One night last month, the crowd in Durham's Motorco Music Hall erupted as the curator took the stage. People whistled and hollered. The enthusiasm was just shy of panties being thrown.
Yes, you read that right—"the curator."
But then Trevor Schoonmaker isn't your average museum curator. Officially the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, Schoonmaker almost sheepishly presided over the catalog release party for artist Wangechi Mutu, whose blockbuster solo exhibit closes this weekend before going on tour.
He'd gathered a lively panel of academics and musicians onstage to ask Mutu about her work's relationship to music, which is at the heart of much that Schoonmaker does. Although he's understated in the stage lights, Schoonmaker ran a club night in New York City called "Jump N Funk"—"by accident," he insists—for a couple of years before moving south. For him, contemporary art has a beat behind it.
In 2010, Schoonmaker gave us probably the most fun we've had in a museum with The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, bringing together almost 100 works by more than 40 artists working with records in some form. A specialist in artists of African descent, Schoonmaker has introduced several art superstars to the area when they were on the cusp of their fame. Before the Mutu exhibit, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, there was Mark Bradford (Street Level: Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode, 2007) and Barkley L. Hendricks (Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, 2008).
This prescience has also helped the Nasher build its collection on a budget. There's no way the modestly endowed museum could afford the Bradford and Hendricks pieces it has in the vault if it were in the market for them today.
"The Nasher was so lucky to get a curator who's really talented, very hooked in to great artists and has a terrific vision of what he wants to do in contemporary art," says Kimerly Rorschach, founding director at the Nasher and current director of the Seattle Art Museum.
"There are a million contemporary artists, a million choices to make. You've got to have a point of view," she continues. "Trevor has a real talent for thinking about what's going to resonate in this community, what's going to be interesting."
Like most perfect matches, it almost didn't happen.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied with new Nasher director Sarah Schroth, the Winston-Salem native pursued an art history doctorate at the University of Michigan. But he stalled in year five. At that point, most people just leg it out to get the credential and enter the job force. But Schoonmaker left the program.
"It was probably the best decision I've made in my career thus far," he says with all seriousness. "They were very happy to see me go. I was dragging my feet and hadn't finished some things I should have finished by then, and it just became apparent that I was really pursuing the wrong path. The experience was invaluable, as was the knowledge I gained—a grounding in art history and a comfort with academia—but I knew that wasn't my future."
Schoonmaker found his way to New York, immersed himself in the music scene and started curating shows independently, meeting like-minded artists, including Mutu, and scholars such as Greg Tate, who now teaches at Duke. In 2003, Schoonmaker built interest in a show at The New Museum about Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti through club nights that resemble the programming the Nasher now wraps around its exhibitions. Instead of creating a mere exhibit or event, Schoonmaker produced a full-fledged scene.
In 2005, while visiting family in Winston-Salem, he figured he'd swing through Duke's campus to check out the new museum on the block. From the exhibition information on the website, Schoonmaker learned that they were looking for a curator of contemporary art. He got in touch with Schroth (at that point a Nasher curator) and the rest is history.
That North Carolina connection, summed with Schoonmaker's ability to present contemporary art outside of the academy, has equaled a unique kind of engagement for the Nasher with diverse communities both local and national.
"For me, the goal is really to increase the audience for contemporary art—to broaden that audience constantly," Schoonmaker says. "One way of doing that is to make shows that are about things broader than art about art, or just about art history." In short, shows "that are really about life or something that you can immediately relate to."
The numbers bear this out. The Nasher now draws well more than 10 times the attendance figures of its first few years. And those numbers are growing enough so that unconventional venues like local clubs are a necessity.
"It shows how much we've grown as a community," he says. "We couldn't have done the Motorco event the first few years at the Nasher."
The next time you hit a gallery show, look for Schoonmaker's fingerprints. Hendricks' sharp lines and colors have been percolating through local portraiture for a couple years now. Bradford's flayed collage sensibilities can be glimpsed in different media on First and Third Fridays art nights. And expect local artists to make a run on shelf paper, glitter and motorcycle magazines after the Mutu show goes on tour.
Schoonmaker's not ready to talk publicly about the Nasher's next big thematic show. But you can bet it'll be a blast. And that you'll want to go twice.