The Blank Canvas
Updated: Feb 28
Campus art spaces rethink the future of curation.
By Claire Shang.
This spring, most Americans would not have cited the stalled arts industry as one of their primary concerns. But months into the pandemic, the absence of museums and galleries has become harder to ignore. Institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art reported September visitor counts at 24% and 14% of previous years’, dropping below even conservative estimates. By all counts, museums will have to adapt to an increasingly remote world. As Tina Olsen, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, suggested in an April interview, museums will have to adjust their brands and learn to “invent new forms of revenue.”
Columbia’s art spaces have certainly been impacted by the pandemic, but what they’re confronting is less the question of economic viability, and more an existential reckoning with their mission and messaging. To understand this, we must first recognize Columbia’s particular relationship with its art venues. Though Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery is the most prominent exhibition space on campus, there is no officially designated university museum. As such, these gallery spaces don’t serve the solely pedagogical roles expected of a traditional teaching museum: to complement curricula, host classes, and exhibit pieces from the university collection. At the same time, Columbia is just blocks from some of the world’s most renowned museums. Art spaces on campus were founded with specific functions in mind, and play a distinct role somewhere between the urban museum and the university gallery. The pandemic has compelled these institutions to return to their missions in new ways and with new intents.
In 2017, the Wallach moved from Schermerhorn’s eighth floor to the Lenfest Center for the Arts. Its inaugural exhibit, “Uptown Triennial,” showcased contemporary artists working north of 99th Street; it also established this community connection as a recurring part of the gallery’s programming. The Wallach’s re-situating of both its space and mission is part of what Betti-Sue Hertz, who assumed the directorship in August 2019, described as “building a profile for the gallery that’s much more outward facing.” Following the enormous success of the 2018 show “Posing Modernity,” which explored the depiction of Black women in Impressionist works and later traveled to France’s Musée d’Orsay, the Wallach furthered its self-conception as a “player at the world stage,” as Hertz put it. Still, the Wallach remains a fundamentally Columbia institution—“Posing Modernity” was curated by Denise Murrell, who adapted the show from her 2013 dissertation for Columbia’s Department of Art History and Archaeology. At its best, then, the gallery’s input pulls on the University’s resources, community, and scholarship, but generates an output that can potentially reach an international audience.
Three years after the Wallach’s move, this spring marked the second installment of the Uptown Triennial. Though its in-person opening was disrupted by the pandemic and access to the gallery remains limited to Columbia affiliates, the exhibit fully embodies the gallery’s relationship to the University. Associate director Lewis Long emphasized that though “Uptown” highlights contemporary artists, their pieces are positioned in response to six works from the Harlem Renaissance, in recognition of its centennial. Three of these, including a first edition copy of “The New Negro,” by Alain Locke, come from the University’s own holdings.
“What’s interesting in our scenario—and I didn’t know this before I came to Columbia—is that Columbia has an art collection,” Hertz said. She was referring to Art Properties, the library’s study collection of over 13,000 objects, typically lent out to support educational programs. The Wallach, on the other hand, has no collection. Hertz framed the situation as one of opportunity: “We’re not tied to this past. We don’t have to prove ourselves within these sorts of academic structures.” Instead, she described it as the “best of both worlds,” in which she has access to the University’s holdings without needing to manage them. Currently slated for fall 2021, a three-part show entitled “Giving Back” will strengthen this tie between the Wallach and Columbia’s own objects; it will feature Native American art, American portrait photography, and Buddhist art from the University’s collection, curated by professors and Art Properties director Roberto Ferrari.
To Long, this collaborative spirit is what defines a university gallery. The space demands that its directors “play off that interdisciplinary nature of what you find in the university setting” as they pull expertise and insight from across units and departments. And though this collaborative mission has always been the Wallach’s goal, Hertz cited a pandemic-induced “pressure for innovation” that has challenged the institution to envision new ways to achieve it. She noted that the lack of tourists, for instance, has both allowed and driven the gallery to “put extra energy into local relationships,” sustaining community bonds in new ways.
In June, the gallery facilitated the Uptown People’s Assembly, a 12-hour participatory Zoom. The event, subtitled “Facing the Raging Pandemics” to acknowledge the dual impact of COVID-19 and systemic racism on Harlem, invited Columbia professors and community members to lead hour-long sessions ranging from readings to meditations. Unique in medium and duration, the event was motivated by a sense of urgency and was organized in just nine days. “I felt like that was the right thing to do. Being part of Columbia, we can create a platform and then open it up,” Hertz said. Initially, she hadn’t planned to participate in all twelve hours of programming—“I thought I didn’t have the endurance”—but she ended up staying, along with five non-staff participants who also tuned in until the last event, a DJ set. Firsthand, she’d witnessed that the gallery, even transferred online, could continue to function as a “gathering place and convener for the community.”
After warm feedback on the Zoom assembly, the gallery promised to hold another event. Despite recognizing the unexpected nature and success of the June livestream, Hertz clarified, “I think we know it’s not the right thing to do now.” Instead, the follow-up is a December 4 town hall discussion, hosted with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, on the future of the city that foregrounds Harlem perspectives. This conscious change in mediums reflects their belief that the gallery must consider content, but also timing. Or as she put it, “It’s not only what you have to say, it’s when you say it that opens doors for people.”
In the broadest terms, then, the Wallach’s goal is to serve the “now,” highlighting contemporary voices and identifying historical pieces that can provide timely takeaways. The career that led Hertz to the Wallach was also defined by a continuous exploration of what a museum can do. For over a decade, she ran a community art space in the South Bronx, presenting professional works in a storefront gallery. She then headed to California, becoming the first contemporary art curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, where she had to “really transform people’s assumptions about what kind of museum it was and what was possible within it.” In this way, Hertz has always balanced the expected and unexpected, learning to choreograph a “very complicated dance” that has led her from community museum to city museum to university gallery.
Despite the Wallach’s strong command of the digital space, Hertz and Long made it clear that physical encounters will remain the gallery’s priority. Digital programming now, Long said, is simply a “good substitute given current conditions”—means, not ends. What might endure, though, is the increased accessibility made possible by these digital resources. Online, “Uptown” is experienced as a lifelike, 3D tour of the gallery. The Wallach created a similar model for “Posing Modernity,” now available online, but hadn’t released it to the public while the exhibit was on display out of concern that it would “cannibalize someone making a visit,” as Long put it. Digital resources that were seen as primarily useful for documentation might become part of future expectations for museum accessibility, now that “people have seen that you can do it,” he explained.
All of these changes imposed by the pandemic could be summarized by a phrase Long mentioned late into our conversation: “It’s clear that the way we think about an exhibition is evolving.” Clear not only to the Wallach’s visitors but also to the gallery’s leadership themselves—Hertz clarified that she preferred to “not just think of exhibitions as objects in space,” but as “exhibition projects,” the extra word encompassing the dynamism and possibility offered by the gallery space.
The Wallach is not the only exhibition space on campus. The Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, the domain of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), was founded in 1990 as a public gallery and hub dedicated to architecture. Irene Sunwoo, its current director, defines her space now as an “open platform” to host collaborations with non-Columbia designers and artists to “complement, amplify, and challenge” GSAPP teachings.
Its operations since the spring have also embraced the Wallach’s evolving understanding of the exhibition. Sunwoo clarified that instead of the term “online exhibition,” she’d consciously renamed her ongoing show a “curatorial and editorial project.” As in Hertz’s comments, the term “project” more fully articulates the flexibility that has always been present in university art spaces.
The gallery’s current project, “A Wildness Distant,” is an online program revealed in installments from October through December. Each chapter presents a contemporary film on the theme of “landscape,” accompanied by a commissioned essay. Exploring large-scale geopolitical infrastructure projects inspired by real-world enterprises, like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, had always been a fantasy Sunwoo harbored for the gallery, but the sprawling subject matter wasn’t compatible with Ross’ physical space.
Viewing “A Wildness Distant” mid-pandemic feels apt. With subjects spanning from Puerto Rico to Egypt to Australia, the featured films present the reality of globalism when we can’t experience it physically. The exhibit’s intense focus on place is especially at home in a university gallery, which is so rooted in its physical location on a campus. And though it’s a show that depicts landscape in an architecture gallery, unexpectedly “the films are not about cities, they’re not just about the building,” Sunwoo said.
Sunwoo accommodates the gallery’s limitations, often reframing them as opportunities. The biweekly roll-out of the online show, for instance, wasn’t entirely intentional—it took unpredictable amounts of time to access the films and pair them with essayists—but the spacing benefited the Ross. “People have limited attention spans,” she said, “and maybe it’s a little more generous to let it trickle out.”
As with the Wallach, the pandemic has allowed—indeed, commanded—the Ross to reflect on its programming, but also its identity at large. Inventory was one of the first tasks Sunwoo undertook in 2016 as the new director: listing the 60-odd shows, collecting images and curatorial statements, noting previous participants. This spring, she returned to this project, wanting to better understand “what the gallery had already done and also what it had missed.”
This was crucial and time-sensitive work for Sunwoo, who thinks of an exhibition as a project, but also as a “gesture of validation.” From her recollection, she tallied “five or six female protagonists, and people that were not white totaled about five,” with “definitely” no featured Black artists.
Sunwoo was not aiming for an indictment of the past but rather acknowledged that the pandemic has allowed her to return to her curatorial work with newfound direction. She’s looking to more directly engage underrepresented groups in the gallery space, extending protagonist status to as many external artists as possible. It’s a gallery-level goal, but also a personal one, she noted, describing how she had felt heartbroken after counting the number of highlighted female artists. “Being an Asian American woman,” she said, “you’re always kind of looking around and counting how many people of color have been at the table here or there.”
Columbia’s art spaces are situated in a unique nexus, operating distinctly from city, community, and even other university museums. Because these galleries are couched comfortably in Columbia’s financial folds, they don’t face the financial pressures that other museums may be experiencing, and the pandemic has presented an opportunity for genuine reflection. These spaces were founded to be connectors, to transcend the insularity of campus. Describing the mission of a museum, Hertz focused on its ability to bring people together: “You go into a space and you’re with strangers and you negotiate those relationships. We’re all having an experience with the same ideas and objects, but we experience them differently.”
Now, from home, we’re negotiating our relationships to the actual museum, not just its objects. Alongside the galleries themselves, we’re learning to discuss differences, to acknowledge our pasts, to navigate shared space, and we’re hoping that these changes endure even beyond the pandemic.