University Gallery Curators Thinking Outside the Box

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 21, 2011

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This fall, new curators at two of Philadelphia’s most iconic university galleries are giving us all a reason to go back to school. Alex Klein (Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn) and Rob Blackson (Temple Gallery at Temple) have each thrown a wrench into the traditional, top-down model of exhibition-making, in which curators place art in a room and everyone else scrambles to make sense of it. Shifting their focus from the gallery to the community, Klein and Blackson are on the crest of a new kind of exhibition-making that values frank discussion over quiet contemplation.

Alex Klein, ICA
The summer months tend to be slower in art museums, but Klein, who began her role as program curator at the ICA in June, has hardly had a moment’s rest. Created to replace what had previously been known as the Education Department, her newly minted position is a bold attempt to redefine the gallery experience by placing conversations with the public on equal institutional footing with the artwork in the galleries.

Translated into actual events on the calendar, this means replacing talks with conversations and lecture halls with casual dens of communication. Excursus and ICA Salon are both new programs that Klein hopes will make ICA a space for an ongoing discussion about artistic practice in the institution. She describes Excursus as “an exhibition built for a program,” a series of artist-in-residencies designed to mine the ICA archive for historical material that may spark contemporary conversations. In its first installment, Philadelphia-based designer Andy Beach (who curates under the name Reference Library) recreated the Centaur, a radical bookstore cum scholarly nightclub in Philadelphia circa 1920. Installed on the mezzanine level of the ICA with specially designed furniture, the project will function as an outpost for examining the circulatory patterns of materials before they wind up in an archive. Punctuated by specific special events, Klein hopes that Excursus will also serve as a space for casual, more off-the cuff programs.

Adopting a more historically familiar format, ICA Salon will feature a group of artists and curators invited to discuss recent work, or, as Klein says, “Something so fresh that you haven’t had that distance to articulate it.” Her only requirement is that no one prepares in advance, a foil to the stiff lecture format that reliably produces watch-checking and chair-squirming.

Driving both Excursus and ICA Salon is Klein’s conviction that mixing people from different walks of life will produce the most interesting discussions: “Painters don’t only talk to painters, photographers don’t only talk to photographers. I’m really interested in cross hairs and thinking about not always putting the most likely people in a room together.” And while Klein may be working for a university, she’s eager to distinguish her project from a pedantic mission: “I don’t have an education agenda, I’m not trying to teach anybody anything,” she says. Instead, she hopes that through dialog, people will teach each other.

Such discussions are of personal and not just professional interest to Klein. “I do always think of myself as an artist first and that’s the main hat that I wear.” As a trained artist with an active practice (Klein has an MFA from UCLA), Klein uses dialog as raw material for her own artistic practice. Describing the arc of her creative process, it’s clear that there’s less tension than alchemy at work in her marriage of the roles of artist and curator: “The discussions that I instigate in the institution lead into publications which lead back into objects. It’s all related,” she explains. “The great thing about doing something like art history from an artists’ perspective is that you can bend the rules and make connections outside of the discipline. That’s where the primary agency of an artist is—it lets you bend disciplinary boundaries.” As an artist, author of numerous exhibition catalogs, publisher of Oslo Editions, and now curator, Klein sees each role as one strategy among many: “It’s the way I think through problems, stepping into different places. It just means I’m incredibly busy!”

Rob Blackson, Temple Gallery

Since arriving at Temple in January, Blackson has embraced the role of good-natured contrarian when it comes to gallery conventions, flaunting the inherited idea that the gallery should be the nucleus of an exhibition. “It’s obvious to me that the way it really slices down is that public programs is the pie and exhibitions are one slice of it because all of our engagement with the public is in some way a program,” says Blackson.

He prefers to think of the white cube as just one component to a much livelier spread of arts activities which might involve urban forage or an office chair relay race.

Trained at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies—a program known for producing adventuresome, theoretically irreproachable curators—Blackson recalls the moment he squared his academic philosophy with the reality of working in a university art gallery: “There was this really huge shift in my practice between when you’re just doing a show for the general public versus when you’re trying to consider what an educational institution wants to provide in relation to contemporary art.” It wasn’t exactly an issue that most other school-affiliated galleries seemed overly eager to address. “I’m increasingly amazed as I get more focused in this direction at how many university art galleries take on the model of just a regular commercial gallery or other museum,” he says. Citing the endless multiplication of art workshops for kids and lecture programs for adults, Blackson is frustrated by what he perceives to be a lack of educational commitment: “I’ve grown to think that’s backward. As an educational facility, what we need to learn should take precedence.” For his part, the learning process begins by asking the community which issues matter most to them.

The Temple Gallery Advisory Council (which Blackson immediately formed) boasts 10 students, 10 faculty administrators and 10 citizens from greater Philadelphia who represent professionals in geography, diplomacy, health, communications, business, creative economy, parks and recreation, some urban gardening, tourism, and the arts community. Blackson suspected that assembling people from diverse backgrounds was the key to creating exhibitions that community members might actually want to see. It dawned on him that programming should be at least a two-way street (if not a complex, sometimes harrowing intersection) and that “perhaps just one guy sitting in a nice office cannot make those [programming] decisions by himself alone,” Blackson says.

In the spirit of grand inquisitiveness, each Advisory Council member arrives at meetings (of which there are three per year) with a question. These community-generated questions form the basis of gallery programming, and their relevance to the Philadelphia community (reflected by a council vote) is directly proportionate to the resources Blackson invests in them.

Topics are broad, like “soil and open spaces,” getting the most votes, while grittier issues such as “AIDS” and “veterans and reintegration,” ranked significantly lower. All told, it’s an ambitious spread of programs whose success relies on the support of the local community, which is just the way Blackson wants it. “I’ve completely bought into that what art is essentially good for is having an emotional connection to others and the world.” This rings true for Blackson even when his programs migrate from the outside world into the gallery space. “The gallery can wear a lot of hats,” he points out. “I’m convinced by this idea that for the most part we can be a site for meals, secret cinema or a blood drive.”

With this provocation in mind, it isn’t surprising that when asked about his favorite art space in town, Blackson mentioned a hardware store near his house: “The guy’s really friendly, always wants to talk to you about some stuff he’s got in. He’s kind of like a good gallery assistant.” After all, where we might see a regular blood drive taking place, Blackson sees the potential for meaningful social interactions. “Rarely,” says Blackson, “is it much of a leap before we can tie it in to our programming.”

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