magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
fall 2006 | volume 13 | number 1
t’s a glassed-in corner of the Bayou Building; 440 square feet that used to house the university’s gift shop. Four years ago, the grooved plywood called “slapwall” that stores use to display merchandise was removed. More track lights were added and the cash registers were moved out. Art was moved in; a low, padded bench was set out, encouraging people to get comfortable; and commerce gave way to contemplation. After only two weeks of renovation, UHCL had an art gallery: an airy space on the first floor that beckons passersby to come in and, as Pablo Picasso said, let art wash away the dust of everyday life.
For close to 10 years, UHCL had been without a permanent gallery to solidify art’s place at the university.
“It’s something we feel is important. The cultural arts are a very important aspect of university life,” says Nick de Vries, professor of fine arts and the gallery’s director. “Art critiques society in a way. It’s kind of a barometer and a gauge for people’s opinions, which is important in a university, because education is about processing society.”
The art gallery has brought a new level of community interaction to the university and has given the visual arts program, which includes both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in traditional and emerging media, the room it needs to keep pace with the rest of the art world.
“We covered the windows and posted a disclaimer outside,” de Vries says. “This gave people a choice about whether or not to come in, to decide whether they would be offended or not.”
Between exhibits, current UHCL students, many of whom work in digital media and film, are given three or four days to exhibit their work.
“It’s the only exhibit space suitable for digital media because there are walls to project onto,” de Vries says. Matthew Linton, associate professor of fine arts, says the gallery is the first space on campus that allows artists to exhibit the full range of mixed media projects produced at the university.
“The enclosed and controllable space allows us to add film and video, performance, sound, light and digital media to our repertoire of painting, sculpture and photography,” Linton says.
With the visual arts programming becoming more dynamic, de Vries has observed people visiting the university just for the art. The gallery’s guest book, he says, tells the story of art lovers driving from downtown Houston to attend exhibits, such as “Flooded Rainforest – Expeditions from the Amazon,” a collection of photographs, sculptures and artifacts exhibited in early 2006.
High school students also have the chance to see the gallery and become an extension of it by exhibiting in the atrium adjacent to the gallery. Last year, de Vries worked with Clear Creek Independent School District to put together a show of the senior scholarship winners, which included students from all three Clear Creek ISD high schools. The exhibition brought in a lot of people who might not have attended an art exhibit before.
The gallery is not the university’s only area to display art, but it is the most high profile.
“The gallery is in such a strategic spot downstairs,” de Vries says. “It lets people see that we have visual arts programming at the university.”
An open area in front of a bank of elevators has been used as an exhibit space on the second floor of the Bayou Building, Atrium I, since 1976. The art on display sits freestanding, which, on busy days, makes it easy to pass as unnoticed as furniture. There is a difference between interacting with art in a hurried environment and confronting artwork in an enclosed space, says Stuart Larson, assistant professor of communication and art.
“Artwork needs to be viewed in a thought-provoking atmosphere. Looking at art in the middle of the atrium when it’s full of people is like reading Emily Dickinson while watching MTV. Although you could probably read the words, you will always miss the true meaning,” says Larson.
The gallery was designed with quiet reflection in mind.
“I’ve tried to create an environment that is calming,” de Vries says. “I wanted a contemplative space. Instead of just walking by a painting on the wall, where you maybe take two seconds, the gallery allows individuals to contemplate the work, to contemplate what’s there.”
“Chornobyl,” an exhibit of paintings, collage and prints, illustrated the difference a gallery can make to a viewer’s perception of art. Having the space to sit and reflect on the images gave viewers the ability to appreciate the beauty of the art beyond the terrible narrative of what happened during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
The gallery’s success brings with it new challenges. De Vries likes to leave the gallery open during evening events at the university to give the public more chances to enjoy it. But without a full-time gallery staff this isn’t always possible. When available, volunteers lock up after an evening event. The gallery’s daily operations depend on Sharon Ridge, a School of Human Sciences and Humanities staff member who has volunteered to open and close the gallery every day.
De Vries would like to establish a dedicated staff, people for maintenance, operations and security, to continue growing the exhibit programming. The first step toward that was taken this fall when a part-time gallery director’s position was funded. Sandria Hu, associate professor of fine arts and director of the atrium space, and de Vries have been directing the exhibitions voluntarily since 1976. The two full-time professors do all the curating, share a budget, and have no assistants. Right now, exhibits are mounted at the university because of volunteers and faculty members who make it work because they love art, de Vries says.
Despite these challenges, the gallery’s success makes de Vries optimistic about the future. He’s already imagining the next stage.
“Within time we can expand,” he says. “This is already becoming a real focal point for the university.”
The UHCL art gallery’s regular hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information about the gallery, contact Nick de Vries at email@example.com or 281-283-3377.
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