Volume XXVII Number 2
School of Fine Arts Gallery at IU Bloomington
Photo courtesy SoFA Gallery
The Herron Art Gallery at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Photo by Julie Schaefer
R.W.S.A. 6-2 by Jon Wolfe at the IU Kokomo Art Gallery
Photo courtesy IU Kokomo Art Gallery
“Toxic materials. Plants and rotten meat. Live animals and fish. Burning sugar . . . that was a dangerous one,” Betsy Stirratt recalls, listing some of the materials artists have incorporated into their exhibits during the 17 years she has served as director of Indiana University Bloomington’s SoFA Gallery. “Contemporary art is challenging to exhibit,” she says. “It’s not always just a matter of hanging paintings on the wall.”
SoFA (short for School of Fine Arts) presents more than 30 exhibits per year, featuring the work of student artists and professionals. “I think it’s vital for our students to see the work of significant emerging artists and to understand what’s going on in the art world before they graduate,” Stirratt says.
A painter with ample curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of other artists, Stirratt takes every opportunity to travel and attend art fairs, searching out thought-provoking work and new trends in the contemporary visual arts scene. Her expertise has helped bring SoFA Gallery into the vanguard of Midwestern galleries, building its reputation as a place to see up-and-coming artists and stimulating exhibits.
Although audiences from rural Indiana are harder to attract, the gallery draws visitors from nearly every county. Its influence reaches all the way to Chicago—art enthusiasts there regularly travel to Bloomington for SoFA exhibits. Stirratt works with an advisory committee of faculty, artists, and arts professionals who plan shows, select artists, and schedule exhibits. In recent years, she has watched a number of emerging artists who have exhibited work at SoFA go on to build national reputations.
She mentions the photographer Nan Goldin, who exhibited work at the gallery in the late 1980s and quickly moved on to an illustrious career. Stirratt is also excited about artist Jason Salavon, whose 2003 exhibit Brainstem Still Life fascinated SoFA audiences. Salavon makes art from sets or “conglomerations” of data. He often works with film, television, and photographic images, processing them in a variety of visually revealing and meaningful ways. After his show at SoFA, Salavon exhibited work at MIT’s Media Lab and recently accepted an important commission from the U.S. Census Bureau. He will exhibit new work at SoFA Gallery in fall 2005.
“It’s very exciting to notice a significant new artist who, within a short time, goes on to be nationally recognized. It reminds us that we are showing work that our students and the larger community really should know about,” Stirratt says. “And it’s fun to be able to predict where the art world will focus its attention next.”
At the IU Kokomo Art Gallery in the Kelley Student Center, Director Minda Douglas is mindful of place. The gallery’s exhibits often reflect her knowledge of the sur-rounding community, while they strive to introduce new ideas through art.
“Kokomo is an industrial city surrounded by a rural and agricultural region. The IU Kokomo Gallery provides one of the few opportunities for this community to experience art from local, national, and international artists. Education is a key factor,” she explains.
On the Kokomo campus, fine arts courses are offered as part of the humanities curriculum, and Douglas, who is both a working artist and a studio instructor, emphasizes that the gallery functions as an important complement to art courses and studio work. In consultation with the gallery advisory board, she assembles a schedule of seven exhibits each year, trying to present artists from diverse geographic and ethnic backgrounds working in a variety of artistic media.
For Douglas, the local challenge is to engage a public that is not generally familiar with the art world or necessarily comfortable with the idea of going to an art gallery. This April, the gallery is presenting a traveling exhibition of paintings by contemporary Mexican artist David Correa. “We’re hoping to engage Kokomo’s growing Hispanic community,” she says, “but everyone, including children, can enjoy Correa’s large, colorful paintings.”
Drawing on her creativity and knowledge of the region, Douglas has curated several highly successful exhibits demonstrating relationships between common objects and art objects. Linking to a century-long history of glass manufacturing in Kokomo, the gallery presented a show of art glass in 1993, featuring works by a wide variety of artists. Collaborating with the local glass factory, Kokomo Opalescent Glass, Douglas arranged tours so that visitors could see the glass manufacturing process and finished products, and compare them to the processes and “art products” exhibited in the gallery. “We almost always have an educational component—a corner in the gallery where visitors can see tools and techniques and learn about the processes involved in a particular medium,” she says.
An international traveling show of quilts in spring 2003 also brought enthusiastic crowds. “It was amazing to observe how people related to these conceptually ‘far out’ quilts, which were more like textile art, really,” Douglas observes. “Because our audience understood traditional quilts and quilt making, they embraced and enjoyed these very abstract works of art.”
Part of the director’s job, as Douglas sees it, is to help people understand the value of an art space. “The gallery is not an expendable thing—it’s an integral part of this campus and community,” she says. “With every exhibit, we try to show them just how valuable it is.”
The Herron Gallery at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis is part of the legacy of the city’s venerable Herron School of Art and Design, established in 1902. Director David Russick views the gallery as a vital part of the city’s cultural edifice, with a special mission to show IUPUI students—and the larger Indianapolis community—the art of their time. “I absolutely believe we offer the best opportunities for anyone who lives in Indianapolis to see exciting new art,” he says.
The gallery has resided in the original Herron school building, one of the first schools in the nation built specifically for art education. In early June, however, the Herron Gallery will take up residence in a gleaming new building on the IUPUI campus when the Herron School of Art and Design moves to its new location.
“It’s exciting to witness the gallery stepping forward into its future,” Russick says. “The old building was once in a thriving neighborhood, but that was many years ago.”
Russick expects a dramatic increase in foot traffic at the gallery’s new location, which is within easy walking distance of several major museums as well as the Indiana Historical Society and the State Capitol. He clearly relishes the idea of being on the city’s “cultural beaten path.”
“You can talk to any curator,” he says, “and they will tell you that the thing they most love is a crowded exhibition hall.”
Russick works with a committee to create an eclectic balance of exhibits. “We want to challenge and please,” he explains. “And when we’re doing our job well, our students become aware of the dialogue that exists from one exhibit to the next—they see that big ideas are at play in the art world.”
To celebrate the grand opening of the new Herron building, Russick is planning three one-person shows, one for each of three new exhibition spaces. And to captivate visitors before they even set foot in the building, there will be a major sculpture exhibition on the front lawn. The exhibit will feature work by 15 artists, ranging from “human-size to delivery-truck-size,” as Russick describes it, and will remain on site for a year, giving public art enthusiasts plenty of time to enjoy it.
“Every exhibit is a celebratory event,” he explains, “but this one is really special.”
Deborah Galyan is a novelist and freelance writer in Bloomington, Indiana.