Published: October 1, 2019
Nicholas Bell has been breaking the mold since his college days at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. A political science student, he discovered material culture from a US history professor who also taught a course called “Things and Stuff.” The revelation that this was a field he could make a career changed his focus and he surveyed graduate level courses, quickly realizing that Winterthur was where he needed to be. Fast forward to 2016, when Bell was named senior vice president for curatorial affairs at Mystic Seaport Museum, a position he assumed after eight years as senior curator and curator-in-charge at the Renwick Gallery. As the doors at Mystic open on an exhibition of watercolors of J.M.W. Turner that Bell secured from Tate, London, Antiques and The Arts Weekly caught up with this curatorial innovator to retrace the unusual path he has taken and where it will take him.
Describe your experience at Winterthur? What was your focus there?
It was an extraordinary experience. It gave me a sense of the bedrock of where this field had come from but without telling me where I should go. Never satisfied to tow the conventional line, I focused my attention on contemporary art. The benefit of a Winterthur education is month after month of understanding the connection among the decorative arts, across media, time and place. My heart was not in the Eighteenth Century but instead in engaging with people I could talk to about what they do. For my thesis, I looked at three contemporary American artists, William Christenberry, Beverly Buchanan and Kevin Sampson, who memorialized physical landscapes in miniature. It was not a traditional Winterthur thesis but an opportunity to take the critical tools from the program and apply them to a contemporary situation.
You went from Winterthur to working at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Can you describe some of what you did there?
I had been at the Renwick a few months and there was an exhibition on the schedule for a major collection of contemporary wood art. A curator had been hired to guest curate the exhibition. The curator backed out very late, to the point where my supervisor came to me and asked if I could curate and write the catalog, which incidentally, was due in ten days. It was one of those moments when you ask, “Do I take the opportunity or not, and of course I said ‘yes.'” Despite having no background in the subject. I wrote perhaps the fastest exhibition catalog and curated the show on the fly…it was not that long after they realized maybe they wanted to keep me around.
What skills did you develop at the Renwick that have translated to your current role at Mystic Seaport Museum?
What I was able to offer the Renwick was a new perspective and the ability to learn on my feet. At the Renwick I learned quickly that there was a strength in being able to do many things, float among different disciplines, historical periods, media…Mystic was also looking for that. When I speak to students, I tell them the world is flooded with specialists. What we really need is more generalists, people able to communicate art and history through their own recent conversion rather than decades of expertise that often bogs down a general audience.
Going from a museum of contemporary craft to one of historical watercraft might not seem an obvious connection. What parallels did you see between the two?
The collections here are so much more vast than boats. We have, for example, more than one million photographs, a massive manuscript library, Arctic and Pacific collections, paintings, even decorative arts! I had my first conversations with Mystic in 2015; I underestimated the vision of the museum and was confused, thinking somewhat narrowly, “I have no background in maritime culture or history…why do they want to talk to me?” When I came to Mystic to learn more about them, I was deeply impressed with a few different things.
The museum was unsatisfied with being just the leading maritime museum and a leading history museum. There was every indication that the museum’s senior leadership were focused on how to expand beyond its traditional audience. That intrigued me. I was also impressed that the museum had taken significant calculated risks. When confronted with changing demographics and declining attendance, instead of saying ‘it is what it is,’ the museum realized it had an extraordinary opportunity to engage, think strategically and it pivoted. Instead of just restoring the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest commercial vessel afloat, they took her back to sea. Right after that they began building a new gallery complex.
Did that play a part in bringing Turner to Mystic?
Yes. The Thompson Exhibition Building opened in 2016, giving us the security, environmental control, and the aesthetic appeal to be able to host great art and artifacts from around the world. One of my joys has been to reach out to individuals, artists, institutions, and say, “You have no idea what our ambitions are, let’s talk how we can work as a team to bring great programming to this audience.” The response to that has been extraordinary. When we are in conversations with institutions like the Beinecke Library at Yale and the Tate, we offer them access to audiences they don’t usually reach. There is an entire demographic coming to Mystic that doesn’t necessarily go to major urban art museums. Those museums can expand their own reach by working with us.
Shortly before this issue went to press, it was announced that you are leaving Mystic Seaport Museum to join the Glenbow museum, Calgary, Canada. Tell us about that.
What Mystic Seaport Museum and the Glenbow in Calgary have in common is an extraordinary range and depth of collections, far broader than might be presumed given their relative missions. Similar to in Mystic, I am looking forward to exploring that wealth, and finding new paths to connect people to it, so that they may, too, understand the value of having a museum of global renown, right on their doorstep. It will be an adventure!
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