Curator at the Hunter Museum of American Art retiring after 25 years; leaving 'children' behind

Curator at the Hunter Museum of American Art retiring after 25 years; leaving 'children' behind

March 31st, 2013 by Karen Nazor Hill in Life Entertainment

Ellen Simak, curator of the Hunter Museum of American Art, says her favorite piece in the museum is "Allen Street," circa 1905, an oil on canvas by artist George Luks.

When Ellen Simak retires from the Hunter Museum of American Art this summer, she'll leave behind her children.

So to speak.

"I don't have children, so this is my legacy," says the 62-year-old Simak, who has been chief curator at the Hunter for 25 years. "The museum is not just a collection of beautiful things. It's a repository of art that is important to this country and to this region.

"Art can have a great impact on people. It can be a solace, and it can anger people. I'm proud to have been a part of that for so long," she says as she walks through the spacious museum that has been at the forefront of Chattanooga's art scene for more than six decades.

She was at the Hunter through the revitalization of the riverfront and downtown, through the construction of the museum's new modern building and through the renaissance of Chattanooga from an industrial into an arts-focused community.

While she has seen the city's arts community grow during her quarter century at the museum, she says a huge jump has taken place since 2006, when the privately funded ArtsMove program began. ArtsMove offered financial incentives such as forgivable mortgages, moving expense reimbursements and other perks to qualified artists who moved into certain Chattanooga neighborhoods, including the Southside and Main Street areas.

"The number of artists and the range of media and style has grown immensely and made the arts scene even more vibrant," Simak says. "I think the universities and colleges also have nurtured a group of exciting young artists who now choose to stay in town and add to the depth of the arts.

"I think such growth is cumulative. Once artists moved here, they told others who came here independent of ArtsMove and saw what Chattanooga is like and moved here."

As chief curator, Simak has a hand in almost every piece of art that has been in the Hunter, whether it's the temporary exhibitions or the permanent pieces that have been purchased or donated to the collection. And, once the art is in, it's her job to make sure it stays.

Lois Mailou Jones' acrylic painting "Damballah"

Lois Mailou Jones' acrylic painting "Damballah"

"I work with an acquisition committee on what to purchase for the museum. I work on bringing exhibitions to either complement what we already have or [to add] something new," she says. "I often work with artists in the community and help train docents. I oversee the art collections and make sure they remain in good condition."

To date, Simak says she has managed about 180 temporary exhibits, 40 of which she personally curated.

"Permanent exhibitions are ongoing, so for about 15 years, I curated all the permanent galleries in the museum," she says. "For about the last 10 years, our contemporary curator (Nandini Makrandi) has curated the contemporary gallery."

Katrina Craven, public relations and marketing director at the Hunter, says some of the significant works purchased during Simak's tenure include Martin Johnson Heade's oil painting "Thorntails, Brazil," William Morris' blown-glass "Artifact Still Life 1990," and Lois Mailou Jones' acrylic painting "Damballah."

Hunter Executive Director Dan Stetson calls Simak a consummate curator.

"Her patience and quiet wisdom have impressed me from the start," says Stetson, who has been at the museum for two years and worked previously at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Fla. "Her contributions are significant and helped attract me to move to the Hunter. She has left an important legacy to the cultural life of Chattanooga and our nation."

Hunter board of directors member Lillie Wills says she has been impressed with Simak on several levels.

"I have developed an overwhelming appreciation for not only the depth and breadth of Ellen's curatorial knowledge but also her kindness, masterful efficiency and sincere commitment to reach all audiences," Wills says. "Her presence will be missed."

Artistic passion

Simak, typically soft spoken, reveals an energetic passion when talking about art. Her quiet voice becomes louder as she gestures with her hands while describing the works of the artists.

She says her favorite piece in the museum is "Allen Street," circa 1905, an oil on canvas by artist George Luks.

"He was a major artist in the 20th century, and this painting represents what 'Ashcan School' work is," Simak says, explaining that the painting depicts life on the streets and the vibrancy of a city. "It's a combination of important work by this artist in an important period of American Art."

In terms of a temporary exhibit she brought to the museum, Simak is most proud of the 2008 exhibit "Charles Burchfield: The Seasons," which highlighted the nature-oriented watercolors by the artist and, as she puts it, "was the culmination of a decades-long fascination" with Burchfield.

"There are other exhibitions which will always live in my mind because they were so spectacular: 'The Lamps of Tiffany' and 'The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,' for example. I've also had a chance to meet and work with artists whom I deeply admire: Judy Chicao, Sandy Skoglund, Deborah Butterfield, to name a few."

She is the daughter of the late Clifford Simak, a science fiction writer who died in 1988 after winning all of the industry's major awards, including three Hugos, the Oscar of science fiction.

Though she has a master's degree in art from the University of Delaware, Simak doesn't consider herself an artist. she began her career as a journalist, working at the Minneapolis Tribune.

"I started out working at a newspaper then moved to trade publications for five years before realizing I wanted to work in an art museum," says Simak. "I grew up going to museums, and I've always loved art. It struck me one day that I could be an art expert and get a job at a museum."

Before coming to Chattanooga, Simak worked as the American curator at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb. She moved to Chattanooga specifically to work at the Hunter and says she was attracted to the museum because of its "amazing" collection and its staff.

Because she's so integral to the art that's displayed in the Hunter, Simak feels a strong connection to the pieces.

"Most people don't understand what kind of work it takes to put an exhibit together," she says. "We try to make it look like it goes together easily, but it takes a lot of work to decide where pieces should go. There are a lot of decisions to be made about which shows to bring in."

Even though she has been at the museum for a quarter century, Simak can pinpoint certain times that stand out. The year 2004, for instance.

"It's when we did the expansion with the new addition," she says about the museum's West Wing -- the portion with the wavy roof that opened in April 2005. She notes that she was given the rare opportunity to design the new wing.

"A curator doesn't get a chance very often to almost totally design the installation," Simak says. "Our contemporary curator did a beautiful job in the contemporary gallery, but other than that, I got to choose the colors and move things around. It was a total change of the outlook and physical appearance of the galleries. It was such a collaborative effort with the education department and was the highlight of my career."

During her time at the Hunter, she also has worked with staff to make the museum more user friendly.

"One of our aims was to make the collection accessible to the novice adult -- someone who wasn't used to museums. To do this, we changed the way we wrote labels explaining the art," she says.

The also staff made journals and poetry boards available to visitors so they could express their experiences and opinions.

"We wanted to make the museum more accessible so people wouldn't feel the need to whisper and would feel comfortable," she says.

To some, museums are such unfamiliar places, at once hallowed, sacred and scary, and they're not sure what the rules are. Some folks call the museum to ask if there's a particular dress code, Simak says.

"It tells you how outside people's realms that museums can be," she says.

Artistic vision

Visual artist Olga de Klein, co-owner at Atelier 18, an art studio on Broad Street, says Simak exerts a powerful presence at the museum, something that can be felt by anyone who goes there.

"Her talents as a curator have benefited the museum, and the works of art at the Hunter speak for themselves," de Klein says. "The collection is a varied and a well-rounded one, and the temporary exhibits have been always outstanding."

For her, the museum has long been the anchor in Chattanooga's growing art community, de Klein says.

Martin Johnson Heade's painting "Thorntails, Brazil"

Martin Johnson Heade's painting "Thorntails, Brazil"

"The entire grounds, collections, temporary exhibits, and weekly events have always impressed me greatly -- first as a spectator, then as an art student and artist," she says. "My first memories of the Hunter date back to my drawing classes at Chattanooga State in the early '90s. As students, we had to go to the basement of the Hunter to draw nude models. At that time, they were not allowed in the classroom. We have certainly come a long way in Chattanooga."

Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild in Chattanooga, says the Hunter has come a long way in the last 25 years, and he gives Simak credit for being part of those changes.

"The Hunter of today is not the Hunter of 25 years ago. Ellen's artistic vision has led the Hunter to continue to grow as a major community asset," Bowers says. "Chattanooga has been very fortunate to benefit from Ellen's efforts."

A native of Minnesota, Simak says that, after her retirement -- sometime in the summer, but there's no set date yet -- she plans to return there often to visit family and friends. But she plans to live here.

"I'm definitely staying in Chattanooga, but I'll travel more," she says. "I look forward to doing book arts, and because there's still much interest in my Dad's work -- we've gotten requests to get the rights to some of his stories to make movies -- I'm going to work with that. But at first, I plan to lay back for about six months and see what comes my way."

And while she has been surrounded by art treasures throughout her adult life, that's not what she'll miss most about working at Hunter.

"I'll miss the people," she says. "The staff is wonderful, even with the changes in staff they are always bright and inquisitive, collaborative, wonderful people."

She also commends the museum's board of directors, its volunteers and docents.

But yes, she'll also miss the art.

"I'll miss the opportunity to work directly with the art and to be able to have an idea for an exhibit -- the luxury you don't get very often. I'll miss the opportunity to help buy a piece and to figure how to set up the collection. It's going to be a big transition for me -- a huge change."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@times or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at hill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at