- University Gallery registrar Justin Griswold and Lea Sheehan ’07 contemplate a Renaissance drawing, one of thousands of works on paper in the university collection.
Hours before an opening at the University Gallery last November, director Loretta Yarlow was extracting the last piece of art for the show from a packing box. There were other signs that The Impossible Landscape was still a work in progress: a ladder in one corner, half-coiled extension cords in another. Student workers and staff moved purposefully through the twilight atmosphere of the cavernous main room, placing art, running films, angling lights just so.
With some further ado, it all came together, and a week later, an air of serene sophistication prevailed as gallery attendant Ezra Prior greeted two visitors. “Is this your first time to the gallery?” The sophomore joined them in gazing at Peter Coffin’s giant spiral, made from matching up rainbows in 30 photographs, affixed to the wall with shiny T-pins. Prior is an English major, not an art student, “but my parents are both artists,” he says, “so I’m used to it.”
Prior is one of a bunch of students involved in the gallery’s workings
these days, through internships, work-study, independent studies, and
more informal arrangements. Yarlow has been beefing up the gallery’s
role as an “art lab,” a place where students can become familiar with
the aesthetic and the pragmatic.
“I was very surprised, and impressed, to learn our collection has works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Claes Oldenburg. I never did get to see Lichtenstein’s ‘Reclining Nude,’ though,” says Lea Sheehan ’07. As part of her independent study under the direction of art history professor Walter Denny and gallery registrar Justin Griswold, Sheehan has helped catalog and store new acquisitions and organize the permanent collection. “If I had a favorite, it would be Frederick William Becker’s etchings, since they were the main works I helped photograph. I loved getting to handle these works and examine them close-up.”
Sheehan has also helped curator Eva Fierst promote the campus “Art Hop.” Sheehan says, “For December, I arranged for students to give tours of three of the six galleries on campus, gave a talk myself, and had some of the artists on hand.” An art history major with a French minor, Sheehan goes to Paris next fall for an internship, then to grad school. “Being here has definitely given me an idea of what I want to do later: work in a gallery, on outreach and promotion,” she says.
When Yarlow found out work-study student Connie Wang ’10 was a communications
major, she had her update the press and e-mail lists as well as act
as a receptionist. Like Sheehan, Wang has glimpsed a future career
path: “I’d like to do something behind the scenes, be a writer, or
an editor, eventually.” Toward that career goal, she’s honing her powers
of observation at the front desk, sizing up people’s reactions to what
they see. “The thing about art, it has your name on it; people can
hate it, or people can love it.”
There’s been a lot of love-love reactions to recent shows. Last fall’s
Cities 2001-2005 showcased work by Swiss artist Beat
Streuli. The array
of faces, alpha rhythm, and larger-than-life scale of Streuli’s video
of crowded city streets mesmerized viewers, including journalism and
first-year writing classes. “It was so inspiring, we had at least 100
students a day, sitting on the floor writing away,” Yarlow says. “A
football player came in, and he ended up writing seven pages about
what he saw. He was responding to it as a Utopian vision, a multicultural
tapestry. Then he brought his mother and invited his church group as
well. He said [about the video], ‘This is the way the world should
An adjunct professor in the art department, Yarlow has found a variety
of means beyond exhibitions to make the gallery more of a teaching
museum. Last year Lisa Amato ’06 curated an exhibition of works drawn
from its collection; this spring Julie Thomson ’07G will do the same.
Master’s candidates and undergraduates have been hanging and taking
down shows and upgrading the gallery’s Web site. Besides the expected
students majoring in art history, studio arts, or art education, there
are those from the School
of Management and mathematics. Yarlow and
her staff also arrange enticing events like artists’ residencies and
round tables on art-career options. To paraphrase the art-loving football
player, this is the way galleries should be.