The Colgate Scene
Picker Art Gallery moves to new level in engaging campus, community
|By Nancy Keefe Rhodes|
Jess Worby's project We Like to Look was one of the sculptures, photographs, mixed-media pieces, paintings, and video works that drew a large crowd of admirers to the opening of the senior art show in April; 16 studio art concentrators and 17 art history concentrators showed their work. [Enlarge] [Photo by Luke Connolly '09]
Last spring, while taking an academic seminar in medieval art, Leslie Petsoff '07, to her surprise, found herself becoming an ambassador for the campus art gallery. Led by professor Judith Oliver, the students in the course curated an exhibition of plaster casts of 12th-century cathedral doors from Pisa, Italy, from the Picker Art Gallery's collection, as part of its official schedule.
"It's so great!" the gregarious art history major recently exclaimed. "We were really excited and we told other people, so we got our friends to come, too."
But Petsoff, who considers herself "a serious Division I swimmer" in addition to a serious student of art, also recognizes a disconnect that has concerned some artists recently, a growing background buzz that art in formal settings can intimidate viewers instead of attracting them. Offered that observation, Petsoff paused in her headlong account of her own experience. "I guess people need to be prodded to look at art sometimes. Art history can be boring. I think the Picker realized that, and that's why Lizzie invited people in."
"Lizzie" would be the Picker's director, Elizabeth Barker, who came to Colgate in July 2005 from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. As it happens, Petsoff is writing her senior thesis about quarrels between the Met and the New York Times dating back to the museum's founding. She reported, "The paper either criticized or celebrated the Met according to how well the leaders stuck to the founders' goals."
Petsoff said she learned that this was a case of democracy versus elitism, one element that can heighten the intimidation factor. That point is also key for the 40-year-old Picker, whose mission statement (www.pickerartgallery.org) today includes lots of active verbs that make it clear that this institution's arms are wide open with invitation.
The world of the Picker
But the gallery has grown beyond that, she said. Only focusing on preservation and presentation would be "like a surgeon saying, `I became a surgeon in order to scrub in today.' What should motivate us is the equivalent of `I'd like to save some lives today.' What we do is just as important. Museums provide a place that's increasingly rare — a space for close, sustained looking. I think there's a hunger for that regardless of — maybe even because of — the sophisticated visual culture we live in. You should see the world in a new way. You may notice a visual rhyme between two trees, or you may get home and open the newspaper and question the way a photographic image has been positioned on the page."
The Picker's latest initiatives range from inventorying the entire collection, to expanding relationships with students and faculty, to community outreach, to showcasing collaborative exhibitions. Much is possible, Barker said, thanks to Colgate's unique environment.
"I've never encountered anything quite like it," said Barker. "There's
an emphasis on teaching in depth — undergraduate students are conducting original research and co-publishing papers with their professors. The alumni community is among the most generous and deeply connected. In this environment, the Picker can serve as a laboratory for the visual arts."
In her first year, Barker wondered how the Picker compared with its peers. She asked intern Jeff Sheng '07 to investigate that, something the New Jersey senior said was new research that the Picker offered to share with the other institutions. Barker doesn't think the findings — that the Picker has a larger-than-average-sized collection, smaller-than-average staff and facility, and significantly smaller-than-average-sized budget compared to fine arts museums at other top liberal arts colleges — are controversial or surprising.
While information of this sort is useful for long-range planning, Barker is also keenly aware of hurdles like those Petsoff recognized. One ally is Samanthi Martinez, of MAD Art, Inc., a new group representing about 30 Hamilton-area artists with gallery space in town. She echoes such concerns. "The typical family wouldn't go to a gallery. They'd ask, `What will I wear? What will I have to say? What will I have to know?' The real question is, `Will my family enjoy something beautiful?'"
One step toward bridging that divide is the ongoing inventory of the Picker's holdings, nearly 11,000 items, which had never before been done.
"I really want people to come in," Barker said. "The greatest disservice would be to project elitism. Like libraries, museums are fundamentally radically democratic institutions. This is why our inventory is so important. It might seem dry, but knowing exactly what we hold means we can share everything we have."
Barker has a specific goal in mind. "I hope we'll be able to have a study room where anyone could see anything in the university's collection on demand. If someone called and said, `Do you have anything by Rembrandt?' we could say, `Of course. Come in on Thursday at seven, wash your hands, leave your book bag in a locker; we're ready for you.' I think that's entirely possible."
Vibha Gokhale '07 (right) and Padma Kaimal, associate professor of art and art history, gave a gallery talk about the exhibition that Gokhale curated earlier this year, A Year of Goddesses, which featured prints from a 1983 Hindu religious calendar created by famed Indian painter Indra Sharma. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Passing it on: the student intern program
One recent foggy morning, Barker reflected on what drew her to Colgate. "At the Met, I felt I'd climbed one little hill and been invited to stay there for forty or fifty years. I handled British and American drawings from roughly 1700 to 1900. I never worked with other media, never strayed across national boundaries. I wanted to do other kinds of exhibitions. I had had some wonderful interns, and the idea of working with students for a living instead of an occasional sideline — passing on the excitement of a work of art in the raw — was too tempting to pass up."
In its newest iteration, the Picker's internship program serves that vision. This year there are 10 student interns, and the jobs are highly coveted. Needs change each semester, so depending on who's returning and what projects are underway, students can seek positions as art handling assistant, collections cataloguer, education assistant, researcher/writer, or technology assistant. Interns come from a variety of majors, consistent with the Picker's goal of interdisciplinary collaboration and broader Colgate efforts to integrate the arts across the curriculum. They meet regularly as a group, much like a seminar.
Mary Ann Calo, director of the Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts, said, "It's really a pre-professional program that functions as a collective body. We have a lot of students interested in museum work now. It's rigorous, meaning that it has professional standards and intellectual ambition."
When Nancy Ng Tam '08 learned that the Picker wanted a history major last summer to research the 19th-century Harper's Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast (his grandson donated more than 2,000 of his works to the Picker), she said, "I jumped on it and got the job. People don't usually think of art as primary source documents, but this is an extension of my scholarship."
Tam became interested in U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction-era press, making it the subject of her seminar thesis. As part of her internship, Tam got to curate an exhibition on the Picker's spring 2007 schedule. "I focused on Boss Tweed's political machine during the 1871 elections because it was so outrageous and excessive," she said during a gallery walk-through. She also learned how much goes into a gallery exhibition. "I was very surprised at how deliberate every decision was, even the matboard that we ordered to exactly match the newsprint." She also got to curate an exhibition on contemporary Japanese art.
Sheng, the intern who surveyed other galleries last year, is researching the designer of the Dana Arts Center (home of the Picker), architect Paul Rudolph, and Colgate's overall architectural history for an exhibition next fall. A philosophy major planning to study law, Sheng remarked, "Sometimes people don't like the building, but I think we can tell a pretty remarkable story here about what an important piece it is."
This level of work happens because the Picker, and Colgate, take student research seriously. Art history concentrator Anne Huntington '07, for example, is researching Russian photojournalist Yevgeny Khaldei, whose first U.S. exhibition occurred at Colgate in 1995. Professors Alexander and Alice Nakhimovsky produced Aperture's book on him, Witness to History. Colgate has 96 of his prints, to which Barker first introduced Huntington.
Huntington interned the last three summers in Manhattan, at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, the Whitney Museum, and in the photo department at Phillips de Pury & Company auction house. Matter-of-factly, she said, yes, she's thought about publishing her senior thesis.
"Before break I went into New York and spoke with the Nakhimov-skys, who are there doing research," she said. "They gave me contacts with other Russian photojournalists if I want to broaden my work. I went to the library and watched old newsreels, things that Khaldei himself might have watched and gotten ideas from for different types of perspective, composition, symmetry."
The gallery as classroom
Last March, Lynette Stephenson's beginning painting students met visiting oil-painting artists in the gallery.
"They had lunch, and all the artists in the show led my students around and explained their work. They spent hours," Stephenson recalled. "Afterward, the students constantly referred back to what they said. Then the Picker set up space so my students could actually paint in the gallery. They did self-portraits in the styles of artists they researched and exhibited their paintings side by side with those they studied. The self-portraits have been a big buzz. Now they go over there and look for inspiration."
Members of the faculty have also assisted in new acquisitions. Padma Kaimal, on leave researching the theft of 10th-century goddess sculptures from southern India, did some shopping for the Picker this winter that resonated with her own scholarship.
"The fanciest thing is a bronze sculpture, two feet high, of the Hindu god Shiva, an honest copy of a famous work from the mid-11th century. I knew it would get a good home," Kaimal said, elaborating: "A good home is, first, a legal home. The piece needs to leave its country of origin in an honest way. We are supporting artists who are still alive. We didn't try to bargain for this piece. We treated the sellers with respect. Some of the most beautiful pieces in India have to be locked away in windowless cement storehouses. I am thrilled we have this piece for teaching."
Children's programs at the Picker include Saturday workshops that use gallery works to inspire young artists' own creative responses, and gallery-exploring and art-making activities on family Sundays. [Photo by Jimmy Maritz '05]
Extending the invitation
"A work of art is alive only as much as someone is appreciating and enjoying it," she said. "I remember reading in Smithsonian magazine about the great, rare instruments in their collection and how important it is that someone goes in every month and plays the Stradivarius violins. If they don't, they will fall out of tune, it will affect the wood, they won't live anymore. A work of art that is put in storage, forgotten and never seen, goes into a kind of metaphysical hibernation. Our job is to wake things up."
One way to do that is through varied, literal, and practical invitations to kids. Besides Sunday "conversation starter" tours and the chance for young visitors to make their own creations on Saturdays, the Picker offers children-centered talks about its exhibitions. Docent Cynthia Mannino noted how excited they become. "When we invite them back, they say, `Can I? Can I bring my mother, too?'"
The Picker is in its second year of encouraging school visits by reimbursing schools 85 percent of the cost of buses and drivers. Picker Educator Melissa Davies said, "We got this idea from the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College. First we got seed money from the university, then a matching grant from the Mid-York Community Foundation. I just got out the phone book to match their amount. Now it's a regular program called Go for Art!"
Davies has been the Picker's educator since 2004. In charge of the ever-growing outreach network, she developed an entirely volunteer docent program. She has 18 names on her master list, with about 10 active at a given time. Picker docents get special briefings from Colgate faculty members and others on art history and a steady supply of readings on museum practices.
Docents guide gallery visitors and work with Hamilton Central School teachers in their classrooms. The Picker offers area teachers professional development credits for training in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a learner-centered approach that uses art to teach critical thinking, communication skills, and visual literacy. Currently, Picker docents interact with 40 kindergarteners, 18 to 20 third graders, 50 to 60 fourth graders, and 12 to 16 high school theater students. Picker docents learned VTS at Syracuse's Everson Museum, whose associate curator of education, Marlene Roeder, said, "They have a fantastic team in place." Davies also trained directly with VTS creator Philip Yenawine.
The VTS method proposes five stages of aesthetic development. Davies said that most museum education tours skip the first two stages by going straight to expert-level facts. "It means 80 percent of their visitors shut down and just feel intimidated, so they don't want to look anymore," said Davies. "The best way to start with kids is to have them tell us what they see."
Asking the questions, "What's going on in this picture?" "What do you see that makes you say that?" and "What more can you find?" a docent or teacher paraphrases each answer. Kids begin to add observations, and get to practice how they phrase their thoughts. Vocabulary expands, and new thinking spills into other areas of learning.
Teachers report that the program re-energizes their own response to art. "My kids are very vocal about how excited they are about art," said Eric Coriale, a fourth-grade HCS teacher. "But it goes deeper. I see my kids as more critical thinkers. They're drawing inferences, asking different questions, building images, looking. I find myself using art more. It was not part of my own daily learning. It's been an opening up for me just as much."
"It's very respectful," added docent Cynthia Mannino, who has worked as a psychiatric social worker. "No one laughs at a kid who gets up the courage in a group to venture an opinion."
After taking her beginning painting students to the Picker as part of a project where they study other artists and then paint their own self-portraits reflecting a particular style, Lynette Stephenson (left, shown here in the painting studio with Liana Hadarean '09) says that they now head to the Picker for inspiration. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Two key projects are locally based. Paul J. Schupf '58, a Hamilton resident who is a serious art collector and arts patron, will loan significant works from his collection to Colgate in honor of Rebecca Chopp's fifth anniversary as Colgate's president. Titled Moving Pictures — both because the exhibition will rotate and because the works are so affecting — the Schupf project will unfold in time, with pieces appearing around campus and posted online. Schupf is also lending a portfolio of prints by artist Chuck Close for an exhibition that opens at the Picker in August and travels to Colby College's Museum of Art next spring.
The combination gift/purchase of a major portion of WPA-era artist and illustrator Lee Brown Coye's work and papers (respectively for the Picker and the library's special collections department), arranged through Coye's son and sister, will make Hamilton a national center for scholarship on his work. Coye lived in Hamilton for many years, sometimes worked for Colgate, and is still remembered locally. Highlighting Coye also signifies that major art occurs right here and not just elsewhere.
Another goal is to partner with an academic press to produce catalogues. "We are mounting original exhibitions, some with quite provocative theses, some that are experimental and push the limits of what an exhibition is," said Barker. "Some are actually too risky for larger museums. But exhibitions are temporary. We see catalogues as a legacy."
One such upcoming catalogue introduces gifts by Dr. Luther W. Brady H'88 of abstract expressionist works on paper. Another publishes Colgate's collection of rare Chinese woodcuts that survived China's Cultural Revolution, which received scant attention during the Cold War era but now might shine in the reflected attention of the multi-year loan of ancient Chinese art to the Picker from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.
And an ongoing relationship arising from the discovery of Australian Aboriginal drawings ("Child artists open big doors," Sept. 2005 Scene) has most recently provided a prime example of the opportunities available when a liberal arts institution like Colgate has a facility like the Picker.
As an Alumni Memorial Scholar, Rebecca Brereton '07, a biology major and accomplished photographer, did independent research after learning about the Picker's prized collection of drawings. She proposed an eight-week photographic trip to Katanning, southwest Australia, to study the landscape and its affect on the children who created the works. Barker asked her to curate an exhibition of her photographs upon her return.
"What surprised me the most, when I got back, was the professionalism I was working with, the robust energy of the staff here at the Picker. My imagination was ten times smaller. I had no idea we'd be painting walls!" said Brereton, elaborating later in an e-mail: "I didn't know that I'd be choosing between hundreds of types of paper on which to have my photographs printed and swatches of fabric to make large scrims. I could not have imagined the hours we spent determining the layout of the exhibit. I also did not know I would have to distill my experience and the exhibit's themes into succinct paragraphs of museum-style text. The arts have revolutionized my experience."
For Brereton and so many others, it shows.
Rhodes is a Syracuse-based arts journalist.
Top of page
Table of contents
|Next: Risk-taking... >>|