Interior image of the Starting Something New Recent Contemporary Art exhibit

David E. Little, the director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum since 2015, Skypes a lot. And when he’s talking face-to-face onscreen with collectors, donors, art dealers and more, he likes the wall they see behind him to display some dynamic art, liberated on a rotating basis from the Mead’s collection.

The October day we met (in person) in his office, the Skype-eye-level work was a cornflower-colored calligraphic painting called I Like Blue, by Ulfert S. Wilke (1907–1987). In 2016 it was part of the Mead Reimagined show, which featured new works in the collection, most of them contemporary.

Contemporary art is a rich and loaded topic that Little knows a lot about. Before arriving at the Mead, he was head and curator of the Department of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; sometime before that, he was the director of adult and academic programs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Museumgoers can find contemporary art hard to grasp, and museums can find it hard to collect: present-day art by known artists is wildly expensive, even for the big museums, let alone smaller college museums like the Mead.

But in the last decade, the Mead has steadily bolstered its contemporary collection. In 2008, the Trinkett Clark Memorial Student Acquisition Fund was created to honor the Mead’s former curator of American art, who died in 2006. Since he arrived, Little has bought some 300 pieces of contemporary art for the College. And in August 2019, the Mead announced that it received a gift of more than 170 contemporary artworks from an anonymous donor.

To celebrate this depth and momentum, Little has curated and mounted a new show. Called Starting Something New: Recent Contemporary Art Acquisitions and Gifts, it opened on Sept. 10, 2019, and will run through July 26, 2020.

The exhibition’s roster of global artists boasts familiar names—David Hockney, Cindy Sherman and Mark Bradford—and some remarkable emergent artists, including Heather Agyepong, Kapwani Kiwanga and Analia Saban.

As we sat to talk, my eyes dazzled by I Like Blue, I asked Little about the College and its evolving commitment to contemporary art.

David Little, Director of the Mead Art Museum

David Little, the John Wieland 1958 Director and Chief Curator, Mead Art Museum

KW: I’ll start with a big, obvious question: What’s the good news and bad news about collecting contemporary art for the Mead?

DL: The old cliché in art history was “A good artist is a dead artist”—meaning, once they’re gone, you can analyze, archive and interpret their art, and you don’t get any flak from the artist about it.

But when you’re working with a living artist, you have to be much more flexible. Curating the show with these artists, it’s like being a theater director or a producer. Every artist is different; every collaboration is different. It can be complicated, but the upside is that it’s exciting.

KW: How do you cope with the steep prices for the art?

DL: In terms of resources, you really have to be selective. You have to select an artist who isn’t as well-known, and so they’re much more affordable. The other way is to select an artist who has been forgotten and there’s no good reason why they’ve been forgotten.

KW: What weight does contemporary art hold for Amherst students?

DL: The students get an opportunity to meet an artist. And that’s really been the great attraction of contemporary art, for the Mead, for the curriculum and for the students. Students get exposed to not only how artists think, but how they make things, how they analyze.

KW: There is also more diversity in the contemporary art field, rather than in most of the Mead’s collection from previous centuries.

DL: That’s the other impetus for collecting contemporary: we want work that speaks to the students of their generation. It’s important for them to have art that belongs to them, time-wise. In terms of purchasing contemporary art versus getting a gift, we are focused on collecting artists of color. About 80 percent of what we’re buying is by artists of color. And most of those are women artists.

Green Book by Kapwani Kiwanga

Greenbook, Mississippi (1940). 2018. Kapwani Kiwanga.

KW: Can you tell me a bit about your collecting strategies?

DL: Every day, galleries send me a list of artworks that have just come in, to give me a preview. My home is in Katonah, N.Y. So I’m in Amherst during the week, then in Katonah on Thursday, and I usually spend Friday in New York, even Saturday, looking at art. I also go to a number of shows and art fairs throughout the year: Miami Basel, Art Paris, the Venice Biennale and many more.

KW: How has your eye developed over the years?

DL: There are hundreds of thousands of works being produced. You can’t see it all. So it’s like training your mind to cope with the sheer volume of looking at things. You have to constantly be engaged, so you don’t lose your edge. And we have a collection plan that helps us focus. I’ll use the metaphor of shopping for clothes: The plan helps us make sure that, when we go to the department store to get a pair of pants, we don’t come back with a jacket. It keeps us honest in terms of what we really want.

KW: Do other shows out there influence your choices for Mead shows?

DL: If someone says to me, “Did you see what MASS MoCA is doing with that show or that artist?” and then they say, “The Mead should do that”—well, that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. You want to do something different.

Decant (White) No. 2 by Analia Saban

Decant (White) No. 2. 2011. Analia Saban. 

KW: I know that the donor of those 170-plus contemporary artworks prefers to remain anonymous, but is there anything you can tell us about the donor’s vision?

DL: In five years, I can say who the donor is, since the donor had given the permission to do that. Sadly, the donor passed away just months after he gifted his works to the Mead and several other places. To the point of not doing what other museums are doing, the Mead is creating our own identity. And I would say that the works that the donor was collecting fit within that mold in this way. He was collecting well-known artists but not collecting necessarily the works that they’re known for. He had a very singular vision.

KW: Can you talk about the impact of the Trinkett Clark fund, through which students work to select and acquire contemporary art for the Mead?

DL: We are always looking for feedback from students. And we want to do even more of that so that the students can actually play a part in shaping the collection. This art is not only of their generation—it’s up to their choice. And that is a really radical and wonderful thing. Any time we can take their feedback and enhance our collection, it’s terrific.