Courtney McNeil, the newest museum director and chief curator of The Baker Museum at Artis—Naples, believes that “art’s narrative gives people the opportunity to pause” and “see the world through a different lens.” McNeil took on the high-profile job in January and relocated from Savannah, Georgia, with her husband, Ryan, and three young sons, Graham, 9, Henry, 7, and Theodore, 5. She is the first female in this position at The Baker Museum and had an open exhibition slate to fill upon her arrival. McNeil was formerly chief curator and deputy director for curatorial affairs at Telfair Museums. Find out about her inspirations and what’s in store at The Baker Museum this season.
NI: Your love of museums began as a child in Boston, visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. How did this parlay into a career?
McNeil: My first love, before museums, was books. I was that kid who would be reading under the covers with a flashlight until all hours. I was an English major [at Georgetown University, where she minored in art history]. My first museum position was an internship in the publications department at The National Gallery in London when I was in grad school [earning a master’s degree in art history from The Courtauld Institute of Art]. So that opportunity married my two interests.
Curating is a form of storytelling.
True. There is an infinite number of stories that can be told through any number of objects, and it is up to a curator to decide which direction to take. For me, it’s important that the art’s narrative gives people the opportunity to pause, reflect on their lives and the lives of others, and see the world through a different lens.
What is The Baker Museum’s biggest exhibition of the season?
That would be “Baseball Heroes,” the private collection of Jay Baker, which started years ago when his wife, Patty, gave him baseball memorabilia as a Christmas gift. We are look- ing at the idea of teamwork and sportsmanship that contributed to the heroic stature of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter. But it’s only a tiny snippet of the Bakers’ collecting interests. So, we are hoping that, by showing “Love in All Forms”—fine art from the Bakers’ private collection—at the same time, folks will come away with a richer understanding of who the Bakers are as collectors. They are a household name around town and are so incredibly philanthropic in so many ways. But they are also interesting and fun people, and these exhibitions reveal that.
Exhibits can take years to put in place.
Normally, a new museum director must wait about three years to get their projects on the calendar. Due to The Baker Museum being closed for two years after Hurricane Irma repairs and expansion renovations, it really opened space on the calendar, and I was able to choose a lot of the exhibits, which was exhilarating and challenging. I am especially thrilled to be showcasing two female solo artists: street photographs taken by Helen Levitt in the 1940s in New York City, showing children playing on the street with no shoes and torn clothing and grandmothers sitting on their front stoops—ordinary people presented in an extraordinary way. And later in the season, Pam Longobardi’s “Ocean Gleaning.” In Naples, we all care about the environment. Longobardi has intricate works assembled with 500 individual pieces stuck to the wall with pins and large, 3D sculptural installations. Her pieces are incredibly beautiful, and then you get up closer to them and see what her medium is—found ocean plastic—and it arrests you even more.
What is your family’s favorite place in the area so far?
Certainly, the place we have spent the most time in is Fleischmann Park because my kids play baseball. The excitement I feel for the “Baseball Heroes” exhibit comes from my whole family being baseball fans. I actually enrolled our boys in Little League here before I even enrolled them in school because I didn’t want to miss that cutoff!