Christopher Thompson is the first to admit he doesn’t have the “typical background” of an art gallery curator. For one thing, the brand-new chief curator of the Firehouse Gallery has an inordinate amount of experience with computer systems when he was growing up the son of a Princeton physicist, he explains, the family home always “had a connection to the Princeton mainframe.” That history alone separates him from most arty types indeed, from nearly everyone. “I was always very comfortable with technology,” he adds. “I wanted to go into art and design and ended up being the person who fixed the computers.”
After tech-related stints at Jager Di Paola Kemp Design and Gardener’s Supply, Thompson, a 45-year-old Burlington resident and father of two, became a full-time artist. Grants he received from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Communities Foundation enabled him to produce the work informed by art history and information graphics that is included in the Firehouse’s recent exhibit “Elusive Truths.”
Thompson isn’t a total newbie to curating: Last year he organized the show “Decked Out” featuring original artwork by snowboard designers alongside the resulting gear. “I thought JDK and Burton and how they affected graphic design was really amazing,” Thompson says of the exhibition. It also helped him put in practice his style of arts education: “It got a different audience into the gallery to realize they’ve been standing on top of fine art for years now.”
Thompson’s next Firehouse venture is also likely to attract a young, outside-the-mainstream audience, one not accustomed to attending gallery shows. “Punk House,” which opens August 1, includes a collection of photographs by Brattleboro-based Abby Banks that documents so-called “punk houses” across the country. The interiors are riotously chaotic and creative living quarters, as well as paeans to rebellious art forms and salvage. In the Firehouse’s back room, an installation by Brattleboro art collective Tinderbox will create a miniature punk-house “neighborhood.”
“I’m not opposed to being a little risky,” says Thompson, who declares he’s “obsessed with contemporary art.” The “Punk House” show, he suggests, illustrates a hot art-world trend “the idea of artist cooperatives, alternative practices . . . this [show] is a wonderful hybrid: the story of a journey and an underground culture.” And gallery goers who grew up in the ‘60s, he predicts, will find it interesting to “see how kids are dropping out these days.”
But Thompson assures he won’t be sacrificing more traditional artists, or art viewers, while attracting new ones to the Firehouse. “There is something for everyone,” he says. “The programming will stay rooted in contemporary art. I might draw a little more from what is fundamental to Burlington, Vermont. We will always feature local artists.” He’s excited about an upcoming show that’s “related to sustainability” and will fill all four floors of the gallery. “It’s thinking about how we look at our future,” Thompson says. “It’s aimed at everybody.”
BCA Executive Director Doreen Kraft appreciates that the new Firehouse leader is “wonderfully self-taught.” In fact, she notes, “We’ve never had a curator who came to us on a traditional path. They’ve all had a tremendous desire to make contemporary art understandable to people.”
Admiring his “unique skill set” and “institutional savvy,” Kraft concludes that Thompson is “just the sort of next step for us. We’ve just had uncanny good luck.”
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