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Eric Jackson-Forsberg takes the reins at WNYBAC

Local Martin House Curator Cantillon 1

Eric Jackson-Forsberg, newly appointed executive director of the Western New York Book Arts Center, in the Darwin D. Martin House in 2009. Photo by Sharon Cantillon / The Buffalo News.

Today, the Western New York Book Arts Center announced its appointment of Eric Jackson-Forsberg as its first official, full-time executive director. He starts his new job on May 7. We chatted earlier this week about his experience as a curator at the Darwin Martin Complex and his plans for the center going forward.

You’ve been at the Martin House for nine years. What prompted you to make this move?

It’s been an incredible opportunity here, spending that much time with Mr. Wright, so to speak. But it just felt like it was time for a change and this opportunity came along. I had been following the organization for a few years since their founding and had done a little printing and had known Rich [Kegler] for a long time.

I want to put in context what you’ve accomplished at the Darwin Martin House. Can you talk about, over your nine years, what the organization looks like now compared to what it looked like then and what you contributed to the Martin House?

When I started, it was [in] the associate curator position. That was a new position when I took it. It was kind of similar to this in the sense that it was sort of all possibilities. At that point it was still a relatively young organization, the Martin House, and I felt incredibly lucky to have that opportunity.

At that time, we did have, and still have, Jack Quinan. He’s the senior curator, curator emeritus, so I was able to work with him when I first started and actually throughout my experience. Really, what they needed was somebody who could concentrate on the collection and that’s been a large part of what I’ve done over the course of that time. And getting the furnishings and art glass ready to return to the house.

And in terms of the timing... the majority of the collection had been returned to the house by late last year for the National Trust. I feel like that was a milestone that I was able to accomplish and it wouldn’t feel right to move on before that happened. But now that that’s happened, that’s something I can be proud of.

There’ve been a number of publications along the way. There’s been a great deal of development of our docent training and tour program. Definitely a lot of what I’ve done is just the day-to-day research and interpretive function here. But that may be changing at this point, as we’re in transition right now to fully operational mode...

Basically, you went out and hunted for this stuff. It must have been fun over the years. You were sort of an art detective, going out and tracking these items down.

Yeah, that’s a good term for it. In fact, if I look back at our artifact research and recovery effort, there was a real Indiana Jones quality to it. [That's] the way that we like to romanticize it, in the beginning. A lot of it really isn’t like that, but it’s fun to pretend that that’s what we’re doing. I don’t have a whip.

I’m wondering if you can succinctly tell me where you hope to take the organization over the next few years and what some of those new ideas are.

Well, one was that I would want to maybe back up a little bit. I think the most succinct way we describe the organization –- it can be a little hard to describe to people in that sort of elevator, 10-second description. They talk about it as a “working museum” and I really like that concept, that’s what fascinates me most about it. I think a lot of what I can contribute is working on the museum side of that description. The "working" part of it has great momentum behind it. Basically, on the lower level, you have the letterpress studio and now the screen-printing studio they just developed.

One idea that I threw out there in the interview was, when I walk in there, looking at a lot of the presses, machinery and incredible collections of type and examples of artwork that have been made… As a sort of man or woman on the street, I think that could use more interpretation as to what they’re looking at. [For] the casual visitor, like, what is this all about?

Throughout my career so far, I really have always tried to be a curator who focuses on trying to make the case for whatever the collection or the outlet that I’m championing is, for the uninitiated. I don’t think that’s something that all people in the arts necessarily do, but I’ve tried to do that. For one thing, it’s a matter of how the arts are sustained. We’ve always got to look at the uninitiated and how to bring them in.

For an organization like this, especially where you’re looking to increase membership, to increase support on all levels, I think maybe the organization could step back a step or two and say, ‘Does everybody really understand what it’s about?’ We really want to work on kind of focusing the mission and making sure that’s easily communicated to the public.

Would it be fair to say you have a populist bent?

Yeah. I mean, that’s been my intention. I hope it comes across. Here at the Martin House, that’s been relatively easy to do because we have a volunteer corps of nearly, well it’s over 400 people now. And it’s really people from all walks of life, so I’ve been spending a number of years doing that. And also, going back to the Castellani, as the only collecting art museum in Niagara County, there was a lot of that kind of culture there as well. So I would hope to continue that.

A good part of that is, WNYBAC has this incredible base of support of really talented artists who are already working with them. I feel like that part of it is well in hand. That’s not something that is going to need a great deal of cultivation, but really just channeling and focus.

This is new for you in terms of being in the head administrative post. You’ve always sort of worked under somebody before. So are you sort of challenged by the idea of becoming the head honcho, having to eventually raise your own salary, the buck stops with you and all of that?

Well, sure, it’s certainly challenging. But I feel like there’s really good support on that board. Having known Rich for a number of years, I feel like we work really well together so I feel like that transition or that mentorship in many ways, I’m really optimistic about how that will go. And the management and administrative side of it is, it’s a somewhat new challenge for me but it’s something I feel ready for and willingly taking on that challenge.

And I do feel like, I would say in the last three, four years especially at the Martin House, my role has grown beyond that, well beyond that of a traditional curator. I’ve been getting more and more involved in contributing to grant-writing and fundraising… I think a lot of that translates easily to solicitations of cash support.

After our interview, Jackson-Forsberg sent an email outlining a few things he wanted to add:

I wanted to be sure to give a shout out to the existing WNYBAC staff (Rich as continuing Artistic Director, but also Chris Fritton as Studio Director and Khrista Richardson as Program Director). As I’ve gotten to know them over the past few weeks, I’m very impressed with what they’ve accomplished in just a few years. They’ve been very welcoming to me, and I can’t wait to start working with them, officially. I think there’s almost a certain alchemy to what they do… in the sense that they seem (at least to the uninitiated) to make something out of nothing: a little ink and some mysterious hardware and –- voila -– unique, reproducible art. Having done a little letterpress printing, this sense of miraculous production fascinates me.

Also, regarding my career transition, there’s at least one important connection between the Martin House and WNYBAC that you might note: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft. Hubbard is best known as the charismatic leader of the Roycroft community, but he was also instrumental in the boom of the Larkin Co. and… a crucial mentor for the young Darwin Martin. When you look into their mutual history, it’s clear that Hubbard likely primed Martin to be receptive to the Arts & Crafts and Prairie style. And of course, the Roycroft was begun as a self-publishing/printing venture for Hubbard as an aspiring author. The Roycroft Press may be seen as the original DIY book arts venture in WNY, and WNYBAC is the heir apparent to that unique legacy.

--Colin Dabkowski

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Art | Books
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