New Currier Director Wants His Art Museum to Be at Center of the Community

Jan 20, 2017

Dr. Alan Chong took over as the Director and CEO of the Currier Museum of Art last September. His job includes budgets, publicity, and fundraising. But what he’s really excited about is the art.

One of his favorite paintings is “The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” by Jan de Bray, a 17th-century Dutch figural painter. It shows a sumptuous meal with jewels, gold dishes, a stuffed peacock. The canvas is enormous – it stretches floor-to-ceiling, and takes up a whole wall in the Currier’s European Art Gallery.

De Bray included all of his family in the painting. He’s Antony, his wife is Cleopatra, and all his children, dead and alive, are there at the table. Chong calls it “a family selfie,” and he says it captures several things at once: “It’s a very grand painting, and yet it's also intimate. It's opulent, and full of very very expensive objects - and yet there's a tinge of sadness to it, that's kind of universal.”

Jan de Bray (Dutch), "The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra," 1669, oil on canvas.
Credit Currier Museum of Art

That universal quality is what art does best, Chong says – it brings people together. And it’s what he hopes the Currier can do for its community.

Growing up in Hawaii, Chong’s family didn’t go to museums much, but he got hooked on art history as a college student at Yale. The subject combined a lot of his interests – history, literature, economics, and art. And it was a way for him to travel and engage with the world.

Chong has since worked at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. He spent the past six years in Singapore, as the Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum.

In Manchester, he hopes to use his background in cross-cultural art to help people see the world in new ways – and to get visitors to appreciate the range of the Currier’s holdings, from Early Renaissance religious art, to abstract canvasses by modern masters like Frank Stella. “Rather than cordon [the historic collection] off in the past,” he says, “we might look at how art connects people and places across thousands of years.”

In the past twenty years, the Currier has upped its game. Under its previous director, Susan Strickler, the museum expanded its footprint by tens of thousands of square feet, and acquired works by major artists.

Chong now wants the Currier to find its niche. It’s a small art museum rooted in Southern New Hampshire, and building connections to that community is key.

The Currier gives tours and art workshops, but also hosts jazz brunches and monthly cocktail events. Chong thinks the Currier can be even more of a “cultural living room” – a place where locals drop in, feel at home, and experience art, but also music, lectures, maybe political discussions.  

And it’s a place that should be accessible to everyone. “It starts with the school visit,” he says, “when…you’re actually asked to speculate and to imagine how works of art might have been created and what they might mean.”

Back in the Museum, we took a look at a new acquisition – a painting by German expressionist Max Pechstein. It’s one piece of canvas, painted on both sides – a still life with a woman on one side, a vibrant landscape on the other – and it’s displayed in a special frame that allows visitors to see both paintings.

Max Pechstein (German), Kurische Waldlandschaft (Curonian Forest Landscape), 1912-1913, oil on canvas
Credit Currier Museum of Art

Chong would be the first to say that hearing a verbal description or a seeing digital version of the painting doesn’t do the work justice. “The engagement with the real object is something that I’ve never failed to appreciate,” he says. “It’s something that really makes things come alive.”

When you walk around a painting, there’s a sense of scale. There’s texture to the surface. A sense of light – how the paint changes color, depending on the time of day.

There really is a difference, and Chong wants you to see it for yourself.