Maureen Ahern doesn’t care much about the when or the who when it comes to making art.
“I want to know why,” she said. “Whether it’s historical or contemporary, I want to know why [a piece of art] was made the way it was. [The why] takes it off the shelf and into life.”
Ahern has always worked to use art to enrich life, not as an art historian but to give people an experience they might not have normally. During her 34 years as director of Keene State College’s Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery (she retired in 2015), her goal in her position was also to serve the community as well as the college.
“That’s why we had two galleries with two separate entrances,” she said of the design she created with the architect for the current building — the gallery was formerly inside the Mason Library.
“We could do a certain show in one gallery and another show in the other that might be more suitable for a particular audience,” Ahern said. She always looked for opportunities to educate both students and the public about diversity and multiculturalism.
Ahern, an artist herself, grew up in Salem, Mass., and earned her master’s in painting from SUNY Albany. After a brief stint as a detective for a Boston-area agency that hired her to work at retail stores and bars (“I had to pretend I was someone I wasn’t,” she said, which made her uncomfortable), she took a position as a paid apprentice curating exhibits at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
The job was through a government program that matched nonprofits with graduate students.
“I got a lot of training,” she said. “I went to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City] to learn exhibition design and education.”
She met her husband there and then was hired as the Thorne-Sagendorph gallery director. After living in Swanzey for a few years, she moved to Dublin in 1998. While the job and move were meant to be temporary (she wanted to relocate to the north shore of Massachusetts), she enjoyed her job in Keene so much she decided to stay.
Among her accomplishments as gallery director at Keene State is serving as co-founder and president of the New Hampshire Visual Arts Coalition, a cultural organization that promoted resource-sharing among New Hampshire visual arts organizations. The organization also encouraged the appreciation of New Hampshire arts throughout New England and beyond. During this time, she organized statewide exhibits on New Art New Hampshire in printmaking and sculpture.
“After I’d worked in Keene for a few years, I noticed there was a not a lot of money for exhibits,” she said. “We’d have a great show at the Thorne and then all that material would go away. I thought maybe we could share shows with another institution and vice versa, or if someone had a nice collection it would get prestige if it traveled around the state.”
For New Art New Hampshire exhibits, Ahern would ask different gallery and museum directors to select an artist from the community whose work was either unusual or had no exposure; that exhibit would travel the state.
During her tenure at Keene State, Ahern also developed exhibitions and an art collection to raise awareness of the influence of the 19th-century Dublin Art Colony on American culture. She started a regional biennial show of traditional and contemporary work open to any artist within a 30-mile radius of the gallery that brought in jurors from beyond the Monadnock Region.
Ahern gives credit to those with whom she worked, including exhibits technician, Paul Knowlton; administrative assistant, Colleen Johnson; and volunteer April Weed, who provided clerical help performing tasks such as cutting and hanging labels and coordinating member lists.
“It wasn’t just me, it was the staff and the community,” she said. “The Friends of the Thorne, all the volunteers and work-study students. The college also helped as much as it could. Everyone was such a great support.”
A piece of work that makes her most proud in her role as gallery director is her video, “From the Land of Legends and Legacies: Art from the Republic of Georgia,” which premiered in the former Soviet country in 2004. It’s the culmination of an educational project that began in 2000 with a grant from the American Association of Museums, which selected the Thorne Gallery to receive an International Partnership Among Museums award to fund an exchange program with the Georgian museum. Ahern co-produced the film with Irina Koshoridze, head of the Department of Oriental Arts at the S. Amiranshvili Georgian State Museum of Art in Tbilisi.
During her trip, Ahern took hundreds of photographs of art and architecture. The video provides a rare overview of the artistic treasures and heritage of Georgia, a crossroad for the development of civilization and part of the Silk Road trade route to China and other Asian countries.
Ahern brought back Georgian-made handicrafts so visitors to the Thorne Gallery, especially schoolchildren, could view and touch them. The Georgian museum collection ranges from the 13th century B.C.
“This 13-century stuff was all in the basement of the museum overrun by rats,” Ahern said. “The museum had no money and no experience.”
Ahern used her expertise to help the museum move forward and get its collections up and running, adding components to educate Georgians about their own culture.
When it comes to her own mixed-media art, Ahern has a specific point of view. She creates what she calls abstract landscapes. Her work has been exhibited in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including in the Monadnock Region.
Her most recent work uses “interference paint” that reflects about half of the light spectrum, meaning blue paint looks blue, but also appears yellow — its opposite color on the light spectrum — when viewed from another angle. Then she adds bits of DVDs and CDs as well as items like features to add texture.
“It’s more like the experience of what it’s like to be in a landscape — light, air changes, drops of water, Ahern said. “I use media to help me express the joy and beauty of it that way, not literally.”