University galleries function in a sphere that straddles academia and museums. Perhaps this is a distinctive position, allowing for academic inquiry, flexibility, nimbleness, and the imperative for challenge without the burden of museum tradition. To explore this potential and its particular challenges, I invited Lia Newman, director and curator at Davidson College, and Yasmeen Siddiqui, interim gallery director and head of the Critical and Curatorial Studies Program at the University of Louisville, for a conversation. Through different paths, they arrive with fresh insight in considering the unique role of university galleries.
Eileen Yanoviak: Lia, Yasmeen, tell me a little bit about your background and current positions.
Lia Newman: I have a BFA in studio art and a BA in art history. I worked for about 10 or so years before I went back to get a master’s degree, which I did in liberal studies for a couple of reasons. It’s really hard, as you probably know, to just stop working and to have zero salary. I worked through a program at Duke that allowed me to continue working while earning my degree. I was a little concerned about liberal studies not having the same credential as an MA in art history, but I think it’s been really good for me, especially now that I find myself in an academic institution, and specifically, a liberal arts college. The degree has helped me think differently about curatorial work and how to conceive interdisciplinary projects. I’ve always been interested in more than just looking at works of art. That’s the reason I’m interested in art history—to get a better understanding of the artist, their biography, the cultural climate around the creation of their work. When I was in grad school I was working at a nonprofit art center with about 30 artists in residence, four exhibition spaces and an array of programs. I was creating and managing all the exhibitions and educational programming.
It was in grad school that I decided to pursue a job that would allow me to stay in academia and develop higher caliber exhibitions and related programs. I’ve been at Davidson two years in January, so I’m pretty new still.
EY: Both of you are relatively new to your positions, which is an interesting point to be at for a conversation about the value of university galleries and programs. Yasmeen, tell us a little bit about your background.
Yasmeen Siddiqui: Lia and I have a similar arc, having worked between school and study. I’m from Toronto, where I went to undergraduate and graduate school. My area was medieval Islamic art and architecture.
Just as I was finishing my MA, I moved to Cairo to improve my Arabic and Persian in preparation for starting my doctorate. My professor, Lisa Golombek, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum introduced me to professor Bernard O’Kane at the American University in Cairo, which led me to working for a publishing company that specialized in art books. I’d never imagined this as a viable way to make a living. And I loved it. I was the editor of an art and architecture magazine for a number of years. Then, through twists of fate, the contemporary became a part of my life. I started exploring that on the fly, through the magazine’s needs and working with artists and writing for artists and catalogues, and testing my hand at curating with artists Hassan Khan and Sabah Naim for an exhibition in Paris.
I had never thought about living in the States until I got a job at MIT in thei architecture department. So I moved from Cairo to Cambridge. That’s when the whole sphere of curatorial practice becomes very alluring to me. Mostly through being exposed to Media Lab, being exposed to Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the List Center for the Arts, and everything that was going on in this hyper-interdisciplinary space.
I loved my job,—content editor of this wonderful archive. I was working in a new setting, where architects orchestrated charrettes using new technology, studios in digital space. Then, realizing I wanted to deal with more than the content and its documentation, I went to the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, which was an amazing program.
LN: I had looked at that program.
YS: It is an excellent, rigorous, and nurturing program. When I was there, Norton Batkin was at the helm. CCS remains a very special laboratory in the woods, where you go to play with ideas to your heart’s content.
Then, I moved to New York and got a job at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The work being done at Storefront brought my various experiences and diverse education into focus. The beauty of Storefront is its commitment to inquiry and intervention. I worked under Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima, and for a minute under Eva Franch. Their perspectives and approaches are equally distinct and innovative. I worked there in different capacities for a number of years, and then moved to Kentucky because of my husband’s work. I luckily got this interim gig for the year [at the University of Louisville] running the gallery and Critical and Curatorial Studies Program. I started August 1, and I’m wrapping my head around the breadth of skills required to teach and curate, while also exploring what the galleries can do and what the collection can be.