- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. (AP) - Between art and Claire Kovacs, there’s undeniable chemistry.

The Cleveland native — interim assistant museum director at Augustana College’s Teaching Museum of Art — originally planned while she was at Case Western University to become a chemical engineer. A childhood love for art and an art history class convinced her to switch majors.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Case Western, Dr. Kovacs got her doctorate in art history, specializing in 19th-century European art, from the University of Iowa in 2010.

“I was very smitten by Italian Renaissance art and 19th-century French art,” she said in a recent interview at Augie’s Centennial Hall, which houses three art galleries in 4,846 square feet of space.

Dr. Kovacs has made several trips to Europe, including a visit to Italy and the Sistine Chapel for a month during the first year of her graduate program. There, she studied the floor for demarcations under the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo, and how they relate. She also studied twice in Paris and Italy during her years at Iowa; and in the summer of 2013, she participated in a monthlong institute at the American Academy in Rome.

“I’m very interested in the way art helps us deal with difficult questions,” Dr. Kovacs said, noting 19th-century works can aid us in understanding our current lives. Colleges are especially useful places to explore these issues, she said.

She works with 10 students as museum assistants, managing the 4,500-piece Augustana collection and installing exhibits.

“It’s a work-study job for them, but also a teaching opportunity for them,” Dr. Kovacs said. “There’s a multiplicity of ways to engage with students. That’s what separates a teaching museum from other types of museums, because we have this focus on student-learning outcomes.”

She did a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, where she taught and did research. Since fall 2012, Dr. Kovacs has been assistant professor of art history at Canisius College, a Jesuit Catholic school in Buffalo, New York. She’s now on a 10-month leave from that school.

She’s good friends with Melissa Mohr, education director at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, who she first met when they both worked to evacuate artworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art after the 2008 flood.

Canisius is about twice the size of Augustana, including graduate students, and is a more comprehensive college, without an art museum on campus. Augustana also has more art faculty.

“I’m excited about the opportunities here. I’m not sure what the future holds,” Dr. Kovacs said, adding she’s not sure if she’ll seek the permanent museum director job, which would begin at the start of the 2015-16 school year. The former director, Preston Thayer, left in early September after less than a year on the job.

Kai Swanson, Augustana’s assistant to the president, is interim museum director and is working with the advisory board to finalize a mission, strategic plan and director job description.

“Our goal is to make this position and this organization so attractive that we will attract top-flight candidates,” he said. “If Dr. Kovacs is one of those candidates, that would be a ratification that we’re doing some things right.”

Dr. Kovacs is working with museum assistants to digitize the art collection, including text and information about those objects, so the larger community has online access to the collection.

She works with students to install exhibits, and she will help plan new exhibitions for next year.

“I’m very pleased with the breadth. We have quite a few strong areas of collecting,” she said of the collection, which is likely to be reduced and organized into categories of importance, Mr. Swanson said.

Those include a teaching collection, to best serve faculty and students. The college should “be much more intentional in what this collection looks like now, and should look like 20 years from now,” he said. There is also possible museum building expansion on the table, but acquiring more art is not a priority, as art in storage is “bursting at the seams,” Mr. Swanson said.

“It’s not as if we have to grow this collection. I would not put acquisitions at the top of our list,” he said. Dr. Kovacs is studying how other museums operate, and since admission to Augustana’s museum is free, it should focus on serving students and the public.

“I see Claire’s role as making sure the trains are running on time for the museum. She’s done an incredible job of doing that,” Mr. Swanson said.

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Source: The (Moline) Dispatch, https://bit.ly/1uOamDv

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Information from: Quad-City Times, https://www.qctimes.com

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