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Datebook: A New Role For A B-N Theater Veteran

Rhys Lovell
Laura Kennedy
Rhys Lovell is adding to his artistic resume by joining the McLean County Arts Center as the new curator.

A venerable member of the Bloomington-Normal theater community is branching out with a new role that, on its surface, seems like something brand new. But at its heart, it’s a job with core values he knows very well. 

Rhys Lovell is crossing cultural streams as he steps into a new role as curator at the McLean County Arts Center in downtown Bloomington. Lovell is a mainstay of the Twin City theater scene, having worked at Heartland Theater, where he is currently artistic director, since 1989. Lovell plans to remain in that position as he takes on his new job at the MCAC.

Lovell revealed that his approach to curation is two-fold. 

“Selection is one half of what a curator does. The other half is organizing and displaying what you’ve selected in such a way that the viewer can begin to see and understand the relationship between the objects. Whether those objects are works of art hung in a museum, or glass figurines displayed in a curio cabinet in your home,” he said.

“The objects as displayed may appear in harmony with one another or in opposition, but the relationships-- and here’s the key--the relationship is always intentional, it’s by design, it’s your design. How the work is exhibited creates a context for the viewer.” 

It’s not such a stretch from the stage to the gallery, said Lovell. The lessons he’s learned at Heartland Theater will serve him in good stead at the McLean County Arts Center (MCAC). 

"Maybe one of the most important tasks I’m charged with as artistic director is selecting the plays that the theater will produce in a season," he said. "That’s what our audience is going to pay to see. Taken as a whole, the season sets a standard. It creates an expectation for our audience by which they may begin to judge the quality of our work.” 

“I’m really lucky to have an excellent, highly-qualified selection committee that brings forward recommendations of plays that they feel would be a good fit for our theater. This is a long process, lasting about three months. By the end of the second month, we’ve come up with a short list from which I make the final selection. As chair of the committee, I’m also throwing out my own ideas.” 

One of the most challenging parts of that process connects back to the second part of his definition of what it means to curate, said Lovell. 

“And that’s stepping back, getting a broad view of things and really figuring out which of the plays on that short list are going to work together as a season. I’m looking for balance. That’s also part of what a curator does, he creates balance.” 

“So, comparing all of that with what I will be expected to do in my new position as curator at the arts center, the similarities are fairly obvious. Only instead of selecting plays and arranging them into a meaningful whole, I’m selecting pieces of art and arranging them into a meaningful whole.” 

As curator, Lovell said he will be looking to program material and find connections that encourage cross-pollination between disciplines. Currently, the MCAC is showing “Art Strings and Tambourines” in the Dolan Gallery. The show is a benefit for the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. 

“It showcases the talents of professional artists on violins and tambourines,” said Lovell. 

That’s literally on violins and tambourines. 

“They’ve used the actual instruments as their canvas. Each artist painting in their own distinctive style, directly upon the head of the tambourine or the body of the violin. Some are whimsical, some are a little bit more meditative. But they’re all just delightfully unique,” said Lovell.

“There’s online bidding going on right now for the pieces. You can help support one of our many local arts organizations that has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Lovell said what he’s looking most forward to in his new position as curator is getting to know the artists whose work the arts center will be showing. 

“When they bring their work in, I can talk to them about it and get their input in terms of how they would like their work shown. It’s always about building relationships. Honestly, I’ll build a relationship with an artist the same way I would with anybody else and that’s to buy them a cup of coffee and sit down and just talk to each other.”

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.