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story.lead_photo.caption “I am so tickled to be here. This is the career job that I got the Ph.D for. This is what I wanted, the ability to curate a really superior collection of American and contemporary art but that also includes several Rembrandt prints.” - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

The Arkansas Arts Center is not a small museum. “This is a medium-size museum with a small budget,” stresses Ann Prentice Wagner, the exhibition curator and curator of drawings at the Arts Center.

It’s about to become an even bigger museum, thanks to a $70 million redesign that includes 127,000 square feet of renovated and new spaces. A second floor will be added for new gallery space. Other new areas include an indoor/outdoor restaurant, a new research center and conservation lab and a black-box studio. The plan, revealed Tuesday, is scheduled to break ground in fall 2019 and be completed by early 2022.

“This place has fabulous art. … We have such good people, and the research sources are getting better all of the time. We are really working on that. This is vastly more professional than some of the small museums out there that have minute staff. People need to give the Arts Center more credit.”

Wagner’s journey into the world of art curating began when she was just 10 years old. She had always been intrigued by art, encouraged by a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. The school had an etching press, something normally not found in a high school.

“I knew I wasn’t going to make a living as an artist, although my high school teacher would have liked to have me make a good try at it,” she says. “He was very enthusiastic.”

The Wagner family lived close enough to the Smithsonian Institution that frequent weekend trips were possible.

“My parents did not make the greatest amounts of money, and it was free,” she says. “I always called Washington my Sunday hometown.”

When she was 10, she was sent to a Smithsonian summer anthropology program.

“It included a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum of Natural History and ‘Oh my God.’ It was a very dusty old place in those days compared to what it is now — nowhere near as lively — but I discovered that there was a whole community behind a museum.

“There is more space behind the scenes than there is in front. Tons of storage, fascinating stuff, people writing books and doing lab experiments and drawing things,” she says. “A whole community of people doing stuff back there. And I decided I wanted to work in a museum.”

But finding a full-time job at her beloved Smithsonian proved difficult.

She ended up taking a job in the catalog department of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian as a combination secretary and art historian, answering telephones, working on travel papers and researching American portraits and collections around the country. She also was curator of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Md.

Her educational path took many turns. She obtained her associate degree in studio arts at Maryland’s Montgomery College in 1982 and earned her bachelor’s of art history from George Washington University in 1985, where she graduated No. 1 in her class. Next she earned a master’s in art history from Boston University in 1987, and finally a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Maryland in 2006. Her thesis was on the artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

“Since this institution for a long time has focused on drawings and works on paper, her knowledge and expertise is very important to this institution,” says Todd Herman, the Arkansas Arts Center’s executive director, who hired Wagner. “Her breadth of knowledge is remarkable.”

FIRST-TIME HOMEOWNER

To make ends meet while she studied art — and worked in and around the Smithsonian for relatively low pay — Wagner lived with her parents, on and off, for more than 40 years. She didn’t buy her first car until 2003, a brand-new Honda Civic. She still drives it.

“I am so tickled to be here. This is the career job that I got the Ph.D for. This is what I wanted, the ability to curate a really superior collection of American and contemporary art but that also includes several Rembrandt prints.”

“I was lucky enough, by being able to live at home and being able to reduce my work hours, so I could do one class at a time,” she says. “It took awhile.”

Her father, John, was an elementary school teacher. Her mother, Polly, worked for many governmental agencies, including NATO, before staying home with her children for a number of years. When Polly tried to go back to work, she found it difficult because of the lapse in employment.

“She actually filled out the standard government application and described herself as a domiciliary manager. They gave her credit for it and she got the job,” Wagner says. “The [application] became a women’s lib document.”

Wagner recently found her mother’s application in a box of her parents’ papers. She’s in the process of getting settled in her new home — the first house she has bought in her 56 years. It’s in the west Little Rock Echo Valley neighborhood.

“I’ve never owned before,” she says. “It is really quite the sensation to be able to make my own decisions and have everything the way I want it.”

Even better, she says, it has a backyard that she calls “a forest.”

“When I realized I could afford to have a little piece of forest, you weren’t going to talk me into something that looks across at another house in the backyard. I have a forest and I love it and it’s filled with birds and squirrels and trees.”

BECOMING JOHN MARIN

While researching her thesis, Wagner studied John Marin’s drawings. Marin, who died in 1953, was a member of the Stieglitz circle that included O’Keeffe. Wagner’s thesis is titled “Living on Paper: The Culture of Drawing in the Stieglitz Circle, 1903-1925.”

An exhibit, “Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work,” is on display at the Arts Center through April 22. It includes 79 pieces from the museum’s Marin collection plus 33 on loan from around the country.

“You will never see that combination again elsewhere,” Wagner says. “That will never happen again. It is such a tribute to the amount that the Marin estate believes in us.”

The Marin exhibit was already being planned when Wagner was hired in September 2012. With her vast knowledge of Marin’s work, the fit was perfect.

“I am so tickled to be here. This is the career job that I got the Ph.D for. This is what I wanted, the ability to curate a really superior collection of American and contemporary art but that also includes several Rembrandt prints.”

Her colleague, Brian Lang, agrees. He is the museum’s chief curator and curator of contemporary art.

“I don’t think either one of us would have come here if it weren’t for the quality of the collection,” Lang says. “Certainly, people have their conceptions of Arkansas, but every time a colleague comes to visit the Arts Center, they leave saying they just can’t believe the quality which is here.”

Herman says Wagner is in her element when she is surrounded by drawings.

“Ann truly is at her most joyous when she is around art and, particularly, works on paper,” he says. “She is very good at conveying very complex ideas and techniques to all audiences and making them feel a part of the process so they can have that connection to the work of art and the artist.”

The Arts Center owns 290 Marin works, donated by Norma Marin, the administrator of the artist’s estate and widow of his son. All 290 pieces will be documented in a 400-page exhibition catalog that will be available this month from the University of Arkansas Press.

FIGHTING THE CROWDS

As Wagner says, visitors of the Arkansas Arts Center can get an up-close view of the art.

“You are going to have a really good experience seeing that art,” Wagner says of the Marin exhibition. “You are going to be able to spend time and not have to fight to see it. A big show at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], you want to stand back and get a better view, and the whole crowd flows in front of you and you can’t see a thing.

“Here, you can see, you can commune, you can get deeply into it. The experience is so different and I just feel like — particularly for something like Marin where it is from around the country — people need to come here to really see it.”

She adds that the museum owns works by the Old Masters and many 19th-century works.

“You never know what is going to come in,” she says. “We really have this amazing range of work, and I get to play with it.”

Wagner is especially drawn to works on paper and printmaking, something she learned during her days at Walter Johnson High School.

“There is nothing like the feeling of crafting your matrix, making whatever this thing is,” she says of printmaking. “Like in the case of etching, it is this gleaming copper plate. … And then you get it all inked up and you put your dampened paper on it and run it through a press. I don’t know. It is always a surprise.”

But she says she hasn’t done any printmaking since the late 1980s.

“I work with such great artists and I am so not great,” she says. “I always say I am not good enough to interest me and when you are working on Marin and Rembrandt, Georgia O’Keeffe — all of these top people — my art is just so not as good as theirs and it just takes a tremendous amount of self confidence.”

On Wagner’s wish list for the museum is a full-time paper conservator. She says there is no fine-art conservator in the state and the museum must send works out of state — mainly to a lab in Philadelphia — for conservation.

“If you are truly going to study drawings, you have to have a conservator who knows what they are doing and how works are done, someone who can analyze what materials and techniques were used,” she says. “It’s like having a football team but no trainer.”

WOO, PIG! SOOEY!

Before interviewing for the curator position, Wagner had only driven through Arkansas on the way to visit relatives in Oklahoma. But she grew up rooting for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team.

“I just liked them. This was back when Frank Broyles was the head coach and I liked their brand of football and I was a little kid and I thought the hog hats were cute,” she says.

She loves sports — especially baseball — and sprinkles her thoughts with sports references. She points out that her high school was named for the Walter Johnson who spent 21 years as a pitcher with the Washington Senators.

During the interview process for the Arts Center job, Wagner stayed at the Capitol Hotel, which she found “deeply” impressive. While she was here, she visited the Clinton Presidential Center, the Old State House Museum and some of the river trails.

“I love to go out and walk, and it is such a beautiful state,” she says. “I keep telling all of my East Coast friends you’ve got to come see this place. It is so beautiful. And there are not a ton of people everywhere, driving you crazy.”

After interviewing with Herman, Wagner said, she knew it was a “match made in heaven.”

“I just fell in love with the place, the people and the collection,” she says. “Todd has continued to bring in good people. All of these people with this great experience, and we continue to collect wonderful things and do exciting shows. The opportunity to work on the John Marin show. I mean, ‘Oh my God!’”

She started the same day as Lang, the museum’s chief curator. Herman and Lang say Wagner has a broad knowledge base and it is hard to stump her, especially on the topic of baseball.

“She is very fun to work with. She’s outgoing and personable and a scholar,” Lang says. “Her depth of knowledge is quite deep from baseball to jazz to classical music.”

As a new homeowner, Wagner says she thinks she is in Little Rock to stay.

“I could see this as an opportunity for it to be a career and really to be able to have some authority and make some decisions and bring some things into the collection,” she says. “Here, I feel like I can make a difference.”

SELF PORTRAIT

Ann Prentice Wagner

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 17, 1961, Washington

MY FAVORITE ARTIST IS: Rembrandt. I just adore Rembrandt. I’ve always adored Rembrandt.

MY FAVORITE JOHN MARIN PIECE IS: I just love Blue Shark from 1922. It’s not like any other Marin in the world. It’s just really strong and bold and it’s got so much personality. You won’t mistake it for anything else he ever did and I just love it.

MY FAVORITE SPOT AT THE ARKANSAS ART CENTER IS: The Bailey Gallery. It is small and intimate, it lets you get close and quiet and enjoy [the art] in a very intimate way. It really is a magical little gallery.

ON MY WALLS AT HOME YOU WILL FIND: At the moment, very little, but it is going to be an interesting combination of a few family pieces including some Chinese works … and also some really nice contemporary things that I have from local artists here and from some artists I worked on in other places around the country.

WHEN I AM NOT AT WORK I LOVE TO: Go walking. Two Rivers Park is where I have been the most.

IF I COULD OWN ONE PIECE OF ART IT WOULD BE: St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape by Rembrandt.

FOR MY LAST VACATION I WENT TO: Assateague and Chincoteague, barrier islands off the coast of Virginia, last summer.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Passionate

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
“I just fell in love with the place, the people and the collection. Todd has continued to bring in good people. All of these people with this great experience, and we continue to collect wonderful things and do exciting shows. The opportunity to work on the John Marin show. I mean, ‘Oh my God!’”

Print Headline: Ann Prentice Wagner

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