For the incoming director of the Chazen Museum of Art, art is an idea, just like the museums that contain it.
Amy Gilman, 48, is set to move to Madison with her family in a few weeks to run University of Wisconsin-Madison’s on campus art museum. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t come from an academic institution — Gilman has worked for the Toledo Museum of Art in northwest Ohio since 2005, serving on senior staff since 2011.
Former director Russell Panczenko, who recently retired after 33 years with the university, long maintained that good technique was more important than whether or not an art piece was popular with an audience.
“One of the reasons why I was interested in this job was because of Russell’s devotion to that level of quality,” Gilman said, “not just of finely made things, but quality of thought and execution with artists.
“He will be retiring from the museum but his impact on the museum is enormous. If I did not respect that legacy, I should not be coming there.”
Gilman grew up in Colorado and Texas and earned her doctorate in art history at Case Western Reserve University. She spoke with The Capital Times recently about the growing regional presence of university museums, as well as her value for developing long term relationships with artists.
The Capital Times: You’re coming from a city museum, not an academic institution. What kind of connections do you make between the two?
Amy Gilman: The Toledo Museum of Art has such a strong history in art education. That was part of why the museum was founded. That is one of the reasons why I was interested in the Chazen, that connection.
It could have been that my background predominantly at a large standalone institution could have been seen as a disadvantage. But because it has this deeply embedded mission it dovetails nicely with what the Chazen is.
I caught the exhibition by Aminah Robinson that you curated at the Toledo museum a few years ago, which took inspiration from folk and vernacular art. Can you talk a little bit about how you work with artists?
That was one of my favorite shows I’ve done here. My relationship with Aminah was incredibly important to me.
Aminah was classically trained as an artist, but the style she chose to work implied a self-taught or vernacular style, in the materials she used like buttons and fabric. She was very conscious about using all of those traditions.
We were looking for a body of work to bring to the Toledo museum ... she started talking about this artists’ book she’d been working on for 30 years. She said, “No, nobody’s interested in those works.”
Of course, then I’m interested. That was the work we ended up acquiring.
At the Chazen, are you hoping to assemble exhibitions like that again?
One of my favorite things to do in my whole career is to work with artists in small or large ways, over extended periods of time. You don’t know when you’re developing a relationship with an artist what that’s going to result in. You may not know what the right project is, the scope.
I do think it is part of my job as the director to ensure that we continue that tradition, and certainly that has been part of my curatorial practice here in Toledo. It will remain to be seen to see how much I am involved on a daily basis.
As soon as my appointment was announced, I had artists and dealers with whom I have long relationships calling me and letting me know they love coming to Madison. They can’t wait to hear what we’re doing.
We’ve written about programs recently that aim to connect emerging artists in Wisconsin with opportunities in nearby states. Do you have thoughts about establishing Chazen as a regional resource beyond its campus identity?
It is no longer the case that in order to have a serious career you must live in New York or in L.A. You can live, as an artist, wherever is going to make sense for you as a family — that has the resources to allow you to live the way you want to live and allows you to produce work.
We live in such a global space. People look to all parts of the country and the globe for great artists and great work. You end up having regional powerhouses, pockets of artists who are phenomenal. I see no reason why we wouldn’t be a part of highlighting that.
What are your thoughts about exhibitions that have a link to popular culture to attract more people from off campus?
This is an art museum. You could show almost anything and as long as it’s contextualized in the right way, people will come to it. Some of them (will come) because they are interested already, some because you are introducing them to something new that is a great surprise.
One of my favorite things is to introduce people to works of art, or to bodies of work, that is not what they thought they loved but when you give it to them in the right way they completely fall in love with it.
Panczenko has talked about his value for high quality and good technique, and the difference between “I really like this” and “What is the better work of art?” What are you thoughts on that?
I have an enormous respect for finely made things, and there are many of them in the Chazen’s collection. The things that I respond to are objects that have clearly and successfully embodied a particular and singular vision.
That could be embodied in really fine technique. But it could also mean that the execution was extremely well done from a conceptual standpoint. Art is an idea. So are museums. The idea lives with the artist.
The artist creates something — it could be a letter, it could be a sideboard, it could be a painting, a glass object. Then it goes out into the world and then it gathers up layers of meaning and interpretation and context. But the idea starts with the artist.
How do you see the Chazen’s role as both a student resource and a place for the larger community to learn and gather?
University art museums serve dual and interconnected functions. Historically they were inward-facing towards the university, and you don’t want to let that go. That’s incredibly important; that’s foundational to what university art museums do.
They also have to be outward facing, because universities are more outward facing now, in terms of interacting with the broader public. I think this is particularly important in Wisconsin right now.
When I came (to Madison), I was struck by the power of the Wisconsin Idea and its longevity in the university. The whole idea that education should influence people’s lives and how that translates into a university art museum — to me, that’s the essential question we’re going to be addressing over my first number of years.
An art museum experience teaches you critical thinking. We are not historically very good at making a case for why arts are important outside of an appreciation for art. That is something we must do.