Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center.
Peter Mears served in the United States Army before receiving his Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art. After traveling through Central America he arrived in Austin and gained experience at what is now called the Contemporary Austin Museum. Mears joined the Ransom Center in 1995 and serves as Curator of Art.
Mears curated the current exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West, and edited its companion publication, Windows on the West: The Art of Frank Reaugh.
Are you an artist?
Not anymore. I know what is required of artists. You have to totally commit yourself and remain passionate about what it is that you’re doing. I was a practicing artist before becoming a museum professional, so I can appreciate what it takes.
What led you to study studio art?
The Army helped introduce me to the arts while traveling. At the time, creativity was an important outlet for me, and I wanted to make things with my hands. Eventually, I became deeply involved in the reawakening of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Will you tell me about your time in the service?
I was in the United States Army, 7th Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, North Carolina from 1965 to 1968. I did not go to Vietnam, but I did work with men who did, and some didn’t come back. I don’t regret it, but it was a hard period in my life. I was in the army at a time when many people, including myself, held conflicting views about being at war.
What did you do before working at the Ransom Center?
Although I was accepted to graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art after finishing my BFA there, I needed to get away. So I spent the summer traveling by bus and hitchhiking through Central America. Upon my return in the fall, I stopped by to visit friends going to UT, and I decided to stay. I applied for a job at Laguna Gloria Art Museum, now the Contemporary Austin, and literally worked my way up the ladder.
What keeps you at the Ransom Center?
The collections. What I love is this sense of discovery and adventure that you get when you see the melding of all the different types of material across the collections. I really enjoy creating bridges between the art collection and other collections while the reliance on artwork for exhibitions and programs allows me to work closely with colleagues.
How would you describe your job?
I help provide access to the collections. I receive queries and requests from scholars and curators asking if certain artworks are in the collection and available for research or exhibit. I work with colleagues to approve loans to museums and libraries located across the U.S. and beyond. Additionally, there is collection management and, of course, research.
What’s been your experience with curating the Frank Reaugh exhibition?
I’ve been working on this exhibition for over three years now. It’s been one of those rare, serendipitous moments in a curator’s life when the stars align. We received a grant to digitize Frank Reaugh’s collection and generous support from a collector shortly thereafter to organize an exhibition and publish a companion book on his work. Reaugh is associated with our collection of early Texas artists. The exhibition is the most comprehensive ever organized to date and includes almost 300 items of which almost half are Reaugh’s notable pastels.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I suppose the most challenging thing is having to juggle so many balls in the air at the same time.
What do you like to do outside work?
I have a daughter who is a rising senior here at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in psychology. She lives off campus so I like supporting her and getting together when we can. Also, I garden and travel.
What is in your garden?
I have cactus. Anything that is resilient enough to survive my gardening and cultivation techniques.
Where have you traveled?
Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of regional travel researching and selecting artwork for the Frank Reaugh exhibition. I was invited to Mexico for a talk on Miguel Covarrubias, which was a wonderful experience. I saw some Diego Rivera murals that I’d never seen before. I would really like to get back to London someday.
What Austin art venues would you recommend?
The Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin and Laguna Gloria, also Flatbed Press and Big Medium on the East side are some of my top picks in Austin. The Lora Reynolds Gallery downtown shows interesting minimalist work, while the Wally Workman and Bill Davis galleries always show a rich mix of rising and well-established regional artists. I also like Women & Their Work and the Mexic-Arte Museum for their fierce independence and creative support of individual artists.