She comes to the University with unique experience and a vision to ignite engagement between artists and audiences.
Where did you develop your love of the arts?
I truly can’t remember a time that the arts were not an essential part of my life. My dad started an American crafts gallery when I was growing up, and an artist friend actually had her studio in the attic of my childhood home in Syracuse, New York. As a trade, she allowed me and my brother to work alongside her whenever we wanted.
I loved making things, but in hindsight, my driving interest has always been creating an authentic connection between art and audiences. As a graduate photography student at Syracuse University, I created mechanical puppet boxes from my photographs, which were only activated if viewers pulled a string or turned a crank. It was also in graduate school that I discovered I wanted to create opportunities for artist/audience engagement rather than art objects. Inspired by an artist’s Q&A at a feminist art symposium produced by fellow students, I delved into institutionalizing the symposium at the University while finishing my degree. In my first year as an arts administrator, I collaborated with fellow committee members to plan and produce a two-week series of lectures by artists, critics, and historians, including Coco Fusco, bell hooks, Eunice Lipton, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Marilyn Minter, and Pace’s own Professor of Art Eve Andrée Laramée.
How would you describe the role art plays in society and the power it can affect in our lives?
I really believe art is society. By that, I mean art is not a separate thing, but integrally part of everything—it’s the way we understand the world and ourselves, whether as makers or viewers. Museum education is sometimes referred to as “object-based learning,” which means teaching and learning from the art object you are looking at, and are in the room with. I love this because when we engage with an artwork, we are directly engaging with an artist, whether the artist is alive today or worked 10,000 years ago. This allows for a visceral understanding of one another’s experiences. We can learn about personal and global issues, from heartbreak to climate change, for example, in a tangible way. My career, which includes work as a university gallery director, neighborhood artist-in-residence, and cook for the traveling kids’ circus, is unified by the conviction that art generates meaningful opportunities for dialogue and exposes us to new ideas.
Clinical assistant professor and NYC art gallery
director Sarah Cunningham
Of the more than 50 contemporary art exhibitions that you have worked on, which one particularly stands out?
It’s really hard to choose a favorite! Part of why I love being a gallery director is getting to apply a basic set of skills to a totally different project every month or two. I feel so lucky to be constantly learning something new.
One exhibition I will highlight is for you and the sky, a show I did with performance artist rafa esparza at Santa Barbara City College. His work is critically beautiful and beautifully critical; he often collaboratively creates immersive environments out of adobe. His chosen media is so potent with meaning–the earth itself, consensual versus forced labor, layered familial and societal histories, and the creation of a brown space that upends the white cube of the gallery–and this exhibit illustrated the multiple ways it’s possible to engage many communities. Comprised of 32 tons of adobe, rafa’s for you and the sky installation was made collaboratively with college students and received critique and blessing from the local Chumash band. Over the course of a year, the project continued to evolve and respond to community needs and interests. In its final month, the gallery intern rearranged the adobe and curated his own display, titled The Border Crossed Us, within rafa’s show, and after it all closed, the adobe bricks were incorporated into college sculpture assignments, used at a kids’ art workshop, and folded into the campus garden as a rich fertilizer.
This great exhibit was made better because we planned it for the right place and time. Concurrently, my colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Historical Society were planning a historical exhibition of sacred objects made at the time of contact by both Chumash and Latin American artists as part of the Getty Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA project [a collaborative program involving arts organizations and exhibitions across the region], and plans to revise the fourth-grade social studies curriculum with input from California’s indigenous people was under consideration.
As its first director, what is your vision for the new Art Gallery at Pace?
Academic galleries have the remarkable capacity to bring the campus and local communities together in shared exploration. These spaces, the art on view, and the related public programs serve as a bridge between disciplines, a link between the civic and school communities, and a potent means to bring the rest of the world tangibly to campus. At Pace, I am very excited to maximize this interconnectedness through exhibits and arts education programs. To that end, I am already planning projects that bring third graders from Brooklyn and ninth graders from Manhattan in to see the gallery and create alongside Pace students.
How do you plan to support student success?
As a clinical assistant professor in the Art Department, I teach visual literacy–the ability to look carefully and to communicate what one sees verbally, textually, and visually, via engagement with original works of art in both the gallery and the classroom. However, I think the most important thing we can do as teachers is to cultivate the skills and passion for lifelong learning that allows students to bring what they learn in class into our communities. That’s why the Pace Path is a big part of why I am so excited to work at Pace. As an educator, I am especially dedicated to experiential learning through paid employment, class assignments, and research projects. Our first team of gallery assistants, Selina Cruz ’20, Criminal Justice, Janvi Patel ’22, Art, Harry Marcus ‘23, Undecided, and Thomas (Tommy) Lee ’19, Communication Studies, have already patched and painted the walls in the gallery, helped the artist install her show, and created an email marketing list.
October 14-November 26, 2019.
Tuesday, November 12 at 12:15pm.
What can we expect to see in the gallery next?
I’m thrilled to be working with the Brooklyn-based artist Tamar Ettun on a new evolution of her Jubilation Inflation exhibit, originally shown at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As an ongoing theme in her work, Ettun is interested in the way playing allows us to heal from trauma through joy, movement, and social engagement. The exhibit here at Pace features her inflatable room-sized environments made out of repurposed parachutes. When you go inside, you are completely immersed in color; however, these fun sculptures have a serious side. The material references the artist’s firsthand observation of the impact of institutional brutality. She was a member of a military parachute regiment in Israel, where she was born and raised.