Abelli Wins 'ADDY' for Mead Museum Work

Phyllis Lehrer
Amherst Bulletin

Donna Abelli grew up with the smell of paint and turpentine. Pencils and drawing boards were her playthings.

"I loved it. I had a leaning to be creative," said Abelli.

The paint and brushes were a constant because her father was an artist. Her creative bent is fulfilled with her work at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where she is the administrative and business manager and in charge of all publications, exhibition catalogs, posters, invitations, print material and advertising campaigns. In addition, she does community outreach, supervises security, the student employees and docents, and helps with special events.

Sitting in her office bright with posters, photos, postcards, mobiles, shelves lined with design books and all the museum's publications, she bubbled and was passionate when she talked of her work that has garnered her several awards.

Her first award was a Gold Key in the Boston Globe scholastic art competition while she was in high school on Cape Cod.

"I was really excited. I took a lot of art classes in high school," she said. For the contest she made a cloisonne pewter pillbox.

She attended the New England School of Art in Boston and started freelancing in graphic arts after graduation.

Abelli moved to Amherst 1991 to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts. However, she transferred to Smith College for the Ada Comstock program.

"It was the best experience of my life, but it was difficult. I had to take care of my family and keep a full load at school. They worked with me. I owe Smith a lot," she said.

She majored in psychology and had a goal to earn her doctorate. But the advanced degree had to be put on hold. "With two young children I needed to work," she said.

She joined the Amherst College staff as a part-time administrative assistant in 1998 and went back to her artistic roots.

"I kept taking on more and more responsibilities. I saw things that needed to be changed or streamlined. I created more work for myself. I see what needs to be done," she said.

For example, she said she is thinking of creating smaller museum catalogs that would easy to carry and fit in a purse.

Three years ago all the museum publications shifted to being done in-house. She works closely with the curator and Tiger Press Printing on the materials. "They are phenomenal," she said of Tiger Press.

While the Gold Key award is not in her office, her other recognitions are including the New England Museum Association Publication Design Award. She has several ADDY awards from the Western Massachusetts Advertising Council. The newest one arrived this spring for the design of the Mead's catalog, "George Bellows: A Ringside Seat."

The work is deadline driven and deadlines are a challenge. "I make it by the skin of my teeth, but I get it done. It's a juggling act, have to prioritize, go with the flow," she said.

"I love what I do here. You have to love what you do. If you don't, you're in the wrong line of work."

As for outreach, Abelli works with the committee on the monthly Amherst Art Walk. She helped design the brochure and worked on the block party to attract residents.

"I want downtown to stay vital," she said. She plans on joining the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce's Promote Downtown Committee.

To Abelli, the Mead is altruistic, since there is no gain. "Admission is free to the Mead, there is no gift shop and we don't sell art," she said.

The museum closed in 2000 and reopened in 2001. And attendance has increased 35 percent over last year. She credits the boost on advertising, the quality of materials and the types of exhibits that are very accessible.

"Photos are very accessible. American and European art is accessible, but with modern and contemporary art people are less sure. Some people come to a museum and are not sure what to expect, they are intimidated," she said.

The Mead will be closed this summer for repairs and reopen in September with a photo exhibit, "Room With a View," by Cuban photographer Abelardo Morell. The Mead is part of the Museum 10 collaboration that she called a nice partnership. It began with "Go Dutch" last year and continues with BookMarks this year with the Mead's "Off the Shelf" exhibit of artist's books from the library's collection.

Abelli continues her own work. "I'm an artist. I like to do things with my hands," she said now focusing on Japanese wood cuts, pen and ink and collages. "But I don't sell anything."

The art gene was passed on. Her daughter, Nikki a senior at Amherst Regional High School, is an artist.

"She did the window at the Fiber Art Center," she said beaming proudly.