Looking forward, looking back: Lasse Antonsen retires

Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on May 27, 2012

Lasse Antonsen has made it his mission as gallery director at UMass Dartmouth to present cutting-edge artwork that showcases international trends. His exhibits urge viewers to consider "who we are as individuals, and what our situation is culturally." Now retiring as the academic year draws to a close, Antonsen can look back on 25 years of innovative and challenging shows.

Under Antonsen's guidance, UMD Art Gallery programs have focused on major artistic movements, notably multiculturalism and feminism, and included such diverse forms of expression as installations, artist books, and posters. He has curated shows of brand-new or lesser-known series by well-known artists such as Per Kirkeby and George Segal, in addition to works by up-and-comers like Petah Coyne and Mark Dion. He has also featured important SouthCoast artists Chris Gustin and Roger Kizik.

For someone so attuned to what's current, Antonsen is also a dedicated historian, favoring shows that highlight a connection between past and present. In 2002, for example, he exhibited a series of prints illustrating Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" by renowned abstractionist Frank Stella.

How does Antonsen decide what to show? His natural curiosity and continuous research keep him informed of what's fresh and original, across the United States and around the world. He is always on the lookout for art that reflects current social, political and philosophical directions. "Nobody has shown it yet? I want to show it," he says.

A native of Denmark, Antonsen honed his curatorial skills at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston after earning a degree from Tufts University. He then took the helm at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, where his exhibits included an award-winning installation series. But he missed the experience of teaching while at the Danforth. After two years there, when UMD had an opening for a combined gallery director and art history professor, the position seemed like a perfect fit.

When Antonsen took over the gallery at UMD in 1987, his goal was to bring important artwork to the university. "I felt that was the best I could do for the college, to show a high level of significant national and international art," he says.

At that time, the gallery was a vast two-level room located on the Dartmouth campus. Then in 2001 the university transferred its art department to the newly renovated Star Store building in New Bedford, and the new facilities included a state-of-the-art exhibition area. "The new space is 35 feet by 35 feet," Antonsen explains, "but it can hold a lot of work."

Working directly with students, however, is Antonsen's true calling, not surprising for this man who values emerging artistic voices. Upon arriving at UMD, he introduced undergraduate courses to the art history program on such topics as Surrealism, Soviet and Russian art, and Picasso. He then began working with graduate students, first in his capacity as coordinator of graduate thesis shows at the university gallery and later as teacher of graduate seminars. "That's really my love," he says, "seeing young artists grow, and guiding them toward fulfilling their specific promise."

As he looks toward the future, Antonsen has plans for continuing to contribute to the cultural advancement of the City of New Bedford. "New Bedford is my obsession," he admits.

When asked what it is about New Bedford that draws him, Antonsen reveals his passion for history. He recounts memories of growing up in Copenhagen, inspired by the writings of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. As a boy, he felt impressed by the historical connection of walking the same streets that his hero had once walked. Now Antonsen's hero is Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau, a dedicated walker, was known to have hiked along the water's edge near Coggeshall Street in New Bedford where Antonsen currently resides. Antonsen also cites the city's diverse ethnicities and whaling era architecture as inspirational.

He intends to extend his commitment to New Bedford's Art, History and Architecture (AHA!) Nights, which he has served for the past 10 years. He will also remain on the board of the New Bedford Art Museum. A practicing artist, Antonsen plans to attend a three-month residency in Leipzig, Germany, this fall. He will also continue to mentor graduate students through Massachusetts College of Art and Design's Low Residency MFA Program, where he has taught for the past three years.

Antonsen completes his dual career as professor and gallerist at UMD with a sense of professional and personal satisfaction. "I feel that I have accomplished my mission here," he says.