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Q&A with Ackland Art Museum curator Timothy Riggs

Every other month, the Ackland Art Museum invites members of the community to bring works of art to have a curator evaluate the significance of the art as a part of Curator’s Clinic. The next event will be held today.

Staff writer McKenzie Coey spoke to Timothy Riggs, curator of collections at the Ackland, about his favorite artwork seen at the clinic and the inspiration for the event.

DAILY TAR HEEL: How did the Curator’s Clinic come about?

Timothy Riggs: People are always calling art museums and saying, “I have this or that,” or, “My grandmother left me this and can you tell me anything about it?” Over the phone, I can almost never tell them anything about it.

The logical thing is to say, “Bring it to the museum and I’ll look at it and see what I can tell you.”

Sometime in the early ’90s I got the idea to set aside one afternoon a month to give people an appointment on such a day. At this point it is bimonthly, twice every two months. So that’s the basic framework.

DTH: What things do you usually see?

TR: Well, nobody has ever tried to bring a live elephant. By and large what people bring in is what you would expect to be a work of art of some kind.

Occasionally people will bring in things that you would not consider works of art. Somebody will bring in an old Bible, for example. Not an illustrated Bible, just an old book. I happen to be very interested in prints and printmaking and anything that is connected with printing, so I am usually happy to look at something like that.

I can tell them a little bit about it and when it was made approximately if it wasn’t dated. There are various strange things that come in.

DTH: What’s your favorite thing you have ever seen?

TR: A few years ago, I was working on a large exhibition, mostly from the museum’s own collection, but some occasional loans. It had to do with printed drawings. It included Germany, but also countries in the surrounding area. It ranged in date from the 1840s to the 1930s.

It so happened that there is an artist who was active in the 1890s in Germany, and he did particularly beautiful etchings, and we didn’t have any in the collection. I had always felt that an example of his work would be a nice thing to add to the collection. A woman came into the Curator’s Clinic and had one of the absolutely beautiful etchings.

In the 1890s section of the show, it was not the only star, but it was definitely a star of the exhibition, so that was kind of an unexpected bonus that I really like to see.

DTH: What is the first thing you do when you see a piece at the clinic?

TR: Frequently, the first thing I ask is, “What can you tell me about this object? Did you find it in an antique shop or flea market? Did it come from the family?” So that gives me some time to listen to what they can tell me and look at the object and see what I can figure out about it.

Since I know a lot about the history of printmaking, I can usually tell pretty quickly if something is original — that is, something that is made from a plate or a block that was actually created by the artist — or whether it is from a photographic reproduction of it.

DTH: What do you tell people about their items?

TR: We don’t give financial evaluations (of) works of art. What I sometimes say is, “If this belonged to me, this is what I would be inclined to do.”

This is one of the reasons I like to do it. There are not too many options, you can take something to an antique shop and there are professional appraisers who can give you an evaluation of the work, but they charge and often they charge quite a bit. This is, as far as I know, in this area the only place where we still provide this service.

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