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Integrating art at the Mead: New museum director at Amherst College to build outreach programming



Thursday, December 10, 2015
David Little can tick off a couple pivotal moments in his life when career goals suddenly became clearer — and in both cases, art was at the center of them.

Little, the new director of the Mead Museum of Art at Amherst College, first became intrigued with art as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He initially took government courses as he considered a career in law, but soon found he didn’t really enjoy the material.

“Things just didn’t really click until I took some art history courses,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “I found I not only loved the subject but that I did much better in it.”

Then, about 15 years later, as he was finishing his dissertation in art history, he got a part-time job as a lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, giving talks to the public and later leading courses on a variety of arts for visiting college students, even introducing them to other art collections in the city.

It was, he says, “sort of an epiphany. I really liked teaching and using the city as a classroom.”

As the Mead’s new director and chief curator, Little, 52, brings a wealth of teaching, curating and administrative experience to the job, including from his most recent position: curator and head of the Department of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). His vision for what the Mead can be also dovetails with the college’s ongoing goal: making the museum an integral part of students’ studies.

“Art is about life,” he said. “It’s not something you just put in a museum, some place separate from everything else ... and it really cuts across all these different disciplines.”

Over the last several years, Amherst has used Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grants for a program in which museum staff work with faculty members to help professors incorporate parts of the collection in their curriculums; students then work on a variety of research projects involving museum materials.

Little says he hopes to build on that effort by finding additional ways to bring students to the Mead. He notes that his office, near the museum entrance, looks out toward two nearby freshman dorms, James and Stearns halls. “Maybe that’s fitting, so I can think of how we might bring more first-year students here,” he said.

Feeling right at home

Though his appointment was announced last May, Little has been on the job since just the beginning of September. Pamela J. Russell, the college’s head of education and curator of academic programs, had served as the Mead’s interim director since former director Elizabeth Barker left Amherst in September 2014.

But Little says he’s already feeling at home, both at the museum and on campus.

“This is Amherst College — you’re talking about the best liberal arts college in the country,” he said. “It’s a thrill to be part of that.”

He’s also happy to be back in New England. Though he lived at times in Europe when he was growing up — his father was a career army officer — Little grew up primarily in Rhode Island, then got a bachelor’s degree at Bowdoin and a master’s degree at Williams College. He received a doctorate from Duke University in North Carolina, but lived in New York City as he was finishing his dissertation.

It was there, in the mid- to late 1990s, that his professional life in the arts really took root. At MOMA, after working as a lecturer, he was hired as the museum’s first director of education, a multi-faceted job that involved hiring lecturers, overseeing varied programs and working closely with curators.

He also worked as an adjunct professor in New York for Duke University, teaching courses on contemporary art for visiting students and introducing then to other art collections in the city. He also mentored young art professionals.

Little says all these different experiences gave him valuable insight as to how the traditional role of a museum curator was changing.

“It used to be that curators took care of objects,” said Little, who has also worked with the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, as well as in the publishing world. “Now there’s a lot more emphasis on putting together events, giving visitors a new experience, finding new ways to frame a subject. There’s a lot more engagement with the audience.”

In that sense, he’s also interested in putting together exhibits at the Mead that will resonate not just with students and faculty but the public as well. After all, he says, the Mead is free. “The challenge for us is to create exhibitions and programming that appeals to a broad audience.”

He points to one of the museum’s new shows, “Josef Albers and His Contemporaries” (see accompanying article), as a good example of the kind of cross-disciplinary exhibits he’s interested in, and which he believes could appeal not just to artists. Albers was a German-born painter and printmaker whose work was influenced by both science and psychology; as a teacher, he was also highly influential in 20th-century art education.

Little says he’ll be spending time over the next few months getting to know museum staff, as well as faculty and students, to get a broader picture of the museum as he develops his ideas about making art more central to the campus.

He’ll have time to do it during the week: His wife, Darsie Alexander, is the director of the Katonah Museum in Katonah, New York, in Westchester County, where she lives with the couple’s two daughters. Little, who lives in Northampton during the week, goes to Katonah on weekends to be with his family.

“Welcome to the modern world of commuting couples,” he said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.