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Jeremy Canwell

Montana Museum of Art and Culture curator Jeremy Canwell has more than 11,000 artworks to choose from when planning an exhibition for the MMAC's two galleries on the University of Montana campus. Canwell was hired in 2016 and since then has brought a wealth of knowledge and energy to the MMAC. "He has a solid background both in art history and the lives and times of many, many great artists," said Barbara Koostra, director of the MMAC. "But he is also very adept at coordinating exhibitions, hanging shows, devising artistic ways of presenting information and artworks."

The word "curating" has become so diluted through online use that it might clutter our ideas about what museum curators do.

In the case of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, being the curator of art requires a broad set of skills and knowledge.

On one day Jeremy Canwell, the current curator of art, might need to be in the Paxson Gallery to discuss a collection of contemporary prints from Eastern Europe that a donor gave to the museum. An hour later, he may need to go across the hall to the Meloy Gallery, to work on the lighting and display of a collection of Montana ceramics.

It's one of the reasons Canwell left a job with famed Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly to pursue his master's and doctoral degrees in art history.

"I found that I wasn't using my interest or my ability to think about, talk about, write about and teach about art," he said.

Since 2016, he's brought that energy and knowledge to the MMAC.

"He has a solid background both in art history and the lives and times of many, many great artists," said Barbara Koostra, director of the MMAC. "But he is also very adept at coordinating exhibitions, hanging shows, devising artistic ways of presenting information and artworks."

He and Koostra plan exhibitions drawing on the statewide museum's collection of more than 11,000 artworks and hang them in the two galleries on the University of Montana campus, with an emphasis on ways they can make art accessible to the public.

One of the draws for Canwell was Montana's rural atmosphere. Even though the American art world is centered in New York and Los Angeles, he doesn't care for living in the city.

He also was drawn to the the MMAC because of its close ties with the University of Montana.

"I like that intersection between the academy and a significant collection of art," he said.

Koostra said curators "have a full art ecology to understand and work with, including artists and collectors, donors, and we have many colleagues here on campus to work with and devise programming with."

Canwell has collaborated on exhibitions with faculty members in the School of Art. H. Rafael Chacón, a professor of art history and criticism, took a lead on "Over There! Montanans in the Great War," a survey of art, artifacts and Montanans' participation in World War I. For a show that's now on view, "Decades: Ceramics from the Permanent Collection," he partnered with award-winning potter and professor Julia Galloway to examine the state's rich history of ceramic art.

In late 2016, Canwell was given access to one of the largest collections of contemporary art prints in the United States, owned by Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation. In the resulting exhibition, "Present Tense," Canwell focused on the way luminaries like Jasper John, Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer and Glenn Ligon used text and language in their work — a subject that's his specialty.

"I love it when pictures and language interfere with each other and, by doing so, interrupt our normal consciousness," Canwell said. "In the best cases, these interruptions result in heightened states of awareness that are the reason I love art. I desperately want to bring about that sort of experience in other people."


Canwell, 43, grew up in Spokane on a former dairy farm, with accordingly rural ideas about art. That all changed when he spent the summer before sixth grade in England. During a trip to the Tate Gallery, a renowned contemporary art gallery, he saw works by challenging and influential artists like Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. At a relatively early age, he began thinking about how "art could be anything you want," he said.

He enrolled at Colorado College with intentions of becoming a psychologist, but quickly found he had the affinity and talent required for art history.

"I didn't realize that this was something that not everybody did," he said. "Not everyone could sit in a slide room and visually record what they were looking at for 50 or 60 slides."

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in art history, he spent a year in Seattle working for Chihuly, the widely popular glass artist. His main task was documenting the work before it left Chihuly's operation.

"I learned a lot about myself working for him, because he was very exacting," Canwell said.

He then spent two years in Rome, working on a project in the Vatican museums, followed by a stint translating and writing for an aristocrat who ran a touring company.

After "tiring of the whole expat thing," he came back to the U.S. and returned to work for Chihuly. While Chihuly is best known for his massive, tendril-like glass sculptures, he's created a large body of drawings and paintings. Canwell's job was recording and documenting those works on paper.

After several years, he felt an urge to pursue something else, something broader.

He enrolled at Rutgers University, where he earned a master's degree and a doctorate in art history. While working on his Ph.D., he spent a year in St. Petersburg, Russia, learning the language so he could study the country's avant-garde movements like Constructivism and Suprematism.

He didn't care for the "byzantine bureaucracy" that's a part of doing research there.

"I felt really much too close to my own mortality living there," he said. After seeing a dead body on the ground at a metro station, with ambulance workers standing idly by smoking cigarettes as commuters stepped over the corpse, he realized he'd had enough of Russia. He decided to change tacks and study Estonian art. He won a Fulbright to conduct his dissertation research in the country in 2007-08.

He was especially curious about Estonian abstract art during Soviet rule, and the way artists sought "a creative mode that didn't want to challenge authority, but was just indifferent to it."

In contrast to American abstraction, the Estonians' art was "based on sometimes indifference to power and sometimes intentionally inscrutable."

That expertise proved especially useful when a private collector, J. Scott Patnode, donated a collection of contemporary Eastern European prints to the MMAC. Canwell curated a show from works that are now on display in the Paxson.

In the future, Canwell is excited about continuing to explore the potential of the Permanent Collection. At any given time, only a half to 1 percent can be exhibited to the public.

Future shows will focus on wildlife in the West, with a second on the iconic Western animal, the horse.

He sees the potential for more exhibitions of ceramics, which he said is underrepresented in museums considering the medium's prominence in Montana.

"I love that that is as much a part of Montana's cultural identity as glass is in Seattle," he said.

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