation. In our frenetic 21st-century lives of constant Twitter, Facebook, news crawlers and talking heads, that respite can be rare and wonderful.
For a list of The Fralin Museum of Art’s spring exhibitions, click here.