North Adams artist Andrew Davis helps Clark Art curators plan exhibit spaces
Wearing a blue wool sweater, khaki slacks, modest hiking shoes, and drinking a light beer at the bar of Public Eat + Drink in North Adams, Andrew Davis looks like any other local guy just hanging out.
But he holds one of the more unusual jobs on the Berkshire art scene. He is helping the curators of the Clark Art Institute plan where artworks will go as the Clark’s massive campus renovation moves forward and some exhibition spaces are closed off.
He does it by making scale models of the remaining galleries and the array of masterpieces that must fit into them. The miniaturizations help the curators plan where and how the artworks can be best shown.
Just back from a ten-day trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he and fiance Claire Fox were visiting artists from the ASARO Collective, whose work appeared alongside Fox’s in a recent show in North Adams, Davis is bursting with excitement and eager to share his experiences.
It all started with dropping out of college.
“I went to Hampshire College for about a year,” he explained, “and I dropped out. But I liked the area…so I stayed there.”
He remained in Northampton for about three years, developing a love for the hilltowns along the way. He soon decided he wanted to become a serious artist, enrolled in the School for Visual Arts in New York City, and then ended up living there for a few years after graduating.
“This was like the late nineties,” he recalled, “and then I decided New York City was probably over and done as a place to be a young artist. Someone I was with wanted to go back to Los Angeles, so I said ‘Well I’ll try that,’ which was really like heresy to New Yorkers, and that just made me happier I guess, because LA was so different, and it has its own really vital art scene.”
Fast forward eight years, and Davis is making a living working at some of the biggest auction houses in Los Angeles, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
“They have, at the bottom level, a high turnover, so there’s always a job that you can step into,” he said. “It may not be a good one, but if you stick around a few months, it’ll become a good one because someone else is going to leave and you can move up.”
He said working with multimillion dollar works of art on a regular basis helped to demystify the art world for him. But the long hours and hectic schedule began to take a toll on Davis, and he needed a break. That combined with the development of a respiratory condition led to return to the western Massachusetts.
He arrived at the right moment: “I came here in April of 2008, and it was the first Downstreet Art, so I got to meet people and get on the ground floor for that.”
DownStreet Art, sponsored by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, aimed to revitalize downtown North Adams by using vacant commercial storefronts as art galleries and spaces, and training MCLA students in arts administration.
Davis jumped right in, and over the past three years has opened and run the Avalon Seafood and Grass galleries, both in downtown North Adams. He also organized numerous exhibitions alongside Fox, including a show called “Redesigning Downtown North Adams” that explored the possibilities of constructing an arts district and expanded public spaces in the heart of the city.
It was at this time that he also began working for the Clark Art Institute, occasionally helping to set up audio-visual equipment between teaching stints at the Vermont Arts Exchange in Bennington.
It soon became clear to Clark officials that his artistic and architectural skills could be more useful than for AV maintenance; and so began the natural progression into his current position as a curatorial assistant.
“Assistant” doesn’t even really begin to cover it, said Kathy Morris, director of collections and exhibitions and curator of decorative art. “He’s really become an essential part of the curatorial team.”
The Clark has been expanding and redesigning its sprawling campus on South Street. Figuring out how to display the permanent collections in galleries now limited by construction has been daunting. That’s where Davis comes in.
“I ended up doing a lot of model-making and building little dioramas of the galleries for the open storage project,” he explained. “They needed to make sure that when they moved paintings and actually hung them on the walls that there’d be no chance they wouldn’t fit and no danger to any of them because we hang them very close together. So I ended up doing life-size cardboard versions of all the paintings with a Sharpie, and that was fun!”
Davis described his models as “little dollhouses without a roof,” complete with tiny paintings and sculptures. While this may sound fairly simple, the truth is that it is an incredibly complicated process that is essential to the museum during this time of growth.
“I was provided sort of a general list of the kind of paintings we wanted, which numbered around 150,” he explained. “Through trial and error I would make a digital document, trying out different iterations of them on the wall, just how do they fit first of all, and what order they would be in… and I would get the basic version and then talk with the curatorial team about what works and what doesn’t.”
“They’re really very practical,” said Morris of the models. “They’re made out of foam core and other materials that are glued together to the exact scaled dimension of galleries. We put in scaled images of the works of art and can play around with the layout within the room.
“It’s a very effective way for us to have our plans fairly well advanced before we actually start installing something,” she said. “So we know exactly how we want to lay things out… And he’s very good at this. He’s very clever in how he can create these things with very humble materials, and yet they look really good.”
After so many varied experiences, Davis said he is most definitely looking forward to getting back to some painting projects that he has put off, and is hoping to organize a show with Press Gallery on Main Street this winter.
“Oh, and I’m going to Beijing in April!” he adds this as a surprising afterthought. “I got an art residency in Beijing, so I’m just going to go and Clare can come along, so we’re going to be there about a month.”
He and Fox will be married in June, and from there the future lays wide open. Davis plans to stay on at the Clark, which is good because Morris already envisions him being a part of the museum’s new incarnation.
“For us as curators, it’s not just reinstalling everything in the galleries that we’re familiar with,” she said. “It’s kind of re-conceptualizing how we use all the spaces and how they connect to each other. And so it’s a very big project and there’s a lot of thinking that needs to go into it.”
View Andrew Davis’s work and local projects at www.davisartservices.com