Gordon Wilkins, Associate Curator of American Art at the Addison Gallery of American Art, joined the Addison team in late October 2018, after three years as the Assistant Curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. He manages the Addison’s Instagram account and has hosted many virtual gallery talks on Addison exhibitions.
1) Why did you want to come work in the Addison in the first place?
I was probably one of the first people to apply because I had some experience working with people from the Addison on shows that I worked on when I was at the Peabody [Essex] Museum, and I really fell in love with the museum. The collection, in particular—I knew how amazing it was, but then I had the chance to come here a few times, see the installation, see the different special exhibitions, and become better acquainted with people who already were here. I knew that this would be a really ideal place. I like the small museum sort of feel… we all wear lots of different hats and are all doing lots of different things, which keeps the excitement.
2) What does a museum curator do? What is your daily life like?
There are lots of different things that we do here at the Addison. One is exhibition development, and so we are working on lots of different exhibitions. What’s unique about the Addison is that we are always changing our galleries, and we don’t have anything that’s permanently installed. I also work a lot with collection development and adding work to the collection. We’re able to identify works and acquire works for a collection. The other part of the job is taking care of the collection that we do have already, which is extraordinary. I mostly focus on everything that came before 1950 in our collection. For the 90th anniversary, I did a lot of collections research and found out lots of interesting things about objects in our collection we didn’t know before, things about our history. Then there are other things that are normally not part of a curator job, that I do all of our social media, something I took over when the pandemic started. Sometimes I also do career trips; I take our work all around the world or bring it back. I do a lot of cultivation work with our supporters. That’s another big part of our job is raising money.
3) You have had several gallery talks to introduce the exhibitions at the Addison. How did you come up with those?
When the pandemic first happened, we knew that we had to do as every other museum did: go digital and do a lot of virtual. So I did tours before going virtual, but we’re small, so we can only accommodate about 20 people for in-person tours. And then [during] the pandemic, we’ve been able to quadruple that and have dozens—if not hundreds—of people attend our talks, whereas we could only have 20 people before. We’ve been able to engage with people all around the world.
4) Do you enjoy leading tours for people interested in the Addison’s exhibitions?
I have always. I started working at a historic house museum in Rhode Island when I was a really little kid, like eight years old, giving tours of this historic house. So I’ve always loved to talk about art with the general public and other people. It’s been a lot of fun to do the virtual programs.
5) What is your favorite part about Andover besides the Addison?
The history of Andover is really fascinating to me, and just the incredible people that have come out of Andover over the years. The campus itself is spectacular. I love the graveyard—to discover that Harriet Beecher Stowe is randomly buried behind my office is pretty amazing. I also think the intelligence and passion of the students is inspiring. I’ve always been just impressed by how they are on top of things and have such a great interest. And I think it’s a pretty dynamic, unusual, and exciting place to work with, which keeps it interesting and fresh.
6) What’s your favorite meal from Paresky Commons?
Before the pandemic, I loved the Mediterranean Bar—that was my favorite thing, with the falafel and all of the cut-up pickles and the tzatziki, and the pita was really nice. I also love and miss the really elaborate vegetable and fruit art that they float in the water dispensers. That was always the highlight of my day seeing what they came up with, and I was pretty amazed by that level of intricacy, and it was beautiful to look at.
7) What’s your favorite curating experience?
One of the projects that I probably learned the most about curating from was a big show: Sally Mann’s work. It had six venues that traveled to Europe. It was a major show with a huge book that we did with the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Being able to work with Sally Mann was incredible, and I learned so much about how exhibitions and books publications clicked together, so that was a really rewarding territorial experience.
8) Was there a specific show/gallery talk you did that you thought meant a lot to you?
I loved the very first show that I did here. That was my own from start to finish, which was called “The Wildness Distance from Ourselves.” It was amazing to actually have the resources to do the crazy things that I wanted to do, like bring extinct birds into the museum: I had taxidermy and I had a bison skull. It was a great way for me to learn the collection by just going in and looking through boxes and discovering all this stuff that we have.
9) What do you do outside of Addison? During free time, do you chill or do you work on independent projects?
When I’m home, I have two cats that take up a lot of my mental energy. My cats are [named] Martha and Edward, and I try to keep up with my friends as best as I can. I like to travel as much as possible. That’s getting out of the North Shore from time to time; it’s nice to getaway for a bit if possible. I love any sort of weird, true crime, or weird subculture documentaries, so that occupies a lot of time. And then since I do all the social media, I’m always seeing what’s trending and seeing if we can do something that’s not completely stupid that respond to a popular trend.
10) If you have to choose one book and one book only, and you can only read that one book for the rest of your life, which book will you choose? Or it could also be a piece of artifact.
My favorite book is called “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers. In terms of one work, that’s impossible. I would take the Addison 65 Years Catalog because it has a lot of different collection objects. I could look at lots of different things. If I could live with one object in my house from our collection, it would probably be Winslow Homer’s “Kissing the Moon.” That’s one of my favorite single things in our collection.