David Culpepper walks 10 to 13 miles a day through centuries of art.
Each day on the job as a gallery assistant at the Blanton Museum of Art, Culpepper makes the rounds.
He passes through room after room filled with Renaissance and Baroque paintings, segues through the display of ancient Greek ceramics from the sixth century, then rambles through towering galleries filled with nearly a century of modern and contemporary art from North America and Latin America. (Rather than remaining in one room, gallery assistants at the Blanton keep circulating the museum, switching up their routes every hour or so.)
There are the special exhibits, too, such as “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540,” a show from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, currently on view through Jan. 5.
And though security is Culpepper’s essential job, he is a de facto museum educator, answering all manner of visitor questions. Briefly answer, that is. He has to keep moving.
“Over the course of a year, we’ve figured that each of us (gallery assistants) walks the equivalent of across the entire country,” Culpepper says, adding that he wears Nike cross-trainers on the job.
On Thursday, as part of the museum’s monthly evening of free events and programs, Culpepper will share his insights, culled from his three years on the Blanton job, along with his own background as a visual artist.
Culpepper will give an “Art Glimpses” tour, a Blanton program during which museum staff and scholars talk visitors through 20 works of art in only 40 minutes — a guided form of articulated speed-looking. (By contrast, the museum’s “Art Gazes” is a series of gallery talks featuring slower, more contemplative conversations about a particular piece of art.)
“Everybody has different questions for different works of art or different exhibits,” says Culpepper.
With “Imperial Augsburg,” many want to know why there are medallions and a suit of armor on display with an exhibit of prints. Others wonder about printmaking technique.
Culpepper has answers.
The medallions were worn by members of the court, Culpepper points out. “And I tell people to think of them as first wave social media. Wearing (a specific medallion) around your neck immediately told others who you were aligned with, where you were from.”
People in the Renaissance read symbols and decorative stylings on a medallion in the same manner people now read the likes and dislikes on a Facebook page or the chain of images on a Tumblr blog.
As for printmaking technique, Culpepper employs his undergraduate degree in painting and printmaking to explain how an etching is created, how color pigment is applied, the finesse needed for executing delicate lines. And he tells visitors how the metalsmiths who created decorative patterns on armor and helmets developed their etching technique for printing on paper, thus giving rise to the art of printmaking.
“Some people will ask questions just very directly,” says Culpepper. “Others, you see them struggling or looking around for more information. You just learn to read people and sense whether they want to engage or not.”
And you discern the different types of museum-goers too, Culpepper adds.
There are the label-readers who scrutinize the didactic information on every label before turning their eyes to the work of art itself. There are the quick-lookers who rush through an entire exhibit, then come back to ponder individual works. And then there are the methodical viewers who slowly, deliberately contemplate every work of art.
A native of Virginia, Culpepper, 27, relocated to Austin after studying art at Virginia Commonwealth University. He landed the job at the Blanton three years ago. “It’s the best job ever for an artist to have,” he says.
Culpepper is a member of the lively Ink Tank collaborative, who create temporary, immersive, site-specific installations that act as imaginary live environments. Ink Tank won the Austin Critics’ Table Award in 2012 for best independent project for “Last New Year,” a meticulous artistic refashioning of a derelict house in East Austin.
Culpepper currently has some of his mixed-media solo work in a group show at Tiny Park gallery.
When he leads the tour Thursday, Culpepper will focus on the Blanton’s selection of its permanent collection of modern and contemporary art.
“I find the questions that people have about abstract or conceptual art to be the most intriguing to answer,” says Culpepper.
And yes, people do really look at an abstract painting and remark, “My kid could do that,” Culpepper reports. “It’s a cliché, but people say it.”
And so he’s developed ways to steer the conversation around, pointing out the gestural marks that are evidence of the artist’s brush. Or he invites people to consider how the different works of art relate to each other within a particular gallery — the way a circular form in a painting by Helen Frankenthaler relates to the circular form in a nearby painting by Adolph Gottlieb.
“You don’t have to think about a narrative of what a work of art is supposed to about,” Culpepper says. “You can just appreciate a painting for its use of paint. You can just appreciate it for its basic composition. Art is not meant to intimidate you.”
Third Thursday at the Blanton
What: Free admission and activities. Museum open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Noon: Yoga in the galleries
12:30 p.m.: Francesca Consagra, Blanton senior curator, leads a tour of “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540”
5:30 p.m.: “Beat the Rush” concert with Mariachi Relampago
6 p.m.: Screening of Argentine psychological thriller “La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman)”
7:30 p.m.: “Art Glimpses” with David Culpepper
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Information: 512-471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org