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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

The art of Jessica Park was among the works that Joyce Marcel, left, and BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams gathered up during a recent trip to New York City.

The Arts

My road trip with Mara

Gathering up the pieces for the latest BMAC exhibit offers a backstage look at the contemporary art scene

Another op’nin’, another show

In the art town of Brattleboro

A chance for art folks to say hello,

Another op’nin’ of another show.

—With apologies to Cole Porter

BRATTLEBORO—Putting on a show at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is a bit like putting on a Broadway play: thinking up concepts; begging, borrowing, or seducing the right people to contribute; readying the stage; sweeping the floor; setting out the food; chilling the wine — abracadabra! A museum show is born.

The show that opened at BMAC June 27 is called “Road Show,” so when museum curator Mara Williams asked me to ride shotgun on a trip to New York City to collect needed artwork, the invitation was apropos. She said she would drive and that it would help if she didn’t have to do it alone.

I leapt at the chance. Many of us have a hard time separating the beautiful and the brilliant from the bullshit in contemporary art. So this was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about art and the art world from a consummate professional.

We planned to spend three days in the city hanging out, walking, visiting contemporary galleries, schmoozing with the people who run them, eating great food, and seeing a Broadway play. On the last day we’d pick up works for two of the shows.

Williams explained that a driver hired by the museum would come down to New York to collect the bigger pieces, and that we would save the museum time, money, and trouble by retrieving the smaller works ourselves.

Naturally, our first order of business in the city was to get a mani-pedi. Got to get the metaphorical dirt out from under our rural fingernails and polish our performances.

The next day we walked Chelsea, first reveling in the High Line and drinking in the New York cityscape: the subject of much contemporary art, I was to learn. Then we visited a series of sophisticated, white-painted galleries where Williams was welcomed warmly.

At DC Moore Gallery, we had to wait while the current show — the paintings and drawings of Robert DeNiro Sr. — were being filmed. DeNiro’s actor son, Robert, recently released a documentary about his father’s work, and there was buzz. The gallery brimmed with visitors and tour guides.

The work was colorful. It struck me as overly influenced by French impressionism, but we were there to speak with gallery director Heidi Lange, who has enjoyed a long and cordial relationship with Williams — and, through her, BMAC.

It seems that even the more prestigious galleries welcome their artists getting quality museum show exposure. And I saw in New York City that BMAC enjoys a reputation for quality. Williams’ past successes give her access to a wealth of important artists who are happy to bring their work to Brattleboro for Windham County’s aesthetic pleasure.

We visited the Lennon, Weinberg gallery to see a show of Joan Mitchell’s “Black Drawings.” Curator Jill Weinberg welcomed us and described her moving personal relationship with this major artist. It turns out they were close friends. She took us up upstairs to her private gallery to show us other artists’ work which, one day, might find its way to Brattleboro.

At the Leslie Tonkonow Gallery we saw Betsy Kaufman’s “A Story of Red” — a wall of small red rectangles that looked, well, like small red rectangles, until Williams explained how each one was a delicately layered work of sensual beauty. Then I longed to have them all.

At gallery after gallery — such as Klein Sun Gallery, the one that loaned Williams the amazing Chinese art from last year’s show, and where the stunning Christina Lee showed us new work coming out of China — I was thrilled to see contemporary art in the company of such an informed, and respected, professional.

That evening, a little drunk on prosecco, we saw “Act One” at Lincoln Center, a play written and directed by James Lapine from Moss Hart’s autobiography of the same name.

Starring a self-satisfied Tony Shalhoub, and comic Andrea Martin doing her well-honed, sarcastic old lady schtick, the play dragged a bit. We were buoyed at being at Lincoln Center, by the fact that actress Glenn Close was seated a few rows ahead of us, and by the pleated hood of a green raincoat worn by an elegant blonde woman also near us in the audience.

After we decided that Williams would hit her over the head while I made off with the coat — or was it the reverse? — we stopped the woman on the way out. She was kind enough to tell us all about it. (We weren’t the first strangers to ask.)

By then I was feeling drunk on New York — and it was a happy, friendly drunk. But the next day was a work day.

One of the new shows at the museum is “A World Transformed: The Art of Jessica Park,” which fills the center gallery. Park is an outsider artist — someone who has not been trained and who works outside of the contemporary art world.

Now 56, Park has spent her life struggling with autism. Yet she makes gloriously colored acrylic painting of detailed, static, architectural images — the George Washington Bridge, Mark Twain’s house, Noah’s Ark, stained glass doors, the Empire State Building, Victorian houses, etc. We needed to gather three of her pieces from collectors in three different places.

After getting seriously lost — I was navigator, but I can’t tell you whether it was New Jersey or Queens we visited by mistake — we arrived at our first destination and picked up one of Park’s pieces on the Upper West Side. We picked up another on the Lower East Side, where Williams parked in a space so small that you couldn’t fit a nickel between us and the car behind us.

Then, for a change of pace, we visited the elegant 1931 Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, which takes up a city block and boasts of “eight miles of continuous glass in tall, steel-casement windows, alternating with bands of red brick and concrete spandrels.”

Now steeped in art and design studios, it seemed fitting that we were picking up Andrew Bordwin’s stunning photographs of Art Deco detail in New York and European architecture.

“Bordwin shoots his subjects straight-forwardly, capturing their rhythms and proportions without adding layers of sentimental or romantic longing for a bygone era,” Williams writes in the exhibit guide (and she’s the expert). But Bordwin’s photographs awoke in me my deepest longings to live in an Art Deco world. I lust after his Chrysler Building.

It turned out to be a remarkable coincidence that as soon as we entered Bordwin’s studio domain — very masculine, with a bar at the far end and what I’m afraid is a working urinal attached to the wall — I felt, somehow, that I knew him. It turns out that he has a Brattleboro connection: He once worked on an art project with Jim Grout of Brattleboro’s High Five Adventure Learning, and I interviewed him by phone for a profile of that company.

Many long hours of driving later, we made it to West Hartford, Conn., to pick up the last of Park’s work and head home.

When the show opened on June 27, I was anxious to see it. Museum director Danny Litchenfeld confirmed my belief that art shows are like theater shows — he said the staff had put in many all-nighters to prepare, and “We were putting screws in five minutes before the crowd came.”

And there were all the Parks, brilliantly detailed and brightly colored, childlike, obsessive, and beautiful!

The show’s curator, Tony Gengarelly, notes in the exhibit guide, “In Jessica Park, autism has found art.”

At the opening night party, some of our area’s more conceptual artists suggested they weren’t moved by Park’s work, but being in a room so brightly lit from the inside made me happy.

Park’s architecture-inspired work fit well with the Bordwins in the South Gallery, just next door. In the front of the museum, in the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Gallery, were several more takes on the idea of a road trip: “America Through the Windshield.”

Although it’s hard to imagine leaving Vermont when it’s so absolutely beautiful here this time of year, I must say that a road trip every now and then isn’t such a bad idea.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #261 (Wednesday, July 2, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.

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