All roads lead to Andy: Museum's new curator was drawn to job
Call it a crash course.
Nicholas Chambers, then 16, was visiting New York with his parents when he first saw the Andy Warhol painting that hangs in the Museum of Metropolitan Art titled “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times.” Warhol had imprinted a giant orange canvas with multiple images of a mangled car that he copied from a tabloid newspaper photo.
Chambers, a native of Sydney, Australia, says he had a vague acquaintance with reproductions of Warhol's work. But seeing this visually stunning original, which was nearly as big as a garage door, was the difference between hearing a Rolling Stones song on the radio and watching the band crank out the tune from the third row.
“I was really unprepared for what the experience would be like, encountering these works in the flesh,” says Chambers, who just completed his first month as Milton Fine Curator of Art at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.
The experience inspired Chambers to delve deeper into contemporary art in all its manifold iterations. That passion has earned him a role as one of the key players in the future of the Warhol.
Chambers will work with new Warhol director Eric Shiner, who held the curator post before him. The new faces at the top will chart a course with the help of a seasoned staff that includes chief archivist Matt Wrbican and director of exhibitions Jesse Kowalski.
“I came out to Pittsburgh for interviews in January and was impressed by the way that Eric Shiner involved so many of his team in the appointment process,” Chambers says. “There is a phenomenal group of people at the Warhol, and they were a very big part of my decision to make the move from Australia.
“Warhol's power is that his art reached beyond art circles to the mainstream and the various tributaries,” Chambers says. “There are these curious pathways that lead back to Andy.”
The curator spot opened up when Shiner succeeded director Thomas Sokolowski, who had guided the Warhol from its opening more than 14 years ago.
“We did a global search,” Shiner says. “We looked at candidates from all over the world. We boiled that down to five finalists. We brought them all to Pittsburgh, not only to see the museum but to see how they reacted to the environment here.
“All five of them were absolutely fantastic. We looked not only at their exhibition record and their work experience but also at their openness to being here in Pittsburgh and how they could engage the local community, because that's so deeply important to us. Nick was the one that really stood out, and we just knew that he would be the right person for us.”
Chambers is rock-star thin, with an easy grin and an effusive, infectious energy. He talks about contemporary artists with the enthusiasm of an indie music fanboy. (He does, in fact, have his favorite bands and is hoping his collection of vinyl record albums arrives from Brisbane intact.) He's curated individual exhibits by artists Pierre Bismuth, Katharina Grosse and Spencer Finch, who hail from France, Germany and the United States, respectively. He recently saw an exhibition in New York by Italian artist Lara Favaretto whose work he calls “beautiful and bittersweet.”
“A lot of what I do is working with living artists,” he says. “I get a huge amount of enjoyment from the process.”
Consciously or not, more than a few of these living artists bear Warhol's influence in their work. Chambers sees it as part of his mission to give some of these artists an airing at the museum. He's also keen to expand upon the museum's relationship with the local arts community and to help make the Warhol collection available to international audiences.
“As you can imagine, there's a high degree of demand for Warhol's work, from museums around the world,” he says. “We have a large number of requests for loans of work and for whole exhibitions.”
Chambers obtained his master of arts and bachelor of arts degrees from the University of Sydney, where one of his professors was Terry Smith. In a strange bit of happenstance, Chambers ran into his old professor last month at an opening at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Smith is now Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Nick was an exceptional student among what was already an elite cohort,” says Smith, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Sydney. “He showed an early and deep interest in contemporary art, and was more adventurous than most university students in that he immersed himself in the Sydney art world at the same time as he was writing assigned essays on local and international artists. He was one of the first to take up the Museum Studies course, in which he shone precisely because of this hands-on, close-contact experience.
“He has curated exhibitions in alternative spaces, major state museums and in commercial galleries. This range of experience is crucial to what he can bring to the Warhol, as it is a museum that combines qualities of each of these kinds of exhibiting space, as well as being a unique, single-artist museum.”
Chambers first visited Pittsburgh in 2005 as curator of contemporary international art at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. He was tasked with researching the Warhol's collection to help organize a major retrospective that would open Down Under in 2007. It featured more than 300 works loaned by the Warhol.
Like many visitors, he was surprised how green Pittsburgh was.
“I love the way the way the city changes from neighborhood to neighborhood,” he says. “Perhaps this will soften with time, but, for a recent arrival, it feels that the city's geography and architecture really assert themselves and create very distinct ambiances in the different parts of town. “
Later this summer, Chambers' wife, Gemma Smith, moves to Pittsburgh to join her husband. Smith, a painter and sculptor, is finishing up a ceiling mural for the new Supreme and District Court building in Brisbane.
William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-320-7986.