New museum curator has a lot to keep him busy

Mike Easterling,
Jeffrey Richardson

FARMINGTON — After serving in a variety of roles at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles for the past eight years, Jeffrey Richardson was ready for a change last fall when he decided to accept a position as curator of exhibits for the Farmington Museum system.

For those who have questioned his rationale in making that decision, Richardson has a simple response.

“In the past, I had to work within the prism of Western history at the Autry Museum,” he said. “And I certainly enjoyed that experience. But now, I get to work on so many different projects and so many different fields. That’s what I wanted to do, and I certainly haven’t been disappointed.”

Richardson is joining the local museum system — which includes the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, the E3 Children’s Museum & Science Center and the Riverside Nature Center — at an exciting time. The children’s museum completed an update to its surroundings and opened new exhibits in December, the Farmington Museum has several new projects planned and a new museum is in the works for downtown. Richardson is deeply involved in all of the above.

But he said the most rewarding part of his experience here so far has been observing the way local residents embrace the museum system. There’s a high degree of familiarity with the museums and their offerings, he said, noting that he has been approached by many people during his seven months here who have described their positive experiences and raved about the Egypt, Ansel Adams and “Gateway to Imagination” exhibits.

“They’re actively engaged with the museum, and that’s nice to see,” he said, explaining that while the Autry Museum is certainly a world-class institution, it is often just an afterthought to the residents of Los Angeles, who have no shortage of entertainment, cultural and recreational opportunities available to them.

In his last role at that museum, Richardson served as the Gamble curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms. It was a high-visibility position that resulted in his making numerous television appearances on PBS, the Travel Channel, the History Channel, the Outdoor Channel and A&E. Richardson also used the expertise he gained there to write a number of books and articles for various publications.

"Colt: The Revolver of the American West," by Jeffrey Richardson, was published by Rizzoli in 2013.

“I had the opportunity to really cut my teeth in one of the finest Western history museums in the country,” he said. “In fact, I just used to marvel at the artifacts that came across my desk every day that I had the chance to handle. But this was an opportunity where I could become more intricately involved in the whole museum process.”

During a phone interview last week, Richardson said he was examining some of the pieces that will be included in a photographic history of Farmington that will go on display at the museum later this year. He said the photos he had gotten a look at have provided him with a fuller picture of the city’s past, from its days as an apple-growing center and its long and illustrious oil-and-gas history to the riots that engulfed Main Street in 1974 after the burned and bludgeoned bodies of three Navajo men were found in Chokecherry Canyon.

“It’s allowed me to learn things about this community I didn’t know, and that’s been a really great experience,” Richardson said.

Richardson also is working on a planned natural history exhibit that focuses on how predators such as wolves and falcons have adapted to the increasingly urban environment in Farmington, and another called “Green Revolution,” produced in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, that focuses on the recycling, repurposing and reuse of various materials. The natural history exhibit is slated to open this summer, while the “Green Revolution” show is planned for March 2017.

“I don’t think people often realize how long it takes to prepare for a museum exhibition,” Richardson said, explaining the long lead time that goes into some exhibitions.

Richardson also is helping put together the Farmington Museum’s long-planned energy exhibit that will open in 2018. Richardson said the ongoing exhibit will be of the cutting-edge, world-class variety and has drawn generous support from many of the oil-and-gas firms that do business in the San Juan Basin. When it opens, the exhibit will take over the entirety of the new wing at the museum, and Richardson said discussions already are being held among museum officials about the possibility of another expansion to provide more space for traveling exhibits.

Taking that kind of long-range view is something Richardson thinks is very important for the future of the Farmington Museum system. He’d like to reach the point where the exhibits calendar for all of the museums is planned two to three years in advance, though he acknowledged that can be difficult for a municipal system in a community facing the economic uncertainties that Farmington is.

The impact of oil and natural gas on Farmington will be explored in the Farmington Museum's energy exhibition expected to open in a few years.

Also in the works is a new Navajo art museum planned for downtown at the southwest corner of Main Street and Behrend Avenue. Richardson said museum officials had hoped to have the new facility open by this summer, but that has been delayed until late this year or early next year as efforts to bring the building up to code and to museum standards have taken longer than anticipated.

The new museum will feature not just exhibit space, but a store and classrooms. Richardson said museum officials hope to position it as a vital piece in the downtown revitalization puzzle.

“Absolutely,” he said. “One of the things that we’re pretty adamant about is that it have the capability to become a destination point for downtown where we can teach more about the artwork and the culture.”

Not much of the content for the new museum has been developed yet, but Richardson said he plans to work closely with Navajo officials on that aspect of the museum, and he will be reaching out to local collectors for their help, as well.

Aside from the museum’s Navajo rugs, “we don’t have an expensive collection of Native artifacts from here and on the reservation,” he said.

With all those things on his plate, Richardson said he has had more than enough to keep him busy since he arrived from Los Angeles.

“My job can be challenging, but it is very rewarding,” he said, adding that personally and professionally, his stay here has been everything he hoped it would be so far. One of the elements that made moving here attractive to him, he said, was the chance to play a role in the rebirth of downtown, and he looks forward to making that happen.

“Those are the kinds of projects I want to be intricately involved with,” he said. “I hope I can give back as much as I know it’s going to give me.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.