Martin DeWitt, founding curator and director of WCU art museum, to retire

Martin DeWitt, founding director and curator of the Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University, has announced his retirement.

“I think the timing is right for changes,” said DeWitt, whose career spans more than 30 years in museum administration. He will end his work at the museum in December.

“Martin has been an outstanding founding director of the Fine Art Museum,” said Robert Kehrberg, dean of WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts. Kehrberg praised DeWitt for his strength in defining a vision for the museum and cultivating it as a cultural destination. He also credited DeWitt with strengthening the university’s ties with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

DeWitt joined the university in 2003, with the museum opening in 2005 as part of WCU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, a $30 million, 122,000-square-foot facility. With a mission of cultural enrichment for the region, FAPAC also houses a 1,000-seat performance hall and classrooms, studios and offices for the School of Art and Design.

As founding director, DeWitt launched the 10,000-square-foot Fine Art Museum, which comprises a main gallery and three auxiliary spaces. He was involved in the facility’s construction, curated the museum’s permanent collection (which grew from about 400 objects to now more than 1,200), drafted the museum’s policies and procedures – a blueprint for the facility’s operation – and scheduled the museum’s inaugural exhibitions.

A reception honoring DeWitt’s service was held from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, in the Fine Art Museum atrium.

Denise Drury, curatorial specialist at the museum, has been named the museum’s interim director beginning in January, when the museum reopens after the university’s holiday break. Prior to her arrival at the museum in January 2010, Drury spent four years, including two as executive director, with 621 Gallery, a nonprofit, contemporary visual art space in Tallahassee, Fla. “Ms. Drury brings experience, professionalism and forward-looking vision to this position,” Kehrberg said. A national search is planned to permanently fill the director’s position by July 1, 2012.

Since the museum opened, DeWitt has overseen approximately 100 exhibitions, ranging from historical and collaborative projects to work by WCU students and internationally known artists alike. “These exhibits, like children, have all been favorites,” DeWitt said. Many accomplished regional artists have exhibited at the museum, among them Harvey K. Littleton, a pioneer of the studio glass movement and creator of the vitreograph technique of printing; Lewis Buck, who creates paintings and assemblage pieces; glass artist Richard Ritter; and Mike Smith of Tennessee, who photographs contemporary Appalachia. “Fragile Earth, an environmental-themed competition, featured works by 40 regional artists, and DeWitt and Drury recently oversaw the installation of a one-year outdoor sculpture exhibit in the FAPAC courtyard that features five artists from the Southeast.

Exhibits by American Indian artists have been “especially rewarding,” DeWitt said. These include “Hive” by Natalie Smith, “Pilgrimage Ribbon” by Luzene Hill, and “Reclaiming Cultural Ownership” by Shan Goshorn. DeWitt has showcased the expanding permanent collection in an ongoing “Worldviews” series.

Colleagues say DeWitt has a particular talent for discussing complex concepts in plain language and for gallery presentation that draws visitors into exhibits, a valuable skill in a university setting. DeWitt teaches an exhibition practicum class where students learn how museums and galleries function.

“He is so astute at judging and evaluating art and being able to give thoughtful comments and feedback to artists,” said Hill, an Eastern Band member and conceptual artist. “His manner is so wonderful. He’s accessible and approachable. I think he’s fantastic in his job and in his life.”

DeWitt received his master’s degree in fine art from Illinois State University in 1978. He began his career in 1980 as executive director of the Rockford Art Association in Illinois. From 1989-2003, he was director of the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. A painter and sculptor, DeWitt widely exhibits his own work and looks forward to more time in his studio. Other postretirement plans include appraising art; traveling, particularly to Mexico and Latin America, countries he loves and has long enjoyed; and moving with his wife, Sharon Sanders, a federal government employee, to Minneapolis to be closer to family.