Spotlight on the Henry Art Gallery, a #BlueStarMuse
May 21, 2014
"Does everybody that we work with go on to be a big name? No. But if we did, we wouldn't be taking enough risks, as far as I'm concerned.” – Sylvia Wolf
The Henry Art Gallery, located on the Seattle campus of the University of Washington, comes by its innovation bonafides honestly. Founders Horace and Susan Henry, after amassing a collection of nearly 200 works, literally opened the doors to their home to the public letting in anyone who rang the bell to see their pictures. Fast forward eight decades or so, and the Henry continues to be bold in both its curatorial practice and its efforts to invite people in. As the museum's Director Sylvia Wolf puts it, the Henry is “the oldest museum with the newest ideas.” One of those new ideas is to turn over the entire 40,000-square-feet of the museum’s exhibition space this fall to artist Ann Hamilton whose commissions have ranged from the event of a thread, last year’s smash installation at the Park Avenue Armory, to the floor of the newish Seattle Public Library, which Hamilton inlaid with diverse lines of text sourced from books in the library’s foreign language section. (Hamilton’s upcoming residency is supported, in part, by an NEA Art Works grant.) in her own words, here’s Wolf on the museum as civic space, what it means to engage students as arts aficionados, and how risk is at the heart of the museum’s mission.
About the Henry Art Gallery….
The Henry Art Gallery was founded in 1926 by Horace and Susan Henry. He was a Midwestern railroad man who came here and invested in industry. He and his wife had a collection of maybe 175 or so paintings that they had on view in their home, a big house up on Capitol Hill. And they believed that the arts are vital to any growing civil society, and Seattle certainly was growing in the 20s. They would allow anyone to come into their home to look at their paintings… without an appointment, [just] knock on the door. [In] 1926 they decided to give $100,000 to the University of Washington [along with] their collection. With the $100,000 we built our original building. It's a Beaux-Arts building designed by a man named Carl Gould, who was an architect and the founder of the architecture department school…. We have a collection of roughly 25,000 objects. One of the things that I think distinguishes us, and was, I think, quite visionary of Horace and Susan Henry, was their idea that the Henry should be a museum that featured the art of the now. There wasn't a term "contemporary art" in the 20s, but we've been a contemporary art museum the whole time. We were the first art museum in the state of Washington, so we like to say that we're the oldest art museum with the newest ideas, because we're all about contemporary.
On bridging the gap between old and new….
The challenge for us, though, is how [are we] contemporary when we have a historical collection. In fact we have 18,000 [historic] costumes and textiles.... The University of Washington is a research campus [and] our mission is to advance contemporary art, artists, and ideas, and… we can apply contemporary ideas to historical subject matter. So, for example, Ann Hamilton is working with some of our collections of shoes. [She’ll potentially use] photographic images and scans of the shoes that will then become other art objects in themselves but the source material will be from our collection. So applying contemporary artistic practice or presentation strategy or musicological ideas to historical subject matter is how we bridge the gap between the old and the new.
“One of the things that we value first and foremost is taking risks…”
We try to be active and present and one of the things that we value first and foremost is taking risks, and being comfortable with uncertain outcomes. And that's where we invite contemporary artists to come in and try something. That's what we're committed to. And we can do it because we are free to the 55,000 faculty students and staff at the [university]. We're free to students of all ages;anybody with a student ID gets in for free. We would love to be free across the board, in fact it's one of our goals for the Endowment campaign we'll be launching soon to be free for everybody.
And when you think about it, contemporary art is tough: you want to eliminate as many of the barriers as possible. And if admission tends to be a barrier, we want to eliminate it. That said, we don't rely on the income from blockbuster shows, so we're committed to taking a lot of risks. And people, when they come here, they know they can expect to find something unexpected…. They come to us saying okay, I might be uncomfortable, and I may not get it, but that's why I'm coming.
“We’re not just trying to do cool stuff…”
Everything that we do is aligned with the mission and the exhibitions we do. So we're not just trying to do cool stuff; it's got to be related to advancing contemporary artists and ideas. It's got to be related to our mission to be a beacon and a magnet to the university and community, and it's got to relate to the ideas that the artists are bringing to us. So what that means is, you'll find we have baseline programs like our arty party once a year, which is fantastic--families get to come, and there are activities throughout the whole museum in every single space you can possibly imagine related to exhibitions on view that are interactive, and things are made, so families are making things together. We have family Sundays. Those are things that happen regardless of what exhibitions are on view, but then we have a whole roster of programs that we developed for each exhibition that are related to the issues that the shows bring up, or to an interest that the artist may have. And what we're learning is that the public sees us not just as a place that has a regular roster of offerings--they can count on those--but they also see that we're creatively trying to think about how to offer new things to the public, and that's where I think people are responding to it, that they want to know we're offering musical performances that they might relate to.
People want to learn. They want to be together. They want to be together in public. As much as people are internally engaging with their social media, it's extraordinary when you see, well, you know this, you go to a coffeehouse and you see all these people with their computers: they want to be together somehow. Yet they also want to have choices, and they want to participate. They don't want to be spoken to, they want to engage with. So for us to foster dialogue and debate, and to figure out new platforms and new ways to do that is first and foremost our priority.
On activating the museum’s facade as an artwork…
We are a cement building that is largely underground. Three new freshman dorms were built right across the street in the past couple of years. We have thousands of students walk by every single day and, if I go out there and sit and watch for a while, most of them look to the Henry facade to sort of see in the windows whether they look okay. They're not actually looking in. Our challenge was how to do something on the exterior of the museum that [was] going to be reflective of our mission and our values and also be attractive. And when we have problems, when we have issues or things we want to solve, we usually involve artists in helping us solve the problem.
We have two patrons who funded a commissioning to do an international call for entries for a live and lively social media, electronic, video-something for the facade. I think we've had easily 90 proposals. And we narrowed the field to… I think it was five. They each got a stipend, and they came and gave a presentation, and then we picked the best one…. And lo and behold, the best submission, by far, in content and sophistication and provocation and all of that, was from our fellow colleagues here in the [Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media].
What [Sanctum, the selected artwork] does is that it raises a lot of issues about private and public personas and how much we give away of ourselves electronically versus how comfortable or uncomfortable we might be with our persona being made public. The project took, I would say, 18 months of development, including legal engagement with our attorney general's office at the university about how people can opt-in versus being captured, and how they [could] participate on purpose, and what do we do about minors…. The technology incorporates facial recognition, and somewhat profiling, although it doesn't profile for race--it profiles mostly for age, and gender. So if you opt-in and you step up and it reads hairstyle, and this and that, it will come up with Facebook photos of people it believes to be of your demographic. And then people opt-in to have their Facebook entries recorded and used as subject-matter, and Facebook entries are randomly--by an algorithm that [the artists James Coupe and Juan Pampin] developed--matched with these new images of people, including you, if you've opted in, and you have this sort of strange [mix of] who's the author, who's the voice, who's talking... So [the work is] dealing with what's censorship and what's not, what's private and what's not [and that] was very much a part of what we wrestled with this, as a project that is both research-based in terms of artistic and technological research, as well as ethical research, issues that are very current right now in social media technology.
On bringing the campus community into the museum…
We've done a lot of research on the way people behave on campus, and also the region. Those who go to cultural institutions right now in the Puget Sound region, 90 percent of them got their first exposure in elementary school. We also have very unusual statistics here at the University of Washington campus: 33 percent of incoming freshmen are the first in their family to go to college, and are on Husky Promise, which means they're fully funded. And chances are they may not have had a whole lot of exposure to contemporary art museums or contemporary art. So that means if we can get them in, and get them interested while they're here, that's important. If you fast forward to all of the graduating seniors--all of them, not just the first in their family--72 percent are residing, and settling, in the Puget Sound region. They may go away for graduate school, or military service, but they come back. That's one of the highest percentages of any public university in the nation.
So we think about that and we think if we can get students while they're here, at least to just know what contemporary art is--whether they like it or not--we will be enhancing the visual literacy of the region exponentially. So that's something that's a long-term goal for us. How do we do that? We start when they're freshmen, and we start [in] their fall semester before they've gotten set in their ways, before they've gotten all their friends picked, before they know exactly how they're going to spend their time. So we both teach a course here early in the fall [and] we also have social events. We have a thing called Fall Fete, which is hugely successful--hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students come. We have free student memberships, we have outreach, we have ways you can opt in. We do as much as we can.
Have we figured it all out? No, I don't know that any museum on a university campus has figured out how to engage as much as they would like to, but we pretty much are a beacon and a magnet right now across campus. And our goal is to be ever stronger. We had, last year, a 38 percent increase in our public programs mostly because of this concerted effort not to be passive but be actively trying to get people to come in. And, interestingly, some of the most interesting posts and engagement with Sanctum happen at two, three, or four o'clock in the morning, which is no surprise I suppose. But people do participate, and then they renew. They can renew after a couple of months, if they want to continue participating.
“We like to think about ourselves as providing multiple points of entry through our programs…”
One of the things I really value about the Henry is that we are the single museum in, I would say, a five to nine state region… that solely focuses on contemporary art. We have great relationships with our community colleagues--the Seattle Art Museum, for example—[with whom] we collaborate on a regular basis…. We like to think of ourselves as providing multiple points of entry through our programs, through our screenings, through our exhibitions, through outreach with Hugo House, which is a literary house, or through Wave Books, or Copper Canyon Press, or some of the collaborations we have around town, to try and have meaningful collaborations. [It’s] not just one office every now and then, but [we try] to really engage with programming, and engage the community in helping us develop the programming. [The space right by our front door used to be] our bookstore, and we turned it into a test site, a public space where people come in and we do [conversations] on issues of the time. Or sometimes we'll just invite an artist who's doing a work-in-progress and it'll be an open studio, and the artist can sit in residence and people can come and watch and engage with the artist [while they] work. We'll do various different readings; a lot of work we do with the libraries and special collections where we invite people to come in and pick artists' books or do readings, that kind of thing. The whole idea [is of] being a civic space, really, not just a contemporary art museum.
On Ann Hamilton’s upcoming fall residency…
[Ann Hamilton] is an artist who uses space to create an environment [in which] the viewer creates the meaning of the space…. One of the things that we do is we engage artists early in their career. We give them oftentimes their first exposure, and then we stay with them over time…. With Ann Hamilton in 1992, we invited her to take over our old space, our original space, the Beaux-Arts galleries, and it was the first time that anybody had given her a full building to work with…. [That first project] was an artist sort of blowing the top off of the idea of what an art museum can do, and can be [in terms of] providing a lived experience. Ann Hamilton has since gone on to be a McArthur fellow; she's a rock star in the contemporary art world.
So we invited Ann to come back, and gave her all of our space. She's taking over the whole museum for six months; we've never done this before, given the whole museum to a single artist. We've been working with her for three-and-a-half years on this project. It'll open in October and that'll be four years at least that we've been working with her. She's engaging the Burke Museum of National History, the School of Art, the School of Drama, the poetry school, the textiles and gender studies, art history, School of Music. She's getting everybody involved. And what she does is she marshals the efforts of many to create something that everyone is invested in. And the challenge here is you come into the spaces and something is happening… and whatever is happening can be programmed by the outside and by the public to then have other iterations.
On deciding which artists to present at the museum…
What the curatorial team does is we identify, we look, we travel. It's impossible to know everything about everything at this point so we all travel and we talk a lot to artists and ask artists who they're looking at the same time because we're just trying to get as many eyes and ears helping us understand what the pulse of the field is at the moment. And then we have various different spaces [in the museum], and we'll pick artists to put together that sometimes resonate with one another or sometimes … throw into relief, perhaps, the difference between each other and the work that's being done. So we have a historical show upstairs of work from the 1960s, but that's still very contemporary, next to a brand-new body of work from a Paris-based German artist Katinka Bock. And when you look at these two shows together you realize that within the period of 50, 60 years or so, contemporary artistic practice can be so broadly defined.
We do our very best to pick artists who we feel have enough depth of concept as well as quality of process and production to be able to take a risk and champion. Does everybody that we work with go on to be a big name? No. But if we did, we wouldn't be taking enough risks, as far as I'm concerned. But plenty of them have, and when you look back on the history of the Henry, we gave Buckminster Fuller his first museum survey--I want to say it was in '51 or something like that. So we have a long history of presenting people's ideas and work early on to just see what'll happen. And, consequently, artists have a very fond spot in their heart for us… And we will do almost anything. No artist has ever asked us to do anything that would be unethical or illegal, of course we would say no, but if an artist wants to punch a hole in a wall, or slice here, or hang something from there, we've got a really expert team. We put ourselves at the service of the artist and imagination.
Did you know that the Henry Art Gallery is one of the more than 2,000 museums across the country participating in Blue Star Museums 2014? Visit our News Room to learn more about the program which offers free museum admissions to military families and to find a participating venue near you!