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James Peck

Arkansas Tech’s new museum director plans to revamp exhibits

By Tammy Keith

This article was published August 27, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

James Peck stands outside Arkansas Tech University’s museum in Russellville. Peck, who lives with his family in Pottsville, has been the executive director of several museums throughout the country. He was hired to head the Tech museum after longtime museum director Judith Stewart-Abernathy retired.

Florida native James Peck, the new director of Arkansas Tech University’s museum, had several reasons to have warm feelings about Arkansas when he applied for the job.

He said that for one, he’d visited “a small, tiny museum in Bentonville.” He’s joking about the size of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, of course.

Peck, who lives in Pottsville, said he is in awe of the museum, which he and his wife, Sydney, have visited. They also toured the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock once and attended music events in Fayetteville. Also, his wife spent three years at Hendrix College in Conway.

Peck was born in Massachusetts, but after his parents divorced, he moved at age 11 with his mother to Sarasota, Florida.

Peck found his love of art in high school when he took Advanced Placement art history and excelled in it, and he said living in Sarasota honed his appreciation for art.

“It was a very cultured place,” he said. The city was home to a “huge” museum, the John and Mable Ringling Museum. He said John Ringling, while searching for circus acts in Europe, “fell in love with art” and bought “Rembrandts … you name it.”

Peck went to Florida State in Tallahassee and originally planned to major in English, following in the footsteps of his parents, but the English department “was packed,” so he started taking art-history classes.

“I fell in love with it; I was really good with it,” he said. After getting his undergraduate degree, he earned a master’s degree in art history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

He had a one-year internship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, then went to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the curator of European and American art.

“I did a lot. I took what we affectionately call canned shows, ones that are already curated, and did project management. I created shows from scratch, … had ideas for exhibitions, published books, articles and lectures. I developed, interpreted and displayed the permanent collection,” he said.

During that time, Peck was an adjunct teacher at the University of Tulsa, a private school.

A lot of good things happened when he was in Tulsa, Peck said. He met his wife, a native of Tulsa, while he was working there. They married and adopted their son,

Alex, from Guatemala at age 9 months; he’s now 11.

Peck decided to finish his doctorate and was accepted at a couple of universities, but he deferred it.

“I had to get a job; we were struggling financially,” he said.

The Pecks moved to upstate New York to Corning, the headquarters of Fortune 500 company Corning Inc., formerly Corning Glass Works. He was curator of collections for three years at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, now called the Rockwell Museum. “Our budget was $1.5 million, and [Corning Inc.] gave $1.2 million a year,” he said.

“I loved it up there,” Peck said. He did not love the weather in New York, though. “It was really, really cold. I’d forgotten just how cold the winters could be.”

A head hunter called Peck to be the executive director of the Old Jail Art Center Museum in the small town of Albany, Texas.

“It had 3,000 people, and it probably had 5,000 cows,” he said, laughing. “It was isolated.”

It was an oil town, where money also flowed freely, Peck said. “It was a perfectly preserved Old West town.”

He oversaw a staff of about six, and it was a good gig for a while. However, the small town became overwhelming, he said.

“We built a fence, and people would literally say, ‘I hear you’re building a fence,’” Peck recalled.

Although that may sound like a funny statement for someone who lives in Pottsville, which has a population of about 4,000, Peck said he’s also close to Russellville, which has about 30,000 people, and the bigger cities of Conway and Little Rock.

“[Albany] makes Pottsville look big and Russellville look like Manhattan,” he said.

Peck left the fishbowl of the small Texas town and took a job as executive director of a contemporary art museum on the coast at Oceanside, California.

“There’s where my career went in a little bit of trouble,” he said. “They failed to mention in the interview they didn’t have any money.”

Several directors had come and gone before him, too.

Six months later, “we parted ways,” he said. “In some ways, there was a real silver lining.” With all his career moves, he hadn’t had time to focus on his dissertation.

“I found myself with six months to sit around and collect unemployment. While it was terrible, and we didn’t have money and it was stressful, there was a certain serenity to knowing I had time,” he said.

He graduated in December 2016 from the University of Oklahoma with his doctorate in American art history and started applying for jobs.

Many jobs.

“I must have applied for 40 jobs,” he said. Peck interviewed in January for the Russellville museum position and was hired in mid-February. “It’s been wonderful, too. I’ve always liked being on a university campus,” he said.

Judith Stewart-Abernathy retired more than a year ago after many years at the helm of the museum, and Theresa Johnson served as interim director.

Peck’s title is visiting art professor and director of the museum. He spends one-fourth of his time teaching and three-fourths of his time running the museum.

Peck said the museum’s focus changed, prior to the university’s centennial in 2009.

“The museum isn’t exactly my bailiwick. It’s all Tech, all the time. It’s all Tech history,” he said. “Basically, right now we show yearbooks, blow-ups of yearbook pages on the wall.

“A museum is essentially a place where you can look at objects and be amazed by objects,” he said.

Not that touting the university’s successes and history is all bad, Peck said.

When he attended the University of South Carolina, he worked at the museum, and the top part was fine art; the bottom of the museum housed university collections.

“One hall was dedicated to swag the football team had acquired. There’s an actual Heisman Trophy there in the case,” Peck said. “That’s pretty darn cool that it’s there in that college.”

“I’ve been given free rein to make the place more interesting,” he said. “The charge to me is to make [the museum] relevant.”

He said Jeff Woods, dean of Arts and Humanities, emphasized that point during Peck’s interview.

Woods said Peck stood out among the applicants because “he had both experience in art galleries and curating more historic galleries, as well. I think we were really encouraged by that opportunity.

“James is great; he has an art-history degree, a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, and he’s got a wealth of experience in running museums,” Woods said. “He’ll be able to expand what we’re doing in the museum across campus and what we can provide to the community.

“We’re hoping to broaden our mission. We’re going to continue to do Arkansas Tech history and focus on that, but we’re hoping to broaden our scope, do more things on regional history and regional exhibits. We’re hoping to embrace some new technologies in what we’re doing. We’re wanting to do some more digital exhibits and enhance what we’re doing online.”

Peck said his goal is to bring in historical exhibits, while still reserving at least 25 percent of the museum for Tech-themed displays.

“We’re going to bring the museum back to where it was,” he said. “Before the centennial, it was a collection that focused on Native American pottery and River Valley history, Arkansas history, things like that.”

Those collections and other items are in storage, he said.

“We have a lot of interesting stuff that we just don’t have up, Peck said. “We have on loan a coal car, and we have the second-oldest piece of Arkansas furniture from Michigan.

“We don’t have a big budget; we also don’t have a ton of pressure timewise.”

Peck said he is the only museum employee, but he plans to hire a full-time assistant.

He’s also teaching art appreciation.

“For me, that’s like falling off a truck. … I love it, though,” he said. “I like working with students; a lot here are the first in their family to go to college.”

Peck said he realizes students may not get hooked on art history like he did, but he said his goal is for them “to get the vocabulary, at least — the ability to go in and look at a painting, sculpture or architecture and talk about line and form and color.

“You have to be optimistic at the beginning of the semester, right? If you can open up one or two hearts, … it’s an appreciation of what the world has to offer in the visual arts.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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