Q&A with Pfac Curator Michael Preble on the Eve of His Retirement
By Betsy DiJulio
Though his tenure has been just about a decade, curator Michael Preble is a fixture at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center. His retirement marks the end of an era, especially as Pfac is poised to merge with Christopher Newport University. Before he left his post, I invited him to take a look backward and forward. His answers to my questions made me more than a little nostalgic for a ten year career that seems like it couldn’t possibly have been that long, nor that it could possibly be time for us to let him go. Wishing you Godspeed, Michael, as you begin the next rich phase of life. On behalf of the Hampton Roads art community, thank you for everything.
BD: When did you come to PFAC?
MP: I interviewed for a Program Director position in 2004 just prior to my departure for Venice to present the William Baziotes retrospective at the Guggenheim. I then joined the staff in the fall just in time for the takedown of Biennial 2004 and later added the curator title.
BD: What was your curatorial vision then and do you feel you achieved it?
MP: The most spirited charge was to put a curatorial touch on a more aggressive exhibition program. My idea was to present works by national, and to a lesser extent, international artists, and through the exhibition theme, and weave-in the work of regional artists. The better shows did this qualitative balancing act well. Sometimes, the shift was toward the regional. Even then, the charge to present good work was more important than continually repeating a parade of familiar names. Moving the Studio Art School forward was an ongoing challenge.
BD: In terms of exhibitions and curatorial concerns, what do you feel was your crowning achievement; something that best defined who you are as a curator?
MP: I’m not sure I have a crowning achievement. I am very proud of two. This summer’s Aquatic took a basic core theme, established the center, and expanded out. The result was diverse but not convoluted, congenial yet intellectual, fun but not sophomoric. I loved it.
The second case was 50 Great Americans. I wanted 50 great works. I could not always get what I wanted but often I got what I needed. I went everywhere and called upon years’ of contacts. I got great stuff, some famous, some new. And every day I got to visit Richard Diebenkorn’s Coffee.
BD: Any major regrets?
MP: I wish I could agree with Richard Harris – “It would be ungracious of me to have any regrets.” I do regret a few shows that were less successful. I was not always kind to artists whose work was more enjoyable than their personalities; I was always gracious in the reverse. And I regret that I could not get the Weisman Collection’s Pink Angels by de Kooning for 50 Great Americans.
BD: What will you miss?
MP: There is much that I will miss. The generosity of lenders who let me wander about their collections. I’ll miss laying out shows – finding the dialogues between works. I’ll miss travels with Freddie, Pfac’s Exhibitions/Facilities Manager – going on the road to get art – like arriving at Richard Hunt’s Michigan studio and saying “Okay, time to fill the truck.” I will also miss my CNU-LLS audience – they were always so appreciative.
BD: What curatorial legacy do you feel you leave behind?
MP: I never think of myself as important enough to have a curatorial legacy. However, in my teaching, lecturing and curating, I have encouraged all to: get out and pay attention; get as close to the art as security will allow; be able to express why you like or don’t like a work; and remember, great art does two things really well – it doesn’t matter what two, just two things really well.
BD: How did you know the time was right to retire/move on?
MP: I’m really not sure what retiring is about yet. With the upcoming merger with CNU, it seemed the right opportunity to let another curator and educator work the transition and get programming in line for the new facility. I think it can be a win-win-win situation for CNU, Pfac and the community.
BD: Currently, what seems to be Pfac’s greatest growth area?
MP: I think, looking forward to the next few years, that Pfac needs more friends – more friends to take part in its programming, more friends with funds to support its efforts, and more friends to think of Pfac as their artistic home. I hope a stronger commitment to contemporary art grows in HR among artists, collectors and the public.
BD: What’s next for you?
MP: I have a full list of things to do once I leave Virginia. We’re going first to Arkansas to stay with Anne’s mom for a while. I am lining up some curating and teaching, helping a university start a museum studies program and working with a regional arts center. And focusing on the William Baziotes Catalogue Raisonné. I’m excited about renovating the horse barn into a painting and drawing studio. Still keeping up with my photography. And archery – I’ll pick it up again. Bow hunting is very big in Arkansas. Initially Bambi was on the list but not now. My wife Anne will start bee keeping; we have several acres of camellias. Then when the time is right, it’s off to New Orleans. That’s where I grew up. A great place to laissez les bon temps rouler!