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University Galleries
by christian l. frock (san francisco) & george melrod (los angeles)
Jan 2010


In Between the Inside-Out
2009
Pae White
Installation view, Mills College Art Museum Photo: Paul Kuroda

San Francisco Bay Area
Universities are the breeding ground for a rigorous engagement with ideas--they provide a site for theorizing and experimentation, as much as for research and resolution. Art galleries and museums often exist within the nexus of this fertile terrain, as dedicated space for the creative process. The position of these organizations in relationship to the host school varies from one to the next--some are embedded within the art department and some are stand-alone structures that exist separate from the art department, or even at a remove from campus altogether. Yet despite variations in resources, one constant is an ambitious vision of possibility, perpetuated by the multi-tasking curator/directors of these spaces. Chiefly the role of director encompasses every aspect of the venue, and regularly combines art scholarship with administrative management abilities and marketing skills. As a result of these expansive responsibilities, the position is also commonly regarded as one of great autonomy--it is an opportunity to showcase personal vision in a way that might be hindered in a larger, more compartmentalized institution.

Northern California, and the greater Bay Area in particular, hosts a number of university art galleries and museums with programs, exhibitions and lecture series that competitively vie for attention. Indeed, these spaces provide optimal career opportunities for curators who seek to expand their leadership role and to cultivate alternative perspectives. The attractiveness of these positions is owed, at least in part, to the location of the Bay Area on the periphery of the global contemporary art discourse. "I came with the idea that this space is not specifically just an exhibition space, but rather the site of production, in an educational setting," offers Hou Hanru, director of exhibitions and public programs of the Walter and McBean Galleries at San Francisco Institute. "I saw the space more as a laboratory and discursive environment relative to the role of contemporary art in society." Hanru, who joined SFAI three years ago, and who has since also organized major international exhibitions including the Istanbul Biennial 2007, considered the unfamiliar terrain of San Francisco optimal for his curatorial explorations of nomadic identity and global mobility in contemporary art. Here the psychological space for experimentation and remote location relative to art world centers, such as New York or London, are considered a virtue. So perhaps the periphery of the periphery might be the place to look when seeking out interesting alternative ideas? Herewith are just a few curators working further off the beaten path, quietly executing world-class visions in their own small and nimble university venues.

Renny Pritikin, Director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and Fine Art Collection at UC Davis, has cultivated a career from working in the margin between the institution and popular culture. An early proponent of artist-run spaces, he founded the National Association of Artists' Organizations, an artist-centered organization that fostered interaction among artists and artists' organizations at the local and national level that operated from 1982 through the late '90s. As the Executive Director of alternative space New Langton Arts and later as the Chief Curator of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Pritikin consistently recognized a star-ward trajectory in the careers of artists such as Barry McGee and Fred Tomaselli (both of whom he gave their first solo museum exhibitions). When asked to elaborate on his experiences with artists, Pritikin hesitates before allowing, "It is really the museological struggles and breakthroughs that come to mind--and the challenge of how to get an institution to have ties to a community. If you really want to be radical and throw the doors open, you've got to include popular culture, material culture, amateur art, and so on." Skateboarding, graffiti, Rap and Hip Hop, surf culture, outsider art, even the art of Star Wars have all been studiously examined themes in his works. He movingly cites his 2005 exhibition of little known photographer Joseph Selle as one of the more emotionally powerful experiences of his career. Selle, a street photographer who sold souvenir pictures of tourists in San Francisco for more than forty years beginning in the 1930s, amassed an archive of more than one million black and white negatives. For the exhibition at the Nelson, two thousand images were digitized and each projected in one-second intervals. Visitors who anticipated staying a few minutes were mesmerized by the images of the city over the decades, but also by the social implications of the diversity, fashions and expressions of the subjects themselves. The effect of the exhibition, at once simple and complex, embodies Pritikin's career-long examination of art through the wider lens of popular culture and everyday life.

Mills College Art Museum, in the Oakland foothills, recently appointed Dr. Stephanie Hanor as its new director this summer. Hanor, who rose up the ranks of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego from assistant curator to senior curator and, later, to department head, recognizes the importance of organizational history in her new role. "You have to be aware of the history of the place--not only of the museum, but of the university as well, and whatever you do has to complement that history," she says, citing Mills' legacy as the oldest liberal arts college for women on the West Coast, with an expansive collection of historical materials, such as prints, textiles, ceramics and paintings. Mills College Art Museum, which is housed in its original 1925 Beaux Arts building, combines the experimental sensibility of a university gallery with that of a stand-alone museum on campus. As an institution, it also reflects a very specific mandate to exhibit the work of women artists and curators. Echoing a sentiment repeated by other university curators, Hanor explains: "There is a lot of autonomy and a tremendous amount of freedom in terms of the program, but also in how you manage the collection, work with students, and reach out to the audience. What I love about the museum is that it has been a laboratory space and place for contemporary ideas since its very inception." Hanor inherited about 18 months of advanced programming when she arrived, which has given her time to flesh out her agenda. The museum's collection will function as a fulcrum for the development of her programming, with plans in development to invite artists to make selections for exhibitions and for the museum to partner with students to create a comprehensive catalog of the largely undocumented collection of more than 8,000 objects. Hanor is also interested in expanding the scope of the programming beyond the museum walls, with artist interventions on campus and lunchtime programs on the museum steps.

Mark Johnson emphasizes an examination of alternative histories, or rather "important strains of American art that are not perceived as mainstream," in his work as director of the Fine Arts Gallery of San Francisco State University. Johnson joined the faculty as gallery director in 1994 after previous stints at Humboldt State and SFAI. He credits collaborations with a number of prominent institutions, such as Stanford University and the California Historical Society, for the success of some of the in-depth projects undertaken by the gallery, such as "With New Eyes: Toward an Asian American Art History," a comprehensive publication and exhibition that delved into the history of Asian artists working in the United States from 1850 -- 1970; a project which took fifteen years to complete. Johnson describes students as having a key role in the methodical "pre-internet" research essential to this type of survey--NEA and NEH grants support research that might involves trolling graveyards looking for headstone information or contacting family members about lost artworks. "San Francisco State is the most diverse school in the area--across the spectrum of ethnicity and age ranges. When you think about SFSU's contributions to the art scene, you think about artists who speak to these diversities in art history and this is the work that we try to reflect in the gallery," he explains. "But beyond all of that it is an incredibly fun job. You get to put up exhibitions, but you also identify what needs research and what has been ignored. It is fun to create this kind of knowledge."

Anu Vikram, an emerging curator recently appointed to the Worth Ryder Art Gallery in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley echoes a similar sentiment: "I love working with students--people who are asking questions and are fully engaged in what they are doing. There is very little time for small talk because every conversation is engaged with big ideas." Worth Ryder Art Gallery provides students with a space to further the ideas that they have developed in the studio by presenting them in a public forum, along with a curated exhibition program and lecture series. This direct involvement with artists early in their careers draws on Vikram's experience as a former studio manager for artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. More recently she has worked as a program director for Richmond Art Center and Headlands Center for the Arts. Beyond experience, Vikram brings resourcefulness to a gallery with limited resources. While most university galleries lack for a well designed and prominent website due to bureaucratic red tape and branding restrictions, Vikram curtailed this issue by implementing Facebook to disseminate program information. It is a small gesture, but one that exemplifies the DIY spirit and day-to-day multitasking abilities necessary for the job. As Stephanie Hanor explains it, "One thing that is nice about being in a university art museum is that there is some cushion--you are nestled within this larger institution, so there is a certain level of funding that comes from the university for support. Which means that you can focus on the program."

Los Angeles Region
If universities and art schools play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the art world, the Los Angeles art world, in particular, seems rooted in its educational infrastructure. The southland's numerous high-power art schools and universities are enriched by the presence of top-rank artists who, seeking community in the city's vast sprawl, often build second careers as educators. To an impressive degree, the region's university galleries provide a fertile extension of that energy. Among the most visible venues are the Hammer Museum, which is affiliated with UCLA, and the Gallery at REDCAT, at Walt Disney Hall in downtown LA, which is an off-site wing of CalArts. But even the small, underfunded galleries play a valuable role. Unlike large museums, whose mandate is as much to appeal to a broad popular audience--and sell tickets--as to provoke aesthetic dialogue, university galleries are uniquely positioned to present the sort of stimulating solo, group, historical, thematic, research-based or cross-disciplinary exhibitions that spark inquisitive synapses. Yet the university gallery is also an unusual, interstitial space: with a mandate to serve the students and faculty (with their own competing needs and departments) and enhance the university as a whole, but also involve the surrounding community, and an implicit impulse to attract a wider national or international audience for its deserving exhibitions and programs, the university gallery often seems to be pulled in several directions at once. Its vaunted autonomy and flexibility carries with it a unique set of challenges, not least of which is defining its own mission.

"I think university galleries make a huge mistake trying to be all things to all people," observes Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art. "What the Fisher does is claim the role as being an extension of--a limb of--the university itself. Everything we do is speaking to, and for, the university." Holo, who is also a professor of art history at USC, is the matriarch of Southern California college art museum directors, having run the Fisher since 1981. "Arts for arts sake is fine, but I believe if you're in a university or college, you have to make a case (that) the material is relevant to the students and faculty, and to the staff." One way of accomplishing that goal is through a wealth of supportive programming. For example, to accompany a recent solo show with LA artist Victor Raphael, Holo invited the music department to create concerts around the material and brought in David Wilson of the Museum of Jurassic Technology as part of a cinema event in which they showed the artist's films. Last year, after receiving a gift from the Warhol Foundation of 150 Polaroids and photos (the museum also has a sizeable permanent collection), the Fisher staged a show using excerpts from Warhol's diary and incorporating other media like poetry and music. "It was funny, erotic... people were weeping," she recalls. Tellingly, Holo is only answerable to the provost, having severed ties from the museum (then the Fisher Gallery) to the fine art department when she arrived. So the museum is able to function autonomously, with "absolute freedom." At the same time, she is well aware of her responsibility to the university, adding. "I think we have an obligation to make the case for [the museum's] indispensability to the parent institution." Because of USC's size, it contains a substantial audience in and of itself. "There are 40,000 people on campus every day," she notes. "That's a small city. If we can just reach those..."

A different sort of challenge faced Meg Linton, director of the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art & Design: "It's taken me a while to understand how Otis works and what it means to be out here on the West Side at a small, non-profit arts college." Linton arrived at Otis in fall 2003, after five years as executive director of the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara; since then she has made Otis--tucked out-of-the-way, in its compact modern campus within view of LAX--a must-see destination for its smart, edgy shows: either curated by Linton herself, or by guest curators she invites. In 2005, Linton invited painter Shahzia Sikander to present her work through a residency program established via the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation. In all, Linton has presented an ambitious regimen of 5-7 shows per year, including sprawling solo shows of Don Suggs and Mark Dean Veca among others, and has twice curated concurrent solo exhibitions of three contemporary sculptors, taking advantage of the gallery's ample proportions. Often, shows feature dense color catalogues with numerous essays. The current show at Ben Maltz Gallery is of SF-based artist Travis Somerville, who was inspired by the theme of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as refracted through the legacy of racial strife and the quest for civil rights; besides numerous large-scale paintings, the exhibition includes several ambitious installation elements, including an entire cabin and a row of drinking fountains. It is that sort of creative freedom that inspires Linton in her role. "What I do is provide a space and a structure where the artist has the confidence that they can do whatever they need to do," she says. "Not every institution can offer that. We can give them 24-hour access... It's a pretty special place," she adds. "What we don't have in resources is balanced out by the freedom you get to select shows and experiment." A 2007 exhibition of green product design, created with Otis' design wing in mind, prompted an ongoing dialogue about sustainability at Otis. "There's a lot of flexibility," Linton says. "As a curator, I try to listen to the environment I'm in."

For director Tyler Stallings of the Sweeney Art Gallery at UC Riverside, creating dialogue is also crucial, in part because, sited in downtown Riverside as part of the UCR ARTSblock, the Sweeney is the rare off-campus university gallery. "Because of our location in the downtown area, we try to position ourselves as a bridge between the community and the campus," Stallings says. "As one of the most visible extensions of the institution, [we're] in a position to interface with the public throughout the year." Stallings, who previously honed his craft as chief curator at the Laguna Art Museum, eagerly cites the "constant access to research" and "research-oriented focus" of the university as central to his mission. Among the genre-bending exhibitions he's presented are "Truthiness: Photography As Sculpture," organized in conjunction with the UCR/California Museum of Photography next door, and "Like Lifelike: Painting in the Third Dimension." The current show, "Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art," features 20 artists who "collaborate" with other species to challenge the typical anthropocentric worldview. Stallings' own interest in crossing boundaries, to involve faculty, students and the local community, is evinced by his year-long "Mapping the Desert" project, which is to include a 4-day symposium and visits to an air force base and desert oasis; as part of the process, students and faculty will submit exhibition proposals. "It's action research, what I call 'process curation,'" says Stallings, in his office in back of the gallery. "We [also] work with theater and dance," he adds, noting that the gallery serves as "a major interdepartmental node for collaboration between the departments, which are usually kind of hermetically sealed." 2010 promises to be a big year for the Sweeney: it will be moving into a new space in a renovated 1895 department store a half block away. Called the Culver Center, the facility will also contain an atrium gallery, expanded offices, a media lab and experimental music and dance studios. During the renovation Stallings brought various artists through the space, among them Walead Beshty, who created an installation using refurbished elements from the old interior. Even so, Stallings is well aware that, at 50 miles east of LA, his audience from the city may be limited. So he has been putting effort into expanding the gallery's virtual footprint through an expanding network of digital media, creating podcasts, "using the website as a research tool, not just a marketing portal."

New technology is central to the program at the University Art Museum at Cal State University, Long Beach, known by its unwieldy alphabet soup acronym UAM CSULB. With a staff of nine and its own permanent collection--mostly second-generation abstract expressionist paintings, works on paper, and a large outdoor sculpture collection started in 1966--UAM was the first accredited museum in the CSU system. Its shows run the gamut, from abstract painter Al Held to photographer Paul Shambroom. The current show is a video/audio installation by pioneering musician Brian Eno titled "77 Million Paintings." The Eno show follows earlier technologically innovative, interdisciplinary exhibitions such as "Tamper: Gestural Interface for Cinematic Design" and "Sound Oasis," an outdoor audio environment that was installed on the university quad. It epitomizes the interest in evolving technologies and digital convergence expressed by the museum's director, Christopher Scoates, who speaks eagerly of "repositioning the museum for the future" through an emphasis on art and technology. "The visual world around us is literally changing overnight," Scoates states. "As a museum of contemporary art we have to address these issues as they relate to a new generation." Being part of a university invites the kind of forward-looking experimentation that large art museums can't always provide; as example, he cites UAM's upcoming 2011 exhibition on celebrated U2 and Radiohead lighting designer Andi Watson. As a university art museum, "we can take on projects with some flexibility, be a little more nimble," he says. "We're not as burdened by art history."

Juli Carson is director of the University Art Gallery (and nearby, experimental Room Gallery) at UC Irvine. In explaining her position, Carson, who received her PhD from MIT, cites the split between the art history and studio arts departments that occurred at many U.S. universities in the '80s. "The galleries were caught in this ambivalent situation: who gets the gallery?" UC Irvine gave its gallery to the studio artists around 2003, and she was recruited "as an art historian who would use the position for pedagogical ends" who was embedded in the studio art department. (Back in 1964, the post was held by Art Forum co-founder John Coplans, an artist who taught art history). Carson wanted to create a program that was "extremely rigorous intellectually" by crafting an inter-generational dialogue between major avant-garde artists of the 1960s and '70s and contemporary visual culture; her gallery features an Emerging Artist Series as well as a Major Works Of Art Series by canonical artists doing experimental projects. While she describes her priority at any given time as primarily to the students and faculty, then the campus, then the local community, expanding outward from there, she gears her program's content to the "global intellectual art market." "I'm trying to be trans-national," she explains. Her fall 2009 show, for instance, is a solo project by Argentine conceptual artist Roberto Jacoby reflecting on the global cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Integrating rigorous scholarship and global artistic practice, Carson's project could only exist at a university gallery. But it is one she clearly revels in; as a professor, she is launching an MFA program in critical and curatorial studies at UCI. "I am here to recruit others," Carson states cheerfully. "I'm an activist in this position."

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