If there were such a thing as a red carpet for notable New Jersey art figures, Mary Birmingham would know the feel of it under her feet. The new curator at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit spent nine years in the curatorial department at the Montclair Art Museum prior to her more recent tenure at the Hunterdon Art Museum. She has also taught art history at Montclair State University and at Kean University in Union, and written about the arts for Jersey City’s Jersey Journal.
But that doesn’t mean the Montclair resident favors New Jersey artists when it comes to conceiving and presenting exhibitions.
“I know a lot of New Jersey artists, and I always include them in my projects because I’m committed to supporting local artists,” says Birmingham. But, she adds, they are “not going to be the focus” of her work at the Visual Arts Center (artcenternj.org). “I have to make the best-quality artists the focus. If, in a particular exhibition, that happens to be someone from New Jersey, terrific. But that’s not the mission.”
Instead, the mission for her new post—she joined the Visual Arts Center in November—will be similar to her objective as director of exhibitions from 2007 to 2010 at the Hunterdon Art Museum. That means expanding the center’s scope.
Hunterdon, she says, is devoted “to being this great center for contemporary art and design, with a very ambitious program, and they’ve been able to bring a lot of different kinds of exhibitions to their audience. I plan to do the same here.”
What is distinct about her new environment—which bills itself as the state’s largest organization dedicated to viewing, making and learning about contemporary art—is that in its 78-year history, it has never had a staff curator.
“There wasn’t necessarily a cohesive curatorial vision or outlook,” says Birmingham. “So it’s kind of my job to develop a vision, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a wonderful gift to not be following in someone’s footsteps, to be able to build from the ground up.”
According to Marion Grzesiak, executive director of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, the decision to bring in a curator stemmed from a desire “to give the Art Center more visibility and credibility as a destination for contemporary art nationally and internationally.”
Birmingham’s first show as curator, “Jersey Bounce,” will address the relationships among works of art in a museum gallery. The exhibition will run July 29 through September 25.
“I’m inviting several other New Jersey-based curators and collectors to collaborate with me. Each of us will in turn choose a work that will suggest the next selection, so that one work bounces off another, creating a visual conversation among the works in the show,” says Birmingham. “It’s rather conceptual, but it will be a fun way to kick off the summer.”
Other Birmingham concepts include a show about the blurring boundary between sculpture and painting; a survey of Iranian-American artists; and a show of photographs addressing the body as a site for signs of cultural, sexual, religious or racial identity. Under her direction, the Visual Arts Center will present about 10 group or individual shows a year, up from a handful in years past.
Birmingham, who grew up in the Boston area and moved to Montclair as a teenager, is the mother of three. Her husband, Gary Villanova, is chief financial officer of Hoboken-based real estate developer Wavestone Properties.
She is setting high standards for herself—and the Visual Arts Center. “I want people from New York to get on the train and come to Summit because they know they’re going to see great art here.”