Seven questions with the MFA's Stanton Thomas

The new curator of collections and exhibitions trades Tennessee for Florida. We don't blame him a damn bit.

click to enlarge Stanton Thomas - Robert Dennard
Robert Dennard
Stanton Thomas

It's been almost two months since Dr. Stanton Thomas started his post as curator of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, so now that he's found his feet, we thought y'all would like to meet him. He gladly gives us his thoughts on the changes he wants to make the MFA, chickens and life in Northeast Park (editor's note: Seriously, St. Pete, how many damn neighborhoods do you need?). Don't let that serious photo fool you — he seems a decent sort who will, in no time, own a flock of chickens and fit right in to life in the 'Burg. We're looking forward to seeing what he does at the MFA — and, of course, what he names his chickens (we're thinking Vindaloo, Pot pie, Sandwich and Fred). 

What drew you to the MFA? 

I was drawn to the vibrancy of the staff and to the energy the new executive director Kristen Shepherd has brought to the museum. The staff is young and dynamic, and it’s exciting to have that kind of energy with Kristen’s vision and leadership. 

The collection itself, particularly the American paintings, was also a big draw. I’m excited to work with a collection that has so much potential for exploration. There are a lot of opportunities here to organize exhibitions and re-installations, and to highlight the collection in fresh ways that will increase its visibility throughout the U.S. and internationally. 

What’s the biggest change you see yourself making at the MFA? 

I have very wide curatorial experience, from painting to European art to decorative art, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to this position at the MFA. Because the MFA is the only encyclopedic art museum in Florida, we have a wonderful opportunity to work within the collection, and explore and communicate new connections among its pieces. I like working with a collection to discover and learn new things, and to communicate what I learn to the public — the MFA lends itself to that perfectly. 

I’m looking forward to delving into the way paintings are hung in our galleries, and the way the institution is organized. For example, I think the American paintings collection here, which is stupendous, deserves a lot of attention. This area of our collection includes some really remarkable works like Thomas Moran’s "Florida Landscape (Saint Johns River)" and John Frederick Peto’s "Still Life: Evening at Home." We want to enhance the progression visitors see as they walk through the museum. I’d like to make it more comprehensive and further reinforce the interrelation of world cultures as you explore all of art history throughout the MFA’s galleries. 

What neighborhood is home now? 

We’re in the Northeast Park area of St. Petersburg. It’s a wonderful, quiet residential district. 

How many chickens will you own?

Everyone wants to know about the chickens! My wife and I had some very famous chickens in Memphis, and perhaps even a more famous chicken house. I built it myself – it was an adaptation of an 18th century Louisiana hen house with a parterred herb garden, where my wife and I grew rosemary, thyme, chives, lavender, tarragon — all the usual suspects. 

We’re in an apartment right now, so we’ll wait to decide on the number of chickens until we find a house, but we’re enthusiastic about having another chicken house and organic garden. Our 4-year-old daughter especially is very enthusiastic about the chickens. And like many new Florida residents, I’m sure, we’re eager to start growing things like avocado, lime and orange trees. 

Aside from the job, what was the draw for moving here? 

I was drawn to the vitality of the city. The minute I got here, I felt a really lively energy about St. Petersburg. There are a lot of young, creative people here and the city feels like it’s pulsating with life. The weather is just amazing, of course, and the amount of growth is encouraging. We love how accessible the beaches and downtown waterways are. That’s such a great public amenity. Amazing food, too, and clearly a very lively music scene, from superb classical — just attended the Florida Orchestra’s excellent A Little Night Music, to great alternative — looking forward to seeing Old Crow Medicine Show. 

What's been the biggest “culture shock” for the area? 

It’s a positive shock, but the fact that people are so happy when you see them out and about. Seeing things in bloom all the time — hibiscus, jasmine — the area has a continual lushness to it that elevates the mood. 

For fun: You could spend the day with one person from history, dead or alive. Who is it and where do you take them? 

Robert Campin was a painter I studied when I was working on my Ph.D. He lived from 1375 to 1444, and was a master of early Flemish painting. 

Many of the documents associated with him are gone, so I’d ask him about all the mysteries that remain about his life — where exactly was he born, if he really had that affair with Laurence Poulette, was he really best friends with the duchess Jacqueline of Bavaria, did she get him out of jail after he was imprisoned for his affair, etc. 

I’d take him to southern Belgium and have him walk me through his life. We’d publish and share with the world all the mysteries of the late medieval world.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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