The Dixon Gallery and Gardens celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Julie N. Pierotti, the newly named Martha R. Robinson endowed curator of the Dixon, has not yet seen as many milestones, making her one of the youngest endowed curators in the country at 32. Robinson was a longtime supporter of the museum, a trustee in the 1980s and ’90s, and an advocate of the collection of nineteenth-century French paintings. Pierotti grew up in Memphis and visited the museum regularly, both with family and on school field trips.
As the exhibit “The Impressionist Revolution: Forty Years of French Art at the Dixon” came to a close at the end of last month to make way for the current show, “Henri Guérard and the Phenomenon of the Artist’s Fan in France, 1875-1900,” I sat down with Pierotti in the Mallory/Wurtzburger Galleries among works of local contemporary artist Carlyle Wolfe to talk about curating, favorite works of art, Martha Robinson, and what might just be the most scenic workplace in town.
What does a curator do?
A curator is somebody who assembles objects to tell a story. I’m fortunate enough to work here where we have such incredible objects to tell such incredible stories. I’m also in charge of the care and interpretation of our permanent collection, so all the labels you read when you’re at the Dixon, I’ve either written or had a hand in writing. So I do a lot of research and writing.
How might the objects tell the story?
The way we have the objects put together determines what story we’re trying to tell, so sometimes we put a lot of pictures of people together in one room or we’ll have a bunch of seascapes in one room, or we’ll just have works by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro in one room. We’re always trying to extract the maximum value out of our collection and tell different stories and let people know different things. You don’t just come here once and learn all you can and never have to come back again, you can always come back and learn something new.
What’s the reward of working at the Dixon?
Everything you see when you come here, a lot of hard work went into it. But it’s hard work that doesn’t feel like work, it’s almost like a calling. You are part of something, you are part of helping people experience art and they can learn from that, they can escape from their life through art, they can get inspired to create art themselves. It’s an honor to get to do what I do.
And the environment isn’t too shabby either.
I use this example all the time: My husband’s an accountant and for a long time worked in a cube, and I get here and I’m surrounded by priceless works of art and beautiful, changing gardens. I see these works of art every single day and every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll see something new. Sometimes just looking at a painting one way in a certain spot can totally change your opinion of it. I have those kinds of experiences every day; it’s the privilege of the job.
Professionally, what does it mean to have your position endowed?
In the museum world, to be a curator with an endowed position is a really big honor. It really just shows how much people support your institution and, in particular, the curatorial project enough to put some serious financial backing behind it. For the institution on a day-to-day basis, it takes my salary out of the yearly operating budget and gives some relief to the budget, which is always helpful.
For me to be the first of many curators to hold this position is a great honor, almost like a leap of faith that they thought that, at this very time, when I’m the curator, that it would be a good time for this to happen. It’s a vote of confidence; I have a support base here.
Can you tell us about Martha Robinson?
She passed away in 2003 and I started here in 2007, so I never had the pleasure of meeting her. But of course we have a lot of longtime supporters here who have told me stories about her, and I know she was a lovely woman. I think more than anybody, she had this great vision for what a curator can do and what a museum can do with its collections.
Did you visit the Dixon as a child?
I did. I grew up going to schools here so we would come here on field trips, and I have memories of my family coming here for certain things. I have one really clear memory of coming here when I was in high school, and the education director gave us a really good tour; a light bulb went off and I thought, “I’d like to do this.”
How was that interest sustained?
I was always interested in art and not ever so much in creating it, but learning from it, studying it. I went to St. Agnes and took an art history class there and just loved it, so when I went to Ole Miss I started as an art history major and just stuck with it. When it was my senior year, I thought I’d just keep going in school and went to Vanderbilt for graduate school in art history.
And how does that lead to curating?
I don’t think I ever had that long of a vision, it was something that just kind of happened. I started here in 2007 as a curatorial assistant and have worked my way up. Kevin [Sharp, museum director] really had a great vision and still does for what the Dixon can be and should be doing, so he placed a really high emphasis on exhibitions. Right when I started I worked on an exhibition called “Regional Dialect” that opened here in 2009 and traveled to six other museums. I got to publish a book two years after I started here, which was a thrill.
What can you tell us about the current exhibit of painted fans?
We’re looking at this really short window of time — 25 years — and in this 25 years there was this huge interest in painted fans. Artists took great interest in decorating fans — artists like Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin and Jean-Louis Forain. Henri Guérard was an artist who was in this circle and he championed the format. It was this great, brief, exciting period where artists were experimenting and were influenced by Japanese art, which was flooding into Paris at the time.
What does it take to put such an exhibit together?
It’s an international show that’s a big deal, and we published a catalogue to go with it. It has about 45 painted fans that we drew from our collection and from public and private collections across the United States and in Europe. We started talking about this show in 2013 and got it on the calendar, and that’s a quick timetable. Some exhibitions take five or six years; it just depends on the works of art that you’re trying to get and what kind of catalogue you’re going to publish.
Do you have a favorite work among the Dixon’s collection?
Sometimes it’s like picking favorites among your children, but there are certainly works of art that speak to me more than others. Our Sargent [Ramón Subercaseaux in a Gondola, 1880] is an amazing work of art that has inspired me since the day I got here; it’s just totally different from anything else you would imagine a John Singer Sargent painting would be. And then our Renoir, The Wave, is a painting that, when I first got here I didn’t get what all the fuss was about, but I’ve grown to love it as I’ve come here every day.
The Dixon turns 40 this year; what’s in store for the next 40 years?
In 2015 we did some improvements to the facility. We’re starting to think really long term about the collection, about the institution, about the facility. We want to expand our reach to this community but also to the country and around the world, too.