David Dempsey Retires After 40 Years At The Smith College Museum of Art

Laura Green ’18
Arts Editor

When David Dempsey, associate director of museum services at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), retires in the spring of 2017, he will have been a part of the team for over 40 years.

He started as a temp for a one month-long position, then took on a 6-month-long position as a preparator. At the time, he had never even thought about the process of hanging and handling art. Besides a brief break to get his Master’s in English at the University of Kansas, Dempsey has been here ever since.

Dempsey has taken on several other roles since his preparator days. In the early ’80s, the museum sent him to learn a few conservation skills at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum because they didn’t have an on-staff conservator at the time. He worked at the Fogg over the summer for a few years. During the year, he helped out a conservator at a museum in Springfield in addition to his job at SCMA. After this training period, Dempsey was promoted to preparator/conservator.

Soon after, Dempsey started teaching courses at Smith, starting with a special studies in collections management and then adding on Chemistry of Art Objects, a class he teaches to this day.

Dempsey came to work in the museum in 1974, having just graduated from UMass Amherst with an Independent Major in which he wrote his thesis about “Space and Time in Literature and Art.” When he arrived, there were only five staff members and two graduate interns working at the museum.

Today, there are five times this number of regular staff members, in addition to the student workers employed each year. Dempsey said the growth of the museum has been the biggest change since he’s started working there. Not only has the staff grown, but the building itself has undergone several major renovations, expanding the size of both storage and installation space.

Dempsey says that the staff has to consciously work to keep in contact, with regular meetings within the departments and between the heads of department. As associate director of museum services, a lot of functions of the museum fall under his supervision. He is in charge of conservation, preparation and even security and facilities management.

Dempsey says his favorite part about working at the SCMA is that he has been able to do a lot of different things and use his skills in different arenas. This wouldn’t be possible in a larger museum, where it’s all very automated, he explained. Furthermore, he said that because it is a college museum, SCMA is full of energy and variety, with new students eager to learn each year.

In his career, his favorite project was moving and repairing the Mary Tomlinson Lanning statue, located near the Botanical Gardens, which involved removing it from its cemented base, designed to stop Amherst College boys from stealing the statue. Each year, he still puts a new coat of patina on the statue. He recently taught Assistant Preparator Nikolas Askis how to care for the statue.

These days, Dempsey is less hands-on with conservation and preparation, only making crates and pedestals when he can find the time. When he showed me around storage and the conservation lab, I saw a big container that would house a piece of art going “overseas.” In response to this cryptic location, I asked, “Where is it going?” He said, “I can’t tell you that. It’s all very secret. I can’t even tell you which piece of art is going in there.”

As you can see, the life of an Associate Director of Museum Services is very mysterious and glamorous.  Dempsey will certainly be missed when he retires next year.

Came in 1974 as a temp, then hired as a preparator after grad school (in 76?) – had background in Art History and construction at the time and that was it. Didn’t know what preparators were before then. Only 5 people and 2 graduate students as staff then

Biggest change- increase in staff and building size

Got a tour of storage and a secret shipment of a piece of art overseas – couldn’t tell me what it was or where it was going

Studied time and space in literature and art at Umass – graduated in 1973, had built a house with his wife before senior year! Masters in English at University of Kansas

Learned conservation because they didn’t have a staff conservator, so he they sent him to Harvard Fogg Museum to do odd conservation jobs. Went for a few months every summer for a few years. Here he became interested in materiality and historical materials

Also learned conservation from the conservator who worked in Springfield at the Quadrangle – the cluster of Springfield museums and cultural institutions. Met Bill Meyer there, who became a conservator at Smith

David was promoted to conservator-preparator in the ‘80s. Around this time, he started to teach. He taught a class about collections management for a few years, then Chemistry and Art, which was relaunched in 2004 and he still teaches. Then he took over the Materials course, changing it to Historical Materials. Became interested in paper making and the local business of it in Western Mass

Even curated one show in full – about papermaking

His current title is Associate Director of Museum Services, overseeing conservation and preparation and security. He doesn’t have much time to do hands on preparation or conservation these days, mostly overseeing and making crates when things will be on loan or pedestals for sculptures.

Favorite thing about SCMA – able to work on lots of different things, interdisciplinary since it’s a smaller museum.

Favorite projects – second floor statue of the woman on the second floor. Had to knock it out of its brick base, one side then the other. Could have killed themselves – 600 pounds. One of the first projects he ever worked on in conservation

Other- moving the fountain and fixing it – it was cemented in so no Amherst boys could steal it, putting a new coat of patina on it every year.

Why he was able to stay for so long – the variety of tasks he’s been able to work on, the variety of shows put on each year, and the ener

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