The Permanent Collection

A few months ago, our class had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Cynthia Hawkins-Owen in the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery where she was able to give us a more comprehensive description and deeper understanding of everything that goes into running a gallery. I would venture that quite a few of us, including myself, were surprised at how much Dr. Hawkins-Owen does on a daily basis to bring together new and exciting exhibits!

In addition to teaching college classes, I believe Dr. Hawkins-Owen said that her job entails five primary responsibilities (each with a vast subset of other tasks), just a few of which are administration, curation, and maintaining the permanent collection. Getting out announcements, making and distributing posters, maintaining public relations, and keeping up with the online representations of the gallery and everything to do with it are all part of her administrative duties. In terms of curating, Dr. Hawkins-Owen must look for unique art and artists whose work she would like to display, she must communicate with the artists to gauge which of their pieces they actually want to show, attend meetings with the artists, their representatives, and others, help move art to and from the Gallery, go through each piece and record any damage or lack thereof, install each piece and take them down at the end of the exhibit, etc. The list goes on! I was simply shocked listening to Dr. Hawkins-Owen speak of the work she does, because so little of it is visible to us, the viewers, when we attend a gallery opening or go to admire these works.

Most striking to me about Dr. Hawkins-Owen’s lecture was the concept of the permanent collection, which involves both preservation and development. To preserve each piece, it must be stored in the right material, the right place, the right temperature, etc., and even then, there is always a chance that time will eat away at the art while no one is watching. Development involves actually searching for and choosing the pieces that will be added to this collection; I find this to be perhaps the most challenging out of everything Dr. Hawkins-Owen is tasked to do. I was curious as to how she goes about—how she even begins—to look for pieces that are significant enough to display in the first place and to keep. The whole process seems a bit exploratory. Part of it is “jurying”, a process in which Dr. Hawkins-Owen sits on a panel of judges in an art show. At the end of the show, the judges and other museum or gallery administrators have the opportunity to approach artists whose work is especially eye-catching or meaningful. This subject led me to thinking about how artists and other professionals who are trying to make it in the arts must largely rely on others to make careers out of their passions.

Dr. Hawkins-Owen told us that art historians used to do everything—her field did not become professionalized, and accordingly the responsibilities were not split up, until the 1970s, which seems quite late, but I think it accurately shows the lack of value we place on the arts and the humanities in our society. Dr. Hawkins-Owen also admitted to buying many of the refreshments served during past exhibits herself, which reminded me of the similar obstacles my grade school teachers had to deal with regarding school supplies purchases. So many dedicated people committed to their careers in the arts seem to go the extra mile and make sacrifices for the benefit of others.

Along these lines, Dr. Hawkins-Owen mentioned the difference that the availability of resources, namely money and staff (which, of course, are usually only added when there is a salary attached to the position), makes in her efforts to change people’s perspectives and make a lasting impression on viewers of her exhibits. I would venture that one of the most discussed issues in the arts is the lack of funding allotted to these fields. Why are the arts always the first to go during school budget cuts? At my old high school, it seemed as though my orchestra and band conductors would tell us after every single concert that the school board thought we did a phenomenal job, and that it would really make a difference as they decided which areas of which departments they would cut financially. All I could think about was how I was never told that same thing after a successful weekend at Science Olympiad. While I do recognize the importance of these opportunities, budget cuts in these areas never seemed to be considered.

A few months ago, I was speaking with a professor in the physics department here at Geneseo who told me that the arts departments at colleges known for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) fields often go unnoticed, even though they are often just as renowned as the STEM programs. I think that something important to keep in mind is that we must maintain an equality across different disciplines, as in everything else. This is an essential part of integrative learning, which is what this semester has been all about.

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