Lindsay Neal’s tenure at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Norfolk has included many firsts: the museum’s first costume exhibition featuring over twenty garments, the conservation of founder Florence Sloane’s dressing room, and now, the museum’s first etching exhibition featuring James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Lindsay has continued to produce and execute two groundbreaking exhibitions at the museum. As the Hermitage’s Curator of Collections, she shares a few thoughts about art, her career path, and curating.
TFP: Why is art important right now?
LN: I think this past year has shown us that art has the power to get us through the most challenging times. During the pandemic we’ve been craving a sense of community and connection with other people. The arts have helped us cope and express ourselves creatively in new ways.
TFP: Tell us about your background: where you were raised, went to school, etc.
LN: I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to Hanover College in Indiana. At Hanover, I took my first art history class and knew it was what I wanted to pursue. I also became interested in architectural history and began to view my hometown in a new way. The museums I grew up going to—the Taft, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Cincinnati Museum Center—I could explore them with a fresh set of eyes.
In college I had the opportunity to travel on a 10-day study abroad trip to Japan where I learned about Japanese architecture, art, and aesthetics. It was life changing. I was so drawn to the culture and experience that Japanese art continued to inspire future research. I attended the University of Cincinnati, where I earned my MA in Art History. My thesis was on the establishment of the Rookwood Pottery Company, established in Cincinnati, and the cross-cultural influences that were borrowed from Japanese art, which were popular in the early years of the company’s production.
After school I spent a year and a half in Charleston where I—as many new graduates do—worked multiple jobs. The most rewarding was an adjunct position at a community college. This was one of my favorite experiences. I had students of all ages, backgrounds, and interest levels. This was the first time many of them had studied art history, and it was exciting to see their interest grow.
TFP: Tell us about your most recent exhibit at the Hermitage?
LN: We’re thrilled to work with the Reading Public Museum again to present “Whistler & Company: The Etching Revival.” They put together a traveling exhibit from their permanent collection of over sixty prints by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his contemporaries. We also had the opportunity to work with the Chrysler Museum to include a few additional prints with local ties in the show.
It’s the first time we’ve done an exhibit that focuses on this type of printmaking, etching, and this movement. I’m glad we can offer it safely to the public during COVID. The museum has become a sort of restful retreat. There are a lot of details and places to see in the show. It gives you a feeling of traveling to another location or back in time without leaving Norfolk.
TFP: Working in a historic house must have some unique challenges. What are some projects you’ve worked on that were unexpected?
LN: Three months into my position I oversaw repairs to one of our main galleries following tropical storm Matthew. I had to work with many people to plan the restoration process to the structure and interior. I also worked with several specialists to restore an early 20th century couch from our collection which had also been damaged.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several conservators and specialists of historic materials on multiple projects. Maeve Bristow repaired plaster and restored Mrs. Sloane’s Dressing Room to its original beauty early last year, Andrew Baxter conserved our outdoor Girl With Shell sculpture by Edward McCartan, and several paintings have received conservation as well.
TFP: What has been your favorite show?
LN: “Style & Flair: Selections from the Wardrobe of Florence K. Sloane” (2020). In art history, we focus so much on fine art, so to be able to work with textiles was a fascinating new world from start to finish. It required learning new skills like creating our own mannequins and problem solving when working with delicate materials. We displayed over twenty dresses and accessories including jewelry and hats.
TFP: How has your practice evolved since you began at the Hermitage?
LN: The first few years I wanted to exhibit objects that had rarely been on view to the public. I worked with a private collector to acquire works by artist Douglas Volk in 2018 that supplemented the work already in our collection. This past year my process has shifted to asking for input from the public and letting that guide my thinking. While everything in the collection is interesting to me, I want to hear from our visitors about what engages them most.
Jennifer Lucy is Marketing + Design Manager at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens.