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Art department fears Gallery’s outsider focus

Art department fears Gallery’s outsider focus

By Sam Colt

Last weekend, the final works by senior studio art majors were deinstalled from the walls of the Graham Gund Gallery. Since it opened two years ago, the Gallery has hosted spring senior exhibitions, and this year they showed work by Kenyon faculty members.

Yet, studio art students and faculty say they remain concerned that Gallery administrators may try to eliminate the shows of Kenyon-affiliated art. Those administrators counter that the Gallery is intended, first and foremost, for professional work.

Changing Course

When plans for a new gallery at Kenyon were developed and revised in the late 2000s, the inclusion of student and faculty art was always considered essential.

“[Plans for the Gallery] went through many different iterations, and at each stage and at each iteration, the programming that has always existed at … Kenyon gallery [spaces] — which included senior exhibitions for majors and faculty group shows every other year — were always planned to be part of this new space,” said Associate Professor of Art Read Baldwin, who currently chairs the studio art department. “That continued right up through the hire of the current director.”

But as the plan for what would become the Graham Gund Gallery neared the beginning of construction, Baldwin suggested the tone of the discussion changed.

“It started as suggestions and murmurs and whispers about how maybe there shouldn’t be students or faculty in this new space,” Baldwin said. “I suppose they think it diminishes the high profile of the Gallery.”

Students have also noticed the tension between the Gallery and the artistic community surrounding it.

“It seems like there is an argument going on between [the Gallery and the studio art department] about showing the senior show at the Gallery and having faculty shows at the Gallery,” said Emily Torrey ’14, a studio art major whose work was featured in the first senior exhibition in March.

The Gallery’s current director, Natalie Marsh, told the Collegian that the studio art department’s concerns about the space were heard and acknowledged by its programming.

“I think that [the studio art faculty] wanted a lot of what was happening at the Olin Gallery originally,” Marsh said, referring to student and faculty shows. “And a lot of that has carried over.”

An internal student art department document obtained by the Collegian reflects the limited amount of space that Gallary administrators allot to student and faculty work. The department has calculated work by student and faculty artists to constitute 5.9 percent of of the Gallery’s annual programming.

The document, which maps out the Gallery’s eleven exhibition rooms over a 12-month period, pegs student and faculty use of the gallery to be no more than 4.5 percent and 1.4 percent of its annual programming, respectively. The figures include the annual student exhibition for studio art majors as well as group faculty shows and post-sabbatical shows.

“Obviously we’re interested in having the exhibits that go on in that space touch many departments and many aspects of the curriculum,” Baldwin said. “The idea that we are somehow, after doing all this work, gonna get the boot and get shoved out of that space is something that seems appalling to everyone in this department.”

As Marsh described her ideal for incorporating faculty art in the gallery, she stressed placing it alongside off-campus artists rather than as standalone exhibits.

“That’s kind of a model that I think is a great way to feature faculty, where you’re showing them alongside other artists around the country who are focused on similar themes,” she said.

An Uphill Battle

Marsh told the Collegian in an April 2012 interview that showing student and faculty art was not the Gallery’s primary objective.

“The Gallery is intended to, by and large, bring in work from outside. That’s its main focus,” she said in that interview.

But the Gallery’s focus on importing off-campus art in recent years has led to conflict between studio art faculty and the Gallery’s administration over the preservation of senior art major exhibitions.

“Every year, for the past three or four years, there has been a constant drumbeat of wanting to eliminate both student and faculty shows — senior shows first and foremost,” Baldwin said. “So every year we have to put in all kinds of time and energy into fighting this directive.”

“The expectation is that you are making work in this really great facility, so you’re going to be making work of a really high caliber,” Torrey said, referring to Horvitz Hall, home of the studio arts department. “So therefore you should be showing in a professional setting by the time you get to be a senior.”

Marsh hesitated to forecast any changes in Gallery programming, instead pointing to the strategic planning committee organized by President Sean Decatur to evaluate the organization’s purpose in the community.

“It would be premature for me to say anything about where we’ll end up, because I don’t honestly know,” she said. “What we do in the future is up to that committee of a diverse range of people.”

Guiding the Gallery’s strategic plan is Tom Shapiro, founder of consulting firm Cultural Strategy Partners. Shapiro has recently worked on the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum and the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Gallery 400.

Decatur described the strategic plan as “taking the temperature of the Gallery,” adding that it would serve multiple purposes.

“It’s helpful to me, as kind of a newbie to the community, to get a sense of where the Gallery is,” Decatur said. “I think it’s helpful to the community overall.”

In an ideal world, studio art faculty would like student and faculty art to make up roughly 10 percent of the Gallery’s annual programming. Whether that goal is realized or not will largely depend on the contents of Mr. Shapiro’s report, which will be released this fall.

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