At the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Fla., visitors can see “Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color.” In Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Museum features “Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami.” The Bellevue Arts Museum, near Seattle, is offering “Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection.”
These diverse exhibitions might not seem to have much in common. But each was organized at a converted carriage house in the alley beyond the Phillips Collection. That’s where International Arts & Artists, a D.C. nonprofit organization, has curated dozens of shows that have been seen at some 400 American museums, and at more worldwide.
“We are now the producer of the largest number of fine arts and decorative arts exhibitions in the U.S.,” says David Furchgott, IA&A’s president. “We have, on average, 15 to 20 exhibitions on view around the U.S. and around the world, and about another 30 or more exhibitions in process to be developed.”
“We pride ourselves that we produce exhibitions that can go to museums of any scale,” he says, from tiny community ones and small university galleries to major regionals such as the Dallas Museum of Art.
IA&A sometimes compiles the traveling shows from its own holdings, and Furchgott’s group sometimes borrows the artworks from some other person or institution’s collection; the shows can also be drawn from multiple sources.
Furchgott founded the organization 17 years ago, in part as a way to continue the work he had already been doing. A South Carolina native, he came to Washington in 1979 as a consultant to the International Sculpture Center’s 11th annual conference and exhibition. He was set to work for six months, but then the center’s director quit. Furchgott took over the event, which installed 88 large sculptures around the city. (Most were temporary, but one became permanent: Seward Johnson’s “The Awakening,” which was on Hains Point from 1980 to 2008 before being moved to National Harbor.)
The International Sculpture Center eventually left Washington, but Furchgott stayed. In 1995, he started International Arts & Artists to “help artists, and arts organizations, in issues relating to international, intercultural exchange in the arts.”
Initially, it was run from Furchgott’s home. “We weren’t intending to be a frontline organization,” he says. “We were going to be a behind-the-scenes operation.”
For the past eight years, IA&A has been based in the carriage house on Hillyer Court NW. Downstairs are three galleries for contemporary artists, mostly local. Above are about 20 administrators and graphic artists; the latter design catalogues, brochures and additional pieces for IA&A and other arts groups. The staffers are supplemented, Furchgott says, by “a large number of interns.”
The group often assembles shows at the request of museums. Others have been sponsored by international organizations, such as the Swedish Institute or the Korea Foundation. “We’re very, I think, ingenious about this. We stretch a little bit of money to a large effect,” he says. “The organization’s annual budget was around $2.5 million before the recession. It’s below $2 million now. Of course, there are some things that are paid for outside that don’t go through our books.”
Sometimes, a show begins with an idea from an individual curator. That was the case with “Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens,” which Furchgott calls “a great example of intercultural studies. It was about how African art was introduced [to Europe and North America] through artists, particularly the photographer Man Ray.”
The exhibition debuted at the Phillips Collection and traveled to three additional museums. It was funded by those venues, plus grants from several foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. With more than 50 lenders from seven countries, Furchgott says, “it was a monster for this little organization to take on, but it worked out well.”
African art is “a personal fascination” for the IA&A president, whose office is dominated by traditional sculptures from the continent. “These are spirit figures that help me make the decisions that I need to make,” Furchgott explains with a laugh.
Many of IA&A’s traveling shows feature international art, and Furchgott is proud of such globe-trotting exhibitions as one that took African American, Latino American and Asian American art to five museums in Japan in 1996. “We were involved from the get-go with intercultural stuff,” he says.
Such shows, he says, are “a way of smoothing things out between people of different cultural backgrounds. We’ve focused a bit in this organization on places that Americans have had a hard time understanding: Cuba, Vietnam, Iran.”
As part of its commitment to international exchange, Furchgott adds, IA&A annually brings about 100 young people from overseas “to work in cultural organizations of all sorts — dance companies, theater companies, art museums. We help with their visa processing and work with them to help find placements.”
One of the beneficiaries of that program is Lise Swensson, the executive director of the Hickory Museum of Art in North Carolina. “David actually helped me with the first, or maybe it was the second, grant I ever got anything from,” she recalls. “I ended up with a full-time assistant who was getting paid more than me.”
Later, when Swensson was working at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Furchgott got her a summer intern at no cost to her museum. “He came up with someone from Austria who wanted to come to Washington or New York — and ended up in Newport News, Virginia.” She laughs. “And never complained.”
Swensson calls Furchgott “entrepreneurial,” citing a deal he made to send a show by Israeli sculptor Orna Ben-Ami to Hickory, a town of 40,000 near Charlotte. Swensson’s museum didn’t have the money to rent the exhibition but paid most of the fee in kind, with storage space — something that’s abundant in Hickory, a depressed former furniture-making capital. “We ended up storing the show for six months so he didn’t have to send it back to Israel” before its next booking.
IA&A’s staffers are “willing to figure out how to make things work, and they’re always trying to come up with new ideas that fit the clients,” Swensson says.
Storage is an issue for IA&A, which owns only one large collection: the 374 tool-related artworks collected by John Hechinger, whose family ran what was once Washington’s leading building-supply retail chain. The nonprofit organization has long arranged national tours of pieces from Hechinger’s holdings, which include works by such noted artists as Anthony Caro, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg.
Hechinger ultimately left the array to IA&A. “We have a selection of the collection out almost all the time,” Furchgott says. “Sometimes more than one selection. It’s been to 40, 45 communities around the U.S. People love it. It’s got great art in it, by both known artists and unknown artists — all focused on this one theme that everybody can relate to.”
“As someone who comes out of art education, I love that,” Furchgott adds. “That you can give people something they can grasp. They can get into the more complex meanings of things by first having something they can understand.”
IA&A has been offered other artworks, he says, “and if we had our own warehouse, I’d take them in a heartbeat. That way we could share them with museums that wanted them, and we could also share them through our touring exhibitions. We’ve had several nice offers of collections that were just more than we could handle.”
The fees museums pay for the Hechinger works pay for their storage and maintenance, he says, “but not every collection would do that.”
Sometimes, IA&A arranges tours of other institutions’ notable collections, such as the Russian porcelain owned by the Muscarelle Museum of Art of the College of William and Mary. The 243 objects make up “the finest collection of Russian imperial porcelain in private hands,” says the museum’s director, Aaron De Groft.
For a small museum like his, De Groft says, it makes sense to rely on IA&A, which also designed the exhibition’s catalogue. “I don’t have the time and the staff to go out and contact a hundred museums to sell a show to them.” De Groft also has rented many shows from IA&A over the years, some for his previous employer, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla.
Having survived the 2008 financial crisis, Furchgott is pondering an ambitious project. “I still feel there’s a very important part of the organization yet to be developed, to serve artists’ interests on a broader basis. Individual artists don’t have the availability of insurance and opportunities that small-business people in other areas would have.”
If IA&A is to create a national artists’ support system, he cautions, “the money’s going to have to come before the work. We have to find people who are interested not just in supporting a few individual promising artists, but helping to develop a network and a safety net for artists.”
That’s an ambitious undertaking for a man who turned 65 this year, but to Furchgott it’s essential. “I believe that artists — all artists, not just visual artists — move society forward. Visual concepts lead to other ideas, in engineering and in science.”
Furchgott ascribes his dedication and enthusiasm to being the son of an artist, whose three children are all involved in the arts today. “It’s part of my lifeblood,” he says. “And I’ll keep working at it till I drop.”