Danielle Stetson, Executive Director - Hunter Museum of American ArtPhoto by Lesha Patterson
Daniel Stetson’s directorship at the Hunter Museum of American Art has allowed Chattanoogans and visitors alike the opportunity to engage with a broad range of offerings. Stetson’s inclusive embrace of various forms not only brings fascinating work into prominence, but also promotes an understanding of how deeply art permeates everyday life.
Stetson says he believes that the making of art remains a uniquely human activity, and he found himself profoundly changed by a visit to the Museum of Modern Art when he was young. He has a special interest in living artists and their abilities to change communities. Stetson not only works with artists, but he also writes about art. It appears likely that these forms of engagement developed his inclusive vision of art forms and their relation to community evolution. His interest in the eloquence with which art shows history has brought the Civil War photographic exhibition and has informed the hanging of Impressionist and Modern paintings in the Hunter’s lower galleries. Currently, the photographs of Dorothea Lange and other documentary photographers of the first half of the 20 century underscore how this medium brings clarity to our understanding and how it further evolves as an effective aesthetic.
Stetson’s enthusiasm deepens with respect to art’s ability to make history through community transformation. He enthusiastically points out that Chattanooga ranked high in the New York Times list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.” Chattanooga came in at No. 25, just after Vienna, Austria—the only American city on the list not in California.
Besides directing the Hunter, Stetson serves on the city’s Public Arts Committee, and he recent helped jury the 4 Bridges Festival. Last week, he hosted a press conference at the Hunter announcing the HATCH Spring Arts Festival, a 10-day showcase of all facets of the creative culture of Chattanooga, to be held April 13-22.
“HATCH will be an unprecedented collaboration of organizations throughout our region,” Stetson says.
HATCH, which stands for history, arts, technology, culture, and happenings, will include the 4 Bridges Arts Festival, the Mid-South Sculpture Alliance Conference and much more across almost two weeks. Stetson says he expects huge crowds, and hopes the festival will eventually develop the type of prestige that has made Charleston’s Spoleto Festival a world-class arts and cultural event.
HATCH is just one example of how Stetson is extending the Hunter’s hand to the community, and it may be helpful to rewind the clock a bit to this past summer, when Stetson was profiled in The Pulse’s annual State of Arts issue, to review his thoughts at the time.
Stetson came to the Hunter and Chattanooga leaving behind a 15-year directorship at Florida’s Polk Museum of Art because he felt the Hunter position was a “tissue match,” he told the paper’s Janis Hashe.
“I called Rob [former Hunter Executive Director Robert Kret] and spoke to him about his experience, to make sure I was the right fit. I was impressed that they were taking their time to find the right person,” he said at the time.
Stetson grew up in the same upstate New York town as Grandma Moses—the beloved folk artist lived up the street from his family.
“I met her when I was 5, and even then I knew she was important,” he says. The Hunter’s piece by the artist was just one of the signs he felt were pointing him toward taking the position. He also recognized the collection’s William Morris glass piece as one he’d exhibited in the early 1990s, “just before the Hunter bought it.” Additionally, he’s a huge fan of Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey, one of whose installations impresses visitors in the contemporary collection.
Yet it was the Hunter’s position, both literally and figuratively, in Chattanooga’s burgeoning arts community that was the ultimate draw.
“I became aware of Arts Move and MakeWork [CreateHere programs] and the connection between Chatt State and [sculptor] John Henry,” he says. “I could see there was a community.
“While the Hunter’s role is not to present local artists, we can facilitate dialogue about art and bring artists in from around the world to see this community.”
As many have mentioned, when Volkswagen chose the Hunter to make its big announcement, the tacit endorsement of the arts community was huge. “Art changed my life,” he says. “And so I know it can change other people’s.”
Since then, the brief Stetson Era at the Hunter has yielded some extraordinary exhibits and acquisitions, among them one of Lois Mailou Jones’ later period paintings for the museum’s permanent collection which continues an excellent development.
This past weekend included the opening of the “Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller,” which, in addition to the famed Herman Miller chair, examines the creation and evolution of many masterpieces of 20th and 21st century contemporary design produced by Miller and designed by such artists as Gilbert Rohde, Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, Robert Probst and others.
Last summer’s photographic exhibition of Volkswagen’s industrial design proved that ergonomics and design are among art’s most intimate contacts with people, yet their prevalence can be taken for granted; a refreshed perspective has great value.
The same is the case with art on film: design often represents collaborative forms in that many contribute to the final product. This can be easily seen with respect to computers. Stetson notes, for example that computer games are quite artfully developed, and the sales of games are eclipsing movie sales. Fine art developed with a computer can be remarkable both for effects and accessibility.
The Hunter’s presentation of Nam June Palk’s “Warhol Robot” last summer brought a world-class synthesis of video art and assemblage. Other art videos shared the exhibition space and the upcoming video presentation “Synchrony” will allow more exposure to this fascinating form. In yet another medium, more contemporary photography will arrive at the Hunter in “Sound and Vision” which will feature photography related to rock music. As mentioned, the museum is now displaying the work of legendary documentary photographer Dorothea Lange and other leading Depression Era photographers. (The Lange exhibit is reviewed in Arts section on Page 15.)
Chattanooga’s public arts have been particularly impressive this past year, and Stetson’s current involvement with the Public Arts Chattanooga has been exciting for him, he says. The First Street Sculpture Garden is being reinstalled and several pieces are already in place.
There are additional public arts surprises in the coming year and the Hunter’s contemporary art space will be installed with other works from the museum’s collection in the spring.
In less than a year, Stetson has moved the Hunter Museum into a more relevant and deeper involvement with Chattanooga. These are exciting times for arts in the city and Stetson can already take some credit.