Art

The Westmoreland’s new curator Jeremiah McCarthy hits the ground running

Jeremiah McCarthy says his first few weeks as curator of American art at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art have been “very fun and very intense.”

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He had to hit the ground running.

After coming on board April 19, he had less than three weeks to put together his first exhibition.

“Knowing and Naming: Abstraction Beyond Reality” opened May 29 as a complement to the major exhibition “Alone Together: Encounters in American Realism” showing in the Greensburg museum’s Cantilever Gallery.

“Alone Together” features works by early- to mid-20th century American realist painters evoking images of human connection and disconnection in instances of upheaval such as war, civil unrest and economic depression.

For “Knowing and Naming,” McCarthy chose nonrepresentational works that seek to comprehend the nature of reality.

The assignment, McCarthy said, was “basically, please put up something that would be on display in tandem with ‘Alone Together.’ I thought maybe I would show the complete opposite side of the coin.”

“I thought (guest curator Alex Taylor) had done a great job pulling together works that told the story of realism,” he said. “I wanted to show how artists in the same period had turned to abstraction to sensitize people to reality in the exact same way, but using different visual forms.”

As he delved into The Westmoreland’s permanent collection, he said, the works he chose created the concept. Fellow members of the museum staff made the task easier.

“I really have never worked at a place like this, where the head of every department is functioning at such a high level and also so authentically wants the museum to succeed,” he said. “When people have that kind of mentality, you can do things really quickly, and you can be nimble and put up a show in 2½ weeks.”

McCarthy has seen the inner workings of a number of prestigious New York City-based museums and art institutions, including stints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

He also served as curator at the National Academy of Design and associate curator at the American Federation of Arts, and was an inaugural teaching fellow at The Frick Collection.

The Staten Island native, 37, also worked for seven years with the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake.

He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York and a Master of Arts degree from Hunter College in New York, both in art history.

Formative experience

One of his most formative professional experiences, he said, was working with Laurence Madeline, chief curator at Musée Picasso in Paris and custodian of the Picasso Archives, on a show for the AFA called “Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900.”

With 89 paintings from 66 collections in 13 countries, he said, “It probably was the most logistically complicated exhibition I’ve ever worked on, and maybe ever will, and (Madeline) became a kind of mentor to me.”

McCarthy also shares a mentor with Anne Kraybill, The Westmoreland’s Richard M. Scaife director/CEO.

“I always knew about this museum, but I never considered it a possibility for my life, because I knew that the person that was here before me was here for a very long time, so I assumed that it would always continue that way.” he said.

He changed his mind after reading the museum’s job posting for a replacement for longtime chief curator Barbara Jones, who retired April 1.

“Now is a time when all museums are trying to figure out what their path will be, especially museums with ‘American art’ in the title,” he said. “That post was written in such a way that it was very clear that whoever was going to hire this person wanted them to really rethink that term, to rethink what the ‘American’ in American art means. It was up to me to see if that was authentic or not.”

Through the interview process, McCarthy was drawn to what he termed The Westmoreland’s potential.

“Normally, there will be roadblocks to success — like they’ve got great ideas but they don’t have funding, or they’ve got funding but they don’t have great content, or the building’s fantastic but the collection’s really bad, he said. “In any of that, I didn’t see roadblocks.

“I think this building is absolutely exceptional. This building could quite literally become something that looks down on a town, or it could be something that reaches out to a town and draws people close, and I think there’s a way to do the latter of the two.”

McCarthy is living in Homestead, his first time living outside New York City. He said he was a little worried about experiencing culture shock, but so far he hasn’t had any.

He’s been learning his way around, along with visitors he has had every weekend from New York.

“Pittsburgh is a really great city,” he said. “It’s a big city with a small footprint. It’s a great city for art, especially with everything going on with The Warhol and The Pop District,” a recently announced long-term project including a performance and event facility, a public art initiative and a workforce development program on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.

“I think Pittsburgh has the potential to be a major part of the conversation around art in this country,” he said.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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