Kimberli Gant

Interview by Jeff Hewitt
Issue 48 • February 2017 • Norfolk

A chance encounter with a sublime photograph changed this scholar’s outlook on life and led her on a curatorial path to the halls of contemporary art.

Above: Photo by Glenn Bashaw of Images In Light (Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art)

In 1997, the world-famous Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto crafted an exquisite black-and-white photograph using 19th century large format camera equipment utilizing traditional silver gelatin printing techniques. Years later, a young undergrad business student named Kimberli Gant experienced that work in such a manner that it completely altered the arc of her life and studies. Viewing that photo ultimately caused her to switch her concentration to art history, earn a doctorate degree in the field, and pursue a career in museum studies.

Since then, Gant has traveled far and wide serving in various capacities at art museums throughout the country. It was only last month that she began her new role as the McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Norfolk's esteemed Chrysler Museum of Art. Still, the sense of wonder from that original encounter has stayed with her to this day. “I had seen art before,” Gant recalled, “but this was an absolutely beautiful piece at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Chicago. This hazy monochromatic representation of light streaming in, forming a cross that had been architecturally cut through the stone facade of the church's structure. It just—it moved me in a way that nothing else ever had before.”

Continuing, she said, “My parents laughed a bit about it, because I hadn't really been interested in art all that much growing up. I took an art history class in high school, but it had never been presented to me that this was an actual job. The experience of that photograph made me wonder, it made me start to ask questions. It really made me appreciate the history of art so much more. From there, I realized that curation was actually a thing people could do for a living. You start to really examine the whys. Why is this here? Why this and not that?"

Chrysler Museum of Art | Photo by Jeff Hewitt

In her new position, Gant will primarily be responsible for the scholarship, care, interpretation, and presentation of a diverse collection of art dating from the Mid-20th Century on through to contemporary work. The Chrysler is a nationally recognized mid-sized art museum. The core of collection was sourced from Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., heir to the renowned automobile family, who donated much of his private collection to the museum throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The McKinnon collection is named after Oriana McKinnon of Norfolk and her late husband, Arnold. The curator position is funded through the interest on a generous endowment provided by the couple in years past. Norfolk residents might note that the position was previously held by the late Amy Brandt. Her tenure was tragically cut short in 2015 when she passed away at the young age of 37. Brandt's work with the collection was widely respected and resulted in a major work of scholarship on Korean American photographer, Tseng Kwong Chi. Those efforts culminated in a well-attended exhibition and publication of a retrospective of his work.

Gant sees her role as curator as a multifaceted one. Some of her tasks include ensuring the proper maintenance of the museum’s collection, as well as engaging in research and scholarship so as to provide context for museum visitors. “As a curator, a major part of your job is creating a narrative. You're not necessarily giving the end-all be-all on any given piece. Very often, the story you're providing is something that changes as time goes on. You're providing a point of view in a larger context.” Gant will also be responsible for managing the overall growth of the collection, identifying areas of strength with an eye towards expansion.

Another major component of her duties will be staging exhibitions. These could be anything from solo monographic shows, retrospectives, or larger thematically-driven collections showcasing historic eras or movements of art history. “At the end of the day, as a curator, you're trying to help develop an interest and a strong desire for knowledge in the public.”

Gant expressed a sense of adventure over her transition from a fellowship with the Newark Museum in New Jersey to this full-time role with the Chrysler. "There's something really attractive about regional museums. I feel that the Newark and the Chrysler share similar qualities in that they're doing cutting edge programs. There's an intimacy that allows you to create a more inviting atmosphere than what is allowed with larger institutions. You're able to experiment more and take risks."

Widely published, Gant's previous scholarship has created an atmosphere of anticipation in the local community as to the direction she might take the collection. "I've never had a relationship with this area of the country—with Virginia or even the Southeast. I knew there were great institutions here, but haven't had the opportunity to really get to know the area. It's like stepping into a whole new world and I'm thrilled at all the possibilities that are presented by that."

Photo by Jeff Hewitt

To learn more about the current exhibitions at the Chrysler Museum of Art, visit chrysler.org.

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