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Updated 10:00 AM November 9, 2009

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Spotlight: Round-the-clock creativity for A&D's go-to-guy

From art connoisseur to creative novices, most people who walk into a gallery or museum understand the important role played by the curators and exhibition staff.

"You can't just hang a painting on a nail and wipe your hands and walk away," says School of Art and Design (A&D) Exhibition Coordinator Mark Nielsen. "Every element in an exhibition environment either contributes to the meaning and value of the work, or takes away from it."
(Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services)

Encouraged and praised at an early age for any creative making, art has always run through Nielsen's blood. His parents' backgrounds were vastly different; his father was an immigrant from Denmark.

"He was a sort or working class hero and my mother was a high society girl, so the young couple were immediately snubbed by my mother's entire family," Nielsen says. "It took us a long time to convince my dad that people from Europe were now considered cool."

This isolation from extended family members was "a crucial state of mind for a budding artist." Living in a 250-year-old home on Lake Michigan, constant trips to Europe and the remnants of the 1940s gangster world all added to his early inspirations.

On a whim 20 years ago, Nielsen and his wife moved to Ann Arbor where he began working shortly after at the Walker Art Center. Opportunities arose to display work by contemporary greats like Jeff Koons and Jennifer Bartlett. Had it not have been for the general friendliness of the locals and the hospitality of his landlord, who became a sort of Ann Arbor fairy godmother to the couple, Nielsen says he would have left long ago.

"The city was welcoming to us in many ways, offering friendship with lots of other child-free couples and a struggling arts community that I felt invited to help develop," he says.

He first joined the staff at the university working for the U-M Museum of Art, where working with a larger breadth of art styles challenged his display aesthetic. After a short hiatus from U-M, Nielsen immediately was picked up during Dean Brian Roger's revamping of A&D. With more than 20 ever-changing exhibitions per year, Nielsen constantly moves around.

"These shows cover a range of themes and may include faculty, students, staff, and area artists and designers," he says. "Calls are also sent out nationally and internationally, so we get a great mix of work from everywhere. This provides a wonderful opportunity for students to exhibit with professional creators within and outside the school."

Making a cohesive sequence takes more than a keen eye, a steady hand and a lot of patience, he says. It requires understanding what will happen to the piece depending upon where it is placed.

Like most artists, the creativity doesn't stop when you're off the clock. Occasionally, Nielsen's alter ego "Uncle Art" graces the A&D community with his presence. His appearances range from submissions to open-call shows to live performances as a member of the band The Gentleman Pirates.

As one of U-M's smallest schools, A&D boasts a vibrant community. And considering most students yearn to have their work displayed, Nielsen is one of the school's most recognizable figures.

After all the hard work, the payoff is more than rewarding, he says. "I'd say the most satisfying aspect of my work here is the rare chance to help creative people effectively display the products of their souls," he says.

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the University. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

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