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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Currier CEO aims to broaden art's reach

November 18. 2017 11:28PM
Alan Chong, CEO of the Currier Museum of Art, speaks with the Sunday News in the community room of the museum during a tour on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
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The difference between priceless art and a long-forgotten image can be as simple as someone deciding to preserve it for the ages.

The whimsical "Moulin Rouge" poster that opens the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art originally was commissioned to promote a performance by a provocative French entertainer. More than a century later, it's part of a world-class collection on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"We've been saying that this is really the beginning of modern advertising, that with just a few colors and a few bold shapes, you communicate everything," says Alan Chong, the Currier's CEO and director. "These were just things that were plastered on the sides of buildings or on the round kiosks that you still see in Paris. That's why they're rare. They were meant to be thrown away."

In their original form, the posters could be viewed by anyone walking along the streets of Paris, inspired to stop for a moment, perhaps, to appreciate Toulouse-Lautrec's playful caricatures of 19th-century nightlife.

Art is for everyone. That's the message Chong has conveyed since becoming the museum's chief executive. Over the past year, the Currier has thrown a neighborhood block party, started a live-music series and brought can-can dancers downtown to promote Lautrec, all in a quest to lure more visitors to the museum. The Currier also has taken steps to further develop its relationships with its neighbors, including social service agencies.

Special events often include free admission to the museum, offering new visitors an introduction to a city jewel.

"We had 2,000 people in July for the block party. We thought they would be coming for the performances and the food trucks and the live music. But they came into the museum," Chong said at the Currier last week. "The museum was packed. So for me, that's a success - if they see art and have a good time."

The museum is open most days from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. (It's closed only on Tuesday.) Admission is $15 for adults, with lower rates for seniors, student and teenagers. Special exhibitions like Toulouse-Lautrec require an additional $5 fee.

"We're conscious that we're expensive to some people. We can't go free all the time. But we should make some free events. So we're experimenting," said Chong, who has worked at museums in Singapore, Toronto, Chicago and Boston.

The museum offers free admission to New Hampshire residents from 10 a.m. to noon on the second Saturday of each month. It also host events some Thursday nights, such as a recent yoga session, that include free general admission.

The museum has considered staying open every Thursday night, but for now, it's going to stick with special occasions.

"We've decided to go for event-based happenings," Chong said. "The MFA (Museum of Fine Art) in Boston has a singles night every Friday night, and it's packed. But it took them years to get there, and we're not there yet."

While the Currier's 150 Ash St. address is only a half-mile from Elm Street, Chong says it needs to work on creating a stronger connection with downtown.

"It's not far, but there's kind of a psychological barrier between us and downtown. We're kind of in the middle of nowhere," Chong said. "We're not really North End. We're not really downtown. But from an outsider, the distances are tiny. We should just be able to fix up the sidewalks and change the traffic patterns on Beech Street so it isn't a freeway."

Finding the right price point for galas has helped the museum temper that distance from downtown. A recent Moulin Rouge party that featured aerial dancers and French fare attracted 400 people at $75 a ticket.

"There was a big debate internally because there was free food. Should we do a hundred dollars? Or would that scare people away? We actually thought we would lose a little money, but in the end we made money even at $75," Chong said. "We just want to make it lighter and fun, especially for people who work all day who can't come between 11 and 5 or 11 and 6."

The Currier's mission to broaden its reach includes working with social service groups. The Currier partners with Easter Seals for an Alzheimer's Cafe, and Catholic Charities recently co-hosted a program at the museum for families with loved ones struggling with addiction.

"Coming up, we're really working on the opiod epidemic, and to see how we as an art museum we can contribute to a solution to this problem," Chong said. "We're not front line. We're not health care givers. We're not counselors. But we think there's something that the museum can do."

That could be as simple as offering a place for people suffering from addiction to enjoy art and the potential of its power to heal.

"We're a safe space," Chong said. "We provide a reassuring environment that's full of beauty - that can spin off interesting conversations about crisis, about emotions."

And perhaps, like priceless art, about preservation.

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or

Arts Manchester Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook

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