By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — When Brian Allen was assembling the fall exhibitions for Addison Gallery of American Art, the director had no inkling it would be his last on the campus of Phillips Academy.
Addison unveils a new cycle of exhibitions three times a year, with the shows taking shape months, even years before they are hung.
And so, this fall’s quartet of shows formed long before the New York Historical Society set its sights on Allen as its next museum director and vice president.
In June, Allen announced that come the end of the year, he would be leaving behind his post of nearly a decade at Addison to lead the oldest art museum in New York.
As summer turned to fall, Allen set about the bittersweet task of overseeing the installation of his final show as director at Addison.
True, he will leave behind a schedule of exhibitions planned out for the next two years to allow his predecessor time to grow familiar with the gallery and its impressive permanent collection. But he won’t be the one bringing those next shows to life within Addison’s halls.
Had he scripted the fall shows as his last for Addison, Allen isn’t sure he would have done things much differently.
As it turns out, the treasures show in the upstairs gallery, which houses a rotating array of pieces from Addison’s permanent collection, features all of the works the director has grown most fond of.
“It really has all my favorite things that I love the most in the collection,” Allen said last week.
There are also personal connections among this fall’s featured exhibitions.
One of the shows highlights the work of James Prosek, a former student of Allen’s when he was working as a teacher.
Allen said Prosek has gone on to become “a naturalist, environmental activist, a great teacher and a great artist.” Inspired by the long tradition of natural history painting as well as contemporary influences, Prosek’s work questions the way one understands, classifies and interprets the natural world. Prosek is also serving as this fall’s Edward E. Elson Artist-in-Residence at Addison.
“I knew him when he was a very young man,” Allen said. “He has accomplished so much in his career.”
Another show — “Flash Back — November 22, 1963” commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — is curated by Jaime DeSimone. Allen remembers giving DeSimone her first job at the Addison eight or nine years ago. He said he has watched her career flourish from a young assistant curator to now an exhibition curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.
“When I look back on the young people who have been part of my life at the beginning of their careers, it gives me a sense of pride,” Allen said. “So many have gone on and done so well, whether as artists in the case of Jim and curators as Jaime.
“It’s gratifying to me to have these two very successful people in the arts, to have them in my life at some point in my career ... to see them flourish and do well.”
Beyond being his final exhibitions as director, Allen said the fall shows will take on added meaning for him at the end of the year. Before he formally departs from Andover, Allen will enter Addison not as its director, but to celebrate his marriage. The gallery will serve as the backdrop for his upcoming wedding reception.
The four new fall exhibitions at the Addison Gallery of American Art feature a mix of painting, photography and mixed-media works exploring a range of subjects — from the meaning of the word “family” in the 21st century to the way that people understand and interpret the natural world to how the media influences one’s perceptions of dramatic events
The shows run through early January. Here’s a quick look:
“Flash Back — November 22, 1963:” Presented on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it investigates the lasting impact of a painful episode in American history through works of art that appropriate, manipulate and at times distort images that document the time.
“James Prosek: The Spaces in Between:” Questioning accepted notions of how people understand and interpret the natural world, the exhibition includes paintings, watercolors and taxidermied specimens, many of them referencing Prosek’s extensive travels, collecting trips and biological expeditions to places as distant and diverse as Suriname and Kyrgyzstan.
“Natural Selections:” Drawing from the Addison’s permanent collection, the exhibition complements James Prosek and features works of art from the Addison’s collection illustrating how artists explore their relationship with the natural world.
“the kids are all right:” The show features photography and video created in the last 10 years by 38 established and emerging artists who reveal, with sensitive yet radical openness, the notion of family in the 21st century. The family units depicted in this exhibition are accepted as is and the artists take no critical position, but affirm with poignancy and humor the ever-shifting notion of the contemporary family.
IF YOU GO
What: Fall Exhibitions’ opening reception
When: Friday, Sept. 20, 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Addison Gallery for American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover
How: Free admission. Call 978-749-4015 or visit addisongallery.org.
More: Can’t make it to the reception? The Addison Gallery is open free to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.