Q & A: Director says Arkell Museum draws visitors from afar

If you add it all up, Diane Forsberg, who became director three years ago at The Arkell Museum, has
Diane Forsberg, Chief Curator of the Arkell Museum
Diane Forsberg, Chief Curator of the Arkell Museum

Seven-and-a-half years ago, when The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie opened its doors, the $10 million expansion and renovation project transformed what was formerly known as the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery.

Diane Forsberg was the museum’s deputy director and chief curator back then and she put together the debut exhibits, “Fragile Masterpieces: Pastels and Watercolors from the Permanent Collection” and “Mohawk Valley Views.”

Last week, Forsberg unveiled two new exhibits, “The Artist Revealed: Artist Portraits and Self-Portraits,” from the Syracuse University Art Galleries, and “From House Pets to Endangered Species: Prints and Drawings by Beth Van Hoesen.”

If you add it all up, Forsberg, who became director three years ago, has mounted 33 shows since she arrived in the Mohawk Valley from Connecticut.

Forsberg, who lives in Canajoharie, has art history degrees from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and UMass Amherst.

From 2001 to 2004, she was chief curator at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Q: The museum was closed in January and February. Is the first time you did this?

A: It is. We noticed that other museums do that. And we also noticed that we had very low attendance in January and February, so it made sense for us to do it also.

Q: Tell me about “The Artist Revealed.”

A: As you first walk in, you’ll see artists’ portraits of other artists. As you go around the corner, you get to see the self-portraits.

It’s a wide range. It goes from Norman Rockwell’s self-portrait, which is really rather fun, where he’s looking at himself in a mirror.

We have another artist who has what appears at first to be some sort of abstract series of lines. It’s Mark Boyle’s self-portrait, and it’s actually a much blown-up portion of his skin. So you see all the lines of his epidermis.

Q: And “From House Pets to Endangered Species”?

A: Those are really fun. She’s a very well-known printmaker. She’s from California, so she may be better known there but her works are also in the Victoria and Albert. They are all over at leading museums.

Q: Is it uncommon to have a museum and library under one roof?

A: It’s really unusual. A lot of libraries started with collections, with natural history and fine art. That was very common in the late 1800s. As those collections grew, especially those that had to do with fine art, they became separate institutions.

Q: What is your staff like for the museum and library?

A: In terms of people who are just museum-only dedicated right now, that would be our part-time collections manager and me. We have an administrative assistant, we have a buildings person, we have a bookkeeper, we have the desk staff that work both the library and museum desk.

[A new library director is expected to be hired soon.]

Q: When the new museum opened in 2007, its collection was described as “a best-kept secret.” Is it less of a secret now?

A: We hope so. Because of our location, we will be re-discovered over and over again by different groups at different times. The Wall Street Journal discovered us in 2011 and called us the same thing.

Q: Where do your visitors come from?

A: We still get more visitors from outside our five-ZIP-code area than we do from inside the five-ZIP-code area that immediately surrounds us.

We tend to get more people from farther away than from close to home. They come from all over the world. We tend to get a lot of visitors from Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester.

Q: Do visitors use the Beechnut archives?

A: A lot of people who use the Beechnut archives start by using phone and email because they do come from all over the country, people who are doing research for movies or books they are publishing. A lot of times those people don’t actually make it on site.

Q: How is the museum funded?

A: We really count on people’s generosity. We get a little money from admissions and the gift shop but really in the end it’s the grants and gifts that keep us going. We really count on even the small donations.

Q: How many exhibits has the museum presented in the last seven years?

A: I started out by doing seven a year and I’m now doing around five a year.

Q: Which exhibits have been most important to you?

A: It’s always the one I’m working on.

It was really wonderful last year to finally have the Winslow Homer catalog come out, to finally have that information available to people in such an attractive format. And that was really made possible because of that partnership with the Fenimore. It was great to have it [the exhibit “Winslow Homer: The Nature and Rhythm of Life from the Arkell Collections”] in Cooperstown and then come back here.

Q: And you show the work of regional artists?

A: We have a gallery downstairs and the two galleries in the library. Those you won’t see listed on our website. Those are really promoted through the library site.

Q: There are many programs in the museum’s community space. What has been most popular?

A: It really depends on what audience you’re talking about. The exhibitions we did with children’s book illustrators, “Dinotopia” and “Walter Wick,” the programs did really well and brought in families. The gallery talks with curators are popular but it’s an older audience.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: All over the place. I actually went to high school in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, in Kenmore.

Q: How get you interested in museums?

A: Once I decided on art history, I only thought of museum work. I thought I would be doing museum education and I ended up doing more curatorial. I’ve spent my career moving between historic sites and historic museums and art museums because my concentration is in American art from late 19th and early 20th century.

Q: Did you go to museums as a child?

A: I did grow up being taken to museums often. I remember going to the Cleveland Art Museum with my father and having him tell me the Biblical stories behind the Renaissance paintings.

When I was in Kenmore, there was the Albright-Knox, which is a wonderful museum. And I had an aunt who collected contemporary and modern art. I remember going to visit there with her, being fascinated with contemporary art because of her.

Q: What occupies your time when you are not at the Arkell?

A: I’m about to be a grandmother. That has been taking up a lot of my imagination and energy, thinking about this new little one that’s coming into the world. My daughter lives in Beverly Hills. I’ll be there for the birth.

Q: What do you enjoy about your job?

A: I love so much the subject matter. And it’s so endless because this museum is both a history and an art museum. There are so many possible topics and jumping-off points. There’s a long list of things to study, to research and learn more about.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected].

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