by Kat Phillips
A critique of The Richard Stockton College Art Gallery and all contemporary galleries.
|"The Fate of the Gallery" written by Kat Phillips
Sunday, February 7th, 2010
61 black and white silver gelatin prints currently adorn the walls of the Richard Stockton Gallery, and If a picture is worth a thousand words then you’ll have to forgive me for falling 59,518 words short of the quota.
Prosaic. This is the first word that comes to mind upon entering the gallery. Actually, the word was ordinary, but after cracking open my trusty thesaurus I was presented with a plethora of words to describe my experience: standard, typical, common, customary, unexceptional, humdrum, mundane, bland and conventional.
Contemporary, as a word and as an ideal, has quickly become the rule and not the exception. Truth be told, the word is starting to nauseate me and, unfortunately, the trend’s impact on gallery motifs invokes all the sterility of a corporate office cubicle. The walls are perpetually painted a prudent eggshell white and are predictably paired with a wooden or concrete floor of equally neutral tone. Even worse are the jaded partisans that haunt these lifeless showcase coffins with lax jaws poised and ready to spew out their next halfheartedly rehearsed appraisals. I don’t know about you but I didn’t elbow my way into this industry to be surrounded by dull spaces and sullen disinterested automatons. Yet while I’ve been known to toss around disparaging remarks about these little cliques, I think I hate them most because I’ve allowed myself to become one. But is it entirely my own fault or can some of the blame be laid upon the shoulders of the unwaveringly rigid protocols that our community has established to govern the way we experience art in public? We desperately need to rethink the idea of the gallery and how we present artwork altogether. When did these lackluster little boxes of space become the accepted norm? We need to shift our minds towards a fresh concept, towards the organic, the chaotic and the tangible.
The works that I have witnessed in countless exhibitions could be seen or occasionally even heard, but what of our other three senses? I have a one year old niece who absolutely refuses to pay attention to anything that she cannot see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Has sensory restraint become the burden of being an adult or have we been negligent in our artistic endeavors? We have trapped art and placed it in another dimension. This form of presentation has elevated the status of art, making it seem cold, distant and untouchable. There has grown a disconnect, a void even, between art and the speculator, and we must rekindle the dialogue between the two. Knock this godlike entity down from its Olympian pedestal and, dare I say, drag it through the mud a little. Throw out the notion that every work of art should stand on its own. After all, how many things are you aware of that are capable of existing unaided in life? I would propose that the gallery’s curator consult with those dried out husks of what were once art patrons until she’s begun to incubate a handful of strategies for achieving this effect without compromising the integrity of the artwork being exhibited. For example, have the artist create a pre-recorded explanation of his or her artwork, background and inspirations to be played at the push of a button for anyone who is presently taking in the exhibit. And the next time that you find yourself at an event where paintings have become exotic caged animals being observed through the glass but too precious for human interaction, you would be wise to remember that art cannot exist without us anymore than we can exist without art.
Setting aside the scathing zingers for a moment, I feel I must convey a little appreciation for the two student attendees present during the span of my visit. Each happily engaged in conversation and relayed information with the ease and confidence I expect from employees of such a venue. They revealed to me that it was, in fact, the Exhibition Coordinator and not the artist who was responsible for the seemingly eclectic arrangement of the prints. I noticed that the photographs were positioned on the wall at a height that’s slightly above the average person’s eye level. I think this was either a strategic act of experience or just a lucky fluke seeing as the content of the artwork focused on historical landmarks where soldiers of color once fought for independence I feel that this topic, given its abrasive and unpleasant subject matter, would almost certainly appeal more to men (the taller sex) than to women (the significantly shorter sex), thus making the higher positioning of these photos a wise act.
Location, however, is another matter altogether. (Please refer to the map of the school attached to the back of this packet.) The gallery sits unassumingly down the H corridor that’s situated at a perpendicular tangent off of the mainly trafficked walkway that runs throughout each building. There is a standard, unembellished sign hanging just outside of the hallway, doing a rather pathetic job of calling any attention to the gallery. An estimated 7,355 students are enrolled at Stockton each year. While these numbers should be expected to work in the gallery’s favor, it seems to have actually done little to improve the interest and participation of the general public. Now, to be generous and slightly more realistic, let’s reduce the number of enrolled students (7,355) by half. So that would make roughly 3,677 students passing through the academic buildings every (let’s be generous again and say) 72 hours. That’s about 51 students walking right passed the art gallery every hour. Taking all of this into consideration, the fact that I spent nearly two hours alone in the gallery is appalling and, honestly, a little embarrassing.
But let’s say for just a second that Stockton’s student body is not the gallery’s main constituency. Then what is, exactly? Is the gallery meant primarily to expose students to other local artists? Or is it meant to showcase the works of current fine arts majors for the public and encourage networking amongst them and the rest of artist community in south Jersey? What kind of artists are they hoping to exhibit and what is the targeted audience that they hope to attract? I managed to glean no such information from exploring the gallery’s website, unless you lump it all together under the Arts and Humanities Program. However, these days, the gallery staff should be wary of becoming too picky about where they cast their attentions.
The gallery’s website feels like more of an afterthought or an extension of Stockton’s main website rather than an aggressive form of advertising. This is not encouraging. The gallery needs to develop its own independent, detailed and in depth site.
As with any business, inventive advertising can often mean the difference between success and utter failure. Upon first entering the gallery, the receptionist desk is cluttered with an array of brochures, flyers and e-mail sign-up sheets. The fact that I only saw these promotions directly in and around the gallery itself was a disappointing discovery.
Carefully choose even the most minute details of your advertising. In a world where every individual is constantly bombarded with propaganda you must be meticulous when selecting colors, shapes and slogans etc. in your marketing. A good logo coupled with a good picture can make your advertisement jump out from the muddle of messages that our brains are forced to process and ignore everyday. These days, in order to break through the wall of apathy we build up around ourselves, an advertisement must temporarily wrench the individual out of their preprogrammed mindsets and agendas. But also, never underestimate the power of repetition. A good catch phrase, word or jingle can quickly become worth a product’s weight in gold. All in all, I am seeing no such efforts being made on behalf of the Stockton Art Gallery.
Now it would appear, according to the front page of The Press Of Atlantic City’s February 5th 2010 issue, that Stockton College has chosen to forgo revamping their piddling little gallery in favor of giving a leg up to The Noyes Museum in the form of a 1.5 million dollar investment to be administered over the next 10 years. It seems that the university gets to tack its name onto the museum’s title and reputation, all the while pushing Stockton’s gallery aside like the unattractive handicapped little brother that the family keeps hidden away in the back room. Don’t get me wrong, this arrangement strikes me as very hunky-dory and I’m more than ecstatic when I get wind of outstanding sums of money being thrown in Art’s direction. But I feel that I must stand by an old adage that I’ve oft clung to over the years: You cannot hope to better others until you are ready to better yourself.