The Museum of Fine Arts’ Exciting New Acquisition: A Curator

Katherine Pill is now the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, the first curator dedicated to the museum’s growing contemporary collection and programming.

We often think of grants, donations, and endowments providing museums with new art or adding new wings and galleries.  The Hazel and William Hough Curatorial Endowment, though, has generously provided the Museum of Fine Art St. Petersburg with exactly what it needed: a new job position and the money to fill it.

Katherine Pill is now the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, the first curator dedicated to the museum’s growing contemporary collection and programming.  It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Pill’s hiring – the move was timely and sorely needed by the museum and Pill appears to be an ideal fit.

Katherine Pill, the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, stands next to Enrico Donati’s Angkor Wat (1963), a mixed-media work in the collection she admires. Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler
Katherine Pill, the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, stands next to Enrico Donati’s Angkor Wat (1963), a mixed-media work in the collection she admires. Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler

The museum had rightly been known for its 19th century paintings and extensive photography collection with a blind spot, though, for contemporary art.  The slack would necessarily be picked up by nearby commercial galleries or by sending people to museums across the bay.  However, efforts over the past several years have given reason to be optimistic. Appointing Katherine Pill as a curator of contemporary art is the latest and perhaps most effective effort in uncovering this ‘blind spot’.

Pill’s academic and professional records are impressive and definitely make her appointment a logical one.  The degrees she holds – a double major BA and dual MA – as well as her most recent resume entry as assistant curator at Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art seem to make her hiring a necessary development.  However, the first piece she has proposed to add to the museum’s collection may offer the clearest insight into her upcoming curatorship.

I try to avoid using such a narrow basis for my optimism but…I can’t help it, I’m excited.  It was only in 2007 that the museum acquired its first work of video art (also thanks to the Houghs) – arguably, a medium that matured before I was even born.  Thus, I never really entertained hopes of the museum adding a digital or net art work to the collection soon.  However, at the April 19th Collector’s Choice event, Pill made her first proposal for an addition to the museum’s collection: a custom piece of software.  Again, the Houghs – like the Charlie to the MFA’s Angels – arranged for the piece’s purchase.

The work Pill proposed is Michael Bell-Smith’s Waves Clock.  The piece is a projection of crashing waves as juxtaposed against a floating clock, ‘natural’ time contrasted with a human quantification of time.  Each portrayal of time nearly makes the other seem absurd.  Further, the piece is software rather than video, allowing the drifting clock to display real time and the work to (hypothetically) play out indefinitely.

This first proposal was not a conservative one.  The piece is new (created last year), the medium is new (to the museum), and the artist is relatively young (born 1978).  However, that isn’t to say the decision was reckless.  As progressive as the piece is, it is rather accessible – a younger web 2.0 audience will readily recognize the language.  Also, acquiring and exhibiting a pieces such as Waves Clock is possibly the most efficient step toward getting caught up with the national discourse, understanding where art is right now.

Perhaps, this may turn out to affirm Pill to be as bold a curator as I had hoped, and the Houghs to be an excellent match.  So as to not exaggerate the importance of a single purchase, though, I’ll limit myself to only adding this: I hope it is the beginning of a pattern.  It may be that seeing a good contemporary exhibit will require a causeway crossing less often.

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Ancient Egypt – Art and Magic: Treasures from the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art

December 17, 2011 – April 29, 2012
This landmark exhibition brings to life one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world, spotlights astonishing objects of every kind.

December 17, 2011-April 29, 2012

Mummy cases and sacred works in diverse media, tomb and temple reliefs, papyrus fragments, alabaster vessels, and rare objects comprised of precious stones make this one of the most dramatic shows ever presented at the MFA. The 100 works demonstrate the genius of ancient craftsmen, and the magical or spiritual qualities of the objects are revealed at every turn. The internationally respected Egyptologist Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi is the guest curator.

LID FROM AN ANTHROPOID SARCOPHAGUS (detail) Wood, gessoed and painted Dynasty XXI-XXII, 1080-720 BC

A magnificent red granite torso of Rameses the Great honors one of the most celebrated pharaohs in history. A large stele, or funerary marker, commemorates his son Rameses III. Other key works include a tomb relief of the nobleman Nefer-Hotep, a relief from the Amarna Period from a temple erected during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, and a fragment from a temple relief paying tribute to Alexander the Great.

A limestone sphinx is similarly impressive. The sphinx, with the head of a pharaoh and the body of a lion, points to the profound interrelationship of humans and nature in ancient Egypt. The natural world was not something apart for the Egyptians, and neither were the deities, who could take the form of animals and natural forces such as the sun.

Ancient Egyptian art centers on transformation, renewal, and eternal life. These objects were invested with visual and symbolic power. Hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian written language, were, by themselves, a high form of artistic expression.

The mummy cases or sarcophagi are the largest works in the exhibition. One is covered in colorful images— like a brilliant painting—and was designed to honor the status of an unidentified court official and to assure his eternal life. Another, more than six-and-a-half-feet tall, includes inlays of alabaster or limestone, as well as hieroglyphics, and has a monumental presence asserting the authority of a certain Hor-Em-Akhet. This impressive object was in the collection of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the time of his death.

“The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is proud to bring these distinguished works of art to America,” said Museum Director Kent Lydecker. “The quality of the objects will be a revelation to scholars and the public. We are indebted to the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, to Dr. Bianchi, and to our exhibition sponsors for making this extraordinary project possible.”THE MAGIC OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ART
Magic and spirituality infused every aspect of Egyptian art. Instead of providing a chronological survey, Dr. Bianchi has emphasized the objects’ sacred qualities. Priests accompanied the workers to gather natural materials and conducted specific rituals upon entering and leaving the quarries.

According to Dr. Bianchi, “for the ancient Egyptians, all stones were considered to be a privileging material, because they symbolized eternity, permanence, immutability, and incorruptibility…Any object created in stone or any text inscribed into stone remained intact and immune to the agents of time. Stone, possessed of a vital energy, was alive.” Statues of gods and pharaohs possessed their animating spirit.

In antiquity, expeditions to the Red Land—the desert, a place of chaos, evil, and demons—were ordered by pharaoh. The materials were returned to the Black Land—named for the rich silt deposited by the Nile—where the ancient Egyptians lived and thrived.

Craftsmen then converted these raw materials into fascinating and timeless objects representing cosmic order. The Black Land was the world of civilization, and the color black signified rebirth. These objects always had an elevated purpose and meaning, but they can be appreciated for their sheer beauty alone.


The MFA at 255 Beach Drive N.E. has an encyclopedic collection of art from around the globe and across the centuries. The approximately 18,000 objects include important works by Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Morisot, Cézanne, Rodin, O’Keeffe, and many others. Also on view are ancient Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Asian, African, pre-Columbian, and Native American art. The photography collection is one of the largest and most significant in the Southeast.

The Museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $17 for adults, $15 for those 65 and older, and $10 for students seven and older, including college students with current I.D. Children under seven and Museum members are admitted free. Groups of 10 or more adults pay only $12 per person and children $4 each with prior reservations.

The MFA Café is open from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. The Museum Store has been named the area’s best by the duPont Registry. For more information, please call 727.896.2667 or visit the website at www.fine- For café reservations, please call 727.822.1032.