Charles Shepard knew he wanted a big show to mark the opening of the new, improved Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
But big shows in the art world often require other big things namely, big stature and big investments, among them.
You know me, says Shepard, the museums executive director. I thought, This is (expletive). There must be another way to get this done.
Shepard subsequently learned of a small art museum in Rockland, Maine, that was dedicated to the work of the Wyeth family: N.C., Andrew and James.
By negotiating directly with the Farnsworth Art Museum, as one non-gargantuan art institution to another, Shepard figures he was able to save about $100,000 on the Wyeth show that opened March 27, 2010.
And thanks to a carpenter friend of his in Maine, Shepard was able to get the Wyeth works shipped for a fraction of the fee charged by professional Manhattan-based art shippers.
I remembered that the last time I had called him wed gotten into a fight, Shepard says of the carpenter. I knew Id have to do a little (expletive)-kissing. I hadnt talked to him in 21 years and, as it turned out, hed cooled off in 21 years.
Shepard is organizing a show of Dale Chihulys glassworks using the same underground method.
This experience with the Wyeth exhibit planted a germ of an idea in Shepards head and that germ has sprouted in a fashion that should change forever the way the museum conducts its business.
Shepard has begun to establish a nationwide, grass-roots network of modest museums and freelance curators with an organizational hub in Fort Wayne.
Its purpose is to expose regional art and artists to other regions, circulate art collections that tend not to leave their home museums, provide great shows to institutions that dont have boundless budgets and create new pathways to circumvent official channels.
Speaking of channels, Shepard likens what he is trying to do to the state of radio today.
They have a place, Shepard says of premium shows. Its like radio. When you talk to people about radio, someone inevitably says, Theres nothing good on the radio anymore. My perception is that most deejays work from nationally distributed playlists. They come from elsewhere. We would just create our own playlists.
Shepard says working with the Farnsworth Museum made him wonder how many other non-traditional connections could be made among midsized art institutions and regional art experts.
If there are roughly five people in Maine who know everything about whats happening in visual arts in the state, Shepard muses, then it follows that there must be five or six similar people in every state.
My premise was that if there really are these few plugged-in people and well stay away from New York and Chicago and abnormal places like that – what would it mean to us to start a national network connecting us to five or six people in every state?
Shepard wants to foster a nationwide curatorial talent pool composed of people who are likely not fully employed by (and therefore beholden to) major institutions and would be happy to be paid a fee to work on specific shows.
The pool would have two dozen freelance curators in it, Shepard says, not all of them active at once.
Six or seven would be active a year, with seven getting ready to be active, he says. The rest are thinking.
Shepards under-the-radar methods have already unearthed a photographer who is compiling a book on afros and another who mentioned in passing that he had trained under Ansel Adams, perhaps the only photographer whose name everyone instantly recognizes.
Shepard says there are brilliant artists everywhere who are unknown outside of their region and who may not have given much thought to extending their artistic reach.
Many wonderful shows could be crafted from the work of such artists, shows that could tour without breaking anybodys bank.
We could all work together, he says. Lets go back to the 60s, everybody. Everybody gets a little money; nobodys gouging each other.
In February, Shepard took a leap of faith on behalf of this grand vision and cleared the museums schedule of most of what was in the works for upcoming seasons, including the season that begins in early July.
Shepard suspects that if he had built in a safety year of booked shows, the fire would have gone out under his idea. So he had no choice, he says, but to get rid of the safety net.
Shepard likens this revamped version of museum operations to a fast clipper ship with more programming, faster turnaround and more efficient use of resources.
The ultimate reward will be more shows, more programs, more meat, he says.
The days of planning shows two and three years ahead are history, he says.
Museums have been booking two and three years out as long as I can remember, he says. But the world has changed so much. Imagine saying, I am going to do something about iPads three years from now that will really grip people.