Amy Gilman has lived in Madison only a few months — but will likely become one of the more visible faces in the city’s art world.
Gilman became the director of the Chazen Art Museum of UW-Madison in September, succeeding longtime director Russell Panczenko, who retired last summer. Formerly deputy director of the Toledo Museum of Art, Gilman now commutes to work by bus from her home in Madison’s Faircrest neighborhood, where she lives with her husband, Doug Patterson, a stay-at-home parent, and 3-year-old son Brice.
One of the city’s cultural gems, the Chazen Museum of Art has a bold presence at 750 University Ave. The museum’s collection consists of some 20,000 works of art, from ancient to modern. Admission is free. The Chazen also hosts events such as live music, tours, community events and classic film series.
Gilman, 48, spent her initial months in Madison mostly meeting people and getting input on the Chazen and its relationship to the community. Those conversations will help her chart a long-term course for the art museum, she said.
She holds a doctorate in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; a master’s of fine arts in photography from Columbia College in Chicago; and a bachelor’s in performance studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
What was your first impression of Madison?
My husband has spent his entire life in the Midwest. He was born in eastern Ohio, and I have spent all of my adult life in the Midwest. Madison feels like a very different kind of city than we’re used to. The best way I can describe it is that it is very clear to someone who has been living in a series of aging, industrial cities — Toledo, Cleveland, etc. — that Madison does not have the same history. It didn’t start as an industrial city. So Madison feels a little different, that the economy was always based on state (government) and university.
It’s gorgeous — Madison is beautiful. We’re really struck by the incredible public parks that are literally everywhere in the area, and the ease of getting around. Once you orient yourself to the lakes, it’s fairly easy to get around.
Everyone’s been incredibly friendly — which is what we would expect coming from the Midwest. So it’s been a great welcome.
There is a “welcome to the Chazen Museum” video online, where you mention the Wisconsin Idea and talk about the museum serving both the university and the larger community.
One of the things that I think is interesting about the choice of me as director is that I don’t come from a university art museum background. The Toledo Museum of Art is a large, stand-alone public institution, and that’s where I’ve spent the last 12 years of my career. So of course I’m going to come with a point of view that’s shaped by that experience. By choosing to have me to be the next director here, I think one of the things that they’re signaling is … an openness to explore what it means to be a university art museum. How do you best serve the university? How has it been done in the past? … And what does it mean to be a university art museum within a community, only part of the community of which is the university? What does it mean to be both inward-facing and outward-facing?
I want us to be at the vanguard of thinking about what it means to be a university art museum in the 21st century. There’s a lot of discussion happening now about the value of art in our society, about the value of institutions in communities. There’s a generational shift going on with more and more Baby Boomers retiring. And that includes a generational shift in expectations around how institutions serve their communities. I want us to be really thoughtful about participating in that conversation, because, as someone who believes very deeply in the mission of art museums, it’s a pretty important conversation to have.
I feel there is a role for art museums that is not solely about inviting you in to see amazing objects — which I certainly hope everyone will do — but it is also a space where you can invite people in to have conversations that are difficult to have in other contexts. And that is how you make art museums relevant to the next generation.
— Interview by Gayle Worland