The Art of Running an Art Gallery

Emma Pulizzi, Contributing Writer

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Elli Crocker is a professor of studio art at Clark University, and has been the director of the Schiltkamp Gallery in the Traina Center for the Arts for the past three years. She currently teaches “Gallery Culture and Practice,” a class that invites students to learn the ins and outs of gallery curation.

Emma: In order for me to get a sense of what the gallery class is like, how do you introduce it to students at the beginning of the semester?

Elli: Sure, it’s a so called “Problems of Practice” course, which means that there is a component of experiential learning involved, and hands on activity. So the students are learning how to put together an exhibition from soup to nuts, so to speak, everything from conceiving of the theme, putting out a call for work, organizing it, curating it, making selections and installing it. And then also of course, after, taking it down. It also involves publicizing it, and in various ways getting the word out about it.

So, the students meet with people in different areas of the arts scene. For example, they’re meeting with someone who is the director of a regional nonprofit arts organization, they’re meeting with someone who works in city hall with cultural events, they’re meeting the director and owner of a retail gallery, [an industry] where they’re basically trying to make money, and it’s for profit. They met last semester with an art curator at the Worcester art museum. Those are just some of the examples of the kinds of people that they’ll be meeting. They learn a lot about what’s behind getting a piece of art out into the public, and the story behind that.

Emma: I looked at the description of the class, and there was a question posed there—”how is art chosen to be displayed, who chooses, how and where is the art presented and how does this determine discourse about it?” I was wondering if you had any comment about that, especially the latter part, and how you pose that question to the students in your class?

Elli: You know, each semester, I try to have people come in that can speak to issues of diversity and inclusion. One of the people we had come in this semester is James Monford, who is the long-time curator of the Banister Gallery at Rhode Island College, and he is now at the University of Rhode Island. He’s an African American artist, and is also part native American, and he talks very powerfully about who has been excluded in many situations being shown, in major art venues, and how that’s changing, if it’s changing.

Also, Toby Sisson, who is a professor here, usually talks to the class about creating inclusive space and different ways that can be done, and also what happens with different groups of people are excluded. You know, how in some ways we as viewers are being trained to think about what is legitimate art, or what is important art, or what is truly current or enduring.

We also, when we meet with Nancy Burns, the curator at the Worcester Art Museum, she talks about how a museum makes decisions about acquisitions—what gets purchased and what gets shown, who decides to de-acquisition works of art. I feel that right now there is a lot of conversation about this, and it’s really worth it to question, when you see an exhibition, why it’s important, and again, who’s included, who’s not, what are the issues of our time, how are certain artists being noticed and who might be overlooked.

Emma: Right, like, who is given the spotlight?

Elli: Exactly. You know for me as an artist coming of age, for a long time, it was that women weren’t being given the spotlight. And as a matter of fact, even women gallery owners, famously Mary Boone in New York City in the 1980s, said that she didn’t feel that there were any female artists good enough for her to show.

Emma: Even though she’s a female gallery owner?

Elli: Yeah! But that has changed, and of course there has been a lot of conversation about people of color being represented. And you could argue that there are a lot of groups not being adequately represented. There’s also been a big push in the last 30 years, to take a long hard look at what is referred to as outsider. That would be people that work kind of outside of the fine art cannon, like quilt makers, or people working with tin, sort of doing things that are not coming out of any kind of formal language with art.

For example, Tufts University had a show last semester that was very much about outsider artists, and basically what’s important to see in that work and why we should be paying attention to it. That’s another example because a lot of times people are not educated and are not necessarily in the orbit of the art world.

Emma: Going back to the class a bit, what do you think is the best thing to teach students about gallery curation?

Elli: I feel like it’s important to encounter art. What I’m hoping is that every single student will be able to encounter art in a more mindful way, a more questioning way, and also, I think that is true for all critical thinkers—when you’re encountering decisions that are made by other people, you’re asking, what is the backstory on that? Not just taking something at face value, but why is this here and who made the choices? Why is it important?