The clear glass case against the plain white wall of the Asheville Art Museum’s Biltmore Avenue pop-up location makes an unlikely substitute for a Christmas tree. Yet, just as one might expect under the bedecked branches of a sturdy evergreen, there sits a squat, red box topped with green ribbon. Emblazoned with a single question mark, the box isn’t an object from the museum’s archives — it’s the promise of a new piece, due sometime during the season, courtesy of tech entrepreneur Peter Norton.
“I call him the Art Santa,” curatorial assistant Lola Clairmont says of Norton. Starting in 1988, Norton has commissioned an artist to create an original work for the holidays. It’s produced in multiples and sent to art institutions around the world. The Asheville Art Museum has been on Norton’s “nice list” since 1993, but the gifts from the entrepreneur have never been shown together until this year. Visitors can explore the complete collection at Unwrapped: Gifts from the Peter Norton Family Christmas Project, on display through Sunday, Jan. 21.
Although the objects in the exhibition span more than 20 years of art history and cover multiple mediums, two main traits tie them together. The first is their relatively small size — a necessity for being manufactured and shipped in quantities of several thousand. “All of these artists are asking how [to] distill themselves down,” Clairmont says. “It’s fascinating to have objects that can fit in the mail but still have a larger meaning.”
Associate curator Carolyn Grosch points to the 2009 Christmas gift, a rhinestone-encrusted antler by Brooklyn-based artist Marc Swanson. The piece speaks to Swanson’s conflicted personal history with masculinity: He grew up hunting in the countryside of New England before moving to San Francisco and taking part in the city’s gay counterculture, not feeling at home in either extreme. “He’s done entire animals covered in rhinestones, so this is almost a fragment or miniature of what he might normally do in his art,” Grosch says.
The exhibit’s second unifying principle is playfulness. Many of the gifts invite interaction, such as an anime-inspired plastic figurine by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami that opens to reveal a MiniDisc with music from Japanese duo Zakyumiko. Clairmont’s favorite work in the collection is the 2002 dollhouse by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare — which replicates his London home, complete with 14 pieces of miniature furniture.
“There was some instruction as to what went on the first and second floor, but we had to imagine what arrangement best represented Shonibare’s life,” Clairmont says. “Some of the staff wanted to make some drama happen, but I think we set him up pretty cozily.”
A few of the gifts came with some assembly required. Museum staff built a special mount to display a tunnel book by Anna Gaskell (an art photographer from Des Moines, Iowa) allowing guests to look through a “well” of evenly spaced pages that create the illusion of great depth. A paper craft dog named Gerald, the gift of designers Liam Hopkins, Richard Sweeney and Alan Dalby (from Manchester, U.K.), was shipped flat and took the museum’s preparator four hours to put together.
The museum encourages interaction through its programming around the exhibit, often taking off the cases around the objects to provide new perspectives. Patrons have gotten a close look at New York artist Peter Coffin’s unfolding photo album, in which the images line up to form a continuous spiral of rainbow. Museumgoers have listened to the delicate sounds of a music box by Swiss-American composer and artist Christian Marclay. Students from Asheville School even developed contemporary dance performances (which they showcased earlier this month) that took inspiration from individual pieces.
At noon Friday, Jan. 19, visitors will get an in-depth look at Norton’s yet-to-be-revealed 2017 gift during one of the museum’s Art Break events. “It’s going to be our first public discussion of the new object,” says Clairmont. “It’s our time to figure out who this new artist is, how does this work fit into their general body of work and what does the work mean to our collection.”
Clairmont feels this shared experience fits well with the spirit of the season. “In our family, we unwrap gifts in a circle, and it really brings people together,” she says. “We can’t sit around a fireplace with all these other directors and curators, but Norton is letting those people in on his holiday tradition.”
WHAT: Unwrapped: Gifts from the Peter Norton Family Christmas Project
WHERE: Asheville Art Museum on the Slope, 175 Biltmore Ave., ashevilleart.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 21. $5 suggested donation