Rebecca Wing unwraps the importance of arts education through hands-on experience and discussion.
As I was researching you for this interview, I noticed you don’t have much of an online presence, aside from being credited as part of art shows and such. Was that done on purpose?
I hadn’t really thought of that before you asked, but I guess I consider myself in the nascent stages of both my administrative and artistic careers, and haven’t yet felt compelled to push a public narrative of the work that I’ve done. Part of that is because, as an artist, the little online presence I work to cultivate is around my own studio practice. But mainly, because my role at Hallwalls primarily involves working with other artists in the context of our programming, whatever I’m doing to facilitate that process is way less interesting than a given artist’s work or ideas. My job wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting if the artists we worked with didn’t have enough to show or say that was compelling in its own right.
Your switch to Educational Coordinator [at Hallwalls] was fairly recent. Can you explain a bit what this role entails, and why you switched? Have you always wanted to eventually end up in an educational role?
First, I would say that Hallwalls has always had educational impulses, even from the outset, starting as an artist-run center whose founders—many of them still students at the time—wanted to learn how to be contemporary artists. These young artists who made up Hallwalls in its early years would invite other artists who they admired from elsewhere to come to Buffalo to present exhibitions and give talks about their work. I imagine that those experiences were valuable to these young artists, as the most tangible examples of what it was to “be an artist.” Even before the Education Program became formalized, we would bring exhibiting artists to local public schools whenever possible and give talks to the student groups who visited our gallery, especially to high schools, where it’s invaluable for a burgeoning artist to see someone who is an actual working artist.
I would characterize my new position as more like an expansion of duties than an outright switch. Unlike [a] museum, which might have a separate curriculum for its student programs, everything that I’m organizing in the education zone is an outgrowth of what we’re already doing programmatically. I still work with exhibiting artists and am heavily involved with both the installation of shows and planning upcoming exhibitions, but now I stay attuned to the possibilities of connecting those artists or exhibitions to teachers and classes who might be working with similar media or themes.
This year, I’m working with at least one Buffalo public school art teacher to invite artists we know to her class, where they will work with those students to create a more involved project that centers around the use of materials and the particular contemporary issues these artists address in their own work. There’s also a professional development aspect to the education program. In that vein, we’ve done series of Artists’ Talks and Curators’ Talks, but the most effective [approach] seems to be the ongoing studio visits that we do with artists in our region. John Massier, Hallwalls’ Visual Arts Curator, noticed that artists would often remark to us, “It’s so great that you’re doing this!”—meaning, even apart from discussions about specific exhibition opportunities, artists really enjoy discussion and feedback. It’s something they get less frequently once they’re removed from a school scenario, where crits might be a weekly occurrence. So we’ve taken the initiative to publish open dates for artists on our website, something I’m not sure any other venue actually does.
Working in the creative sphere and being in close quarters with amazing work all the time, do you ever experience some sort of “art burnout,” or feel like you need a visual and mental break from art for a spell? For example, [do] you need to watch trashy television or something for a day so you don’t have to think?
I can’t say that I’ve experienced that particular phenomenon. If anything, looking at so much art only motivates me to go and work in my own studio. There are weeks where work is physically exhausting—installation/de-installation periods, before a big event, etc. In those instances, if I don’t fall asleep immediately after getting home, I really like playing video games (Fallout 4 right now), watching movies, baking cakes, cleaning, or reading.
Before you started in your current role as Education Coordinator, you were a curatorial assistant. My understanding of curating work is akin to staring at thousands of online portfolios and drinking too much coffee because I’m not actually educated in what the curation process entails. Which part of the curation process surprised you when you first started as a curator?
While we do review online submissions and look at artist websites, there’s really no comparison to seeing work in person. Beginning in late 2014, John Massier, Kyle Butler (a local artist, curator, and jack-of-all-trades), and I began doing intensive rounds of studio visits with local artists. From that, we culled together a selection of work that surprised and delighted us. A series of exhibitions, Amid/In WNY, arose from that process—a regional survey with no mandate other than our interest in what was new, iconoclastic, and unexpected.
Our very first studio visit as part of this project was with artist Marc Tomko, whose work is all based around compulsive recording of his daily habits and activities. He showed us a lot of different videos and multimedia works, and we soaked it all in. With Marc, there’s a lot of layers and data involved in everything he does. As we were about to leave, one of us noticed a green glass bottle tucked back into a dark corner. It had a flour sifter feeding into the mouth of the bottle and less than an inch of fine, sparkly dust piled at the bottom. Marc had been collecting the dust from his studio floor over a period of months and sifting it into this bottle. It seemed a perfect encapsulation of what he does as an artist and a total surprise at the end of that first studio visit.
John originally planned Amid/In as one show, but that quickly grew into three shows, then five, and finally seven shows—a year and a half of our programming. In January 2017, we added Amid/In Epilogue because there really was SO MUCH to look at, even limited to the Western New York area.
Before this project, I really wasn’t aware of how many artists were working within a quick drive of the Hallwalls—that surprised me initially. I’d also say that learning the logic behind decisions about hanging a show has been, and continues to be, a revelation. There are strategies, like thinking about the sightlines throughout the gallery (rather than always centering works on each wall), leaving more space towards the corners on a wall (to prevent works looking too crowded), and using the content of a piece to determine where to hang it (maybe a painting that is a skyward view should be hung higher up on the wall). When I started as an intern, it all seemed totally arbitrary, but I love that hanging a show now feels creatively challenging because I’ve picked up on some of those tactics.
Working at Hallwalls, you’ve had interactions with all kinds of artists, which means interactions with all different kinds of people. What are some interactions with artists that stood out to you, positive or negative?
A friend recently asked me how many hard-to-work-with artists I’d met in the time I’ve been at Hallwalls. My immediate response was, “None.” There has not been a single artist who has been unenjoyable to work with. Seriously. In my experience, artists are generally some of the most generous people, both with their time and material possessions. So with that in mind, I’ll briefly mention some standouts.
Toronto artist Marla Hlady was one of the early shows I helped to install while I was still an intern. She had made this machine with sound and a kinetic wall that mimicked the Hallwalls’ own movable walls (we have two walls that slide on overhead tracks in the ceiling and one wall that pivots from a center point in an arc, which we reposition for every exhibition). I remember being struck by how Marla treated me as someone who was totally capable of doing things during the installation that I didn’t have much experience doing at that point. She took the time to explain all of the mechanical components of her piece and had me take notes so that if anything went awry during the length of the exhibition, I could ostensibly figure out how to fix it. It’s hard to convey how empowering it felt to be taken seriously and entrusted with the responsibility for the functioning of that machine (even though it wouldn’t have fallen to me to fix it had anything gone wrong). Even though she wasn’t the only person who encouraged me, working with Marla provided an early affirmation of why working with artists was so appealing.
Pittsburgh artist John Peña’s show was one that I spent the most hours helping to install. His show was opening a week after my BFA senior thesis show, so he actually saw my installation when he arrived in town. John makes these plaster word balloons with handwritten existential expressions of despair and self-doubt. They are balanced (literally) on a cluster of wooden legs. Here’s John’s process: beginning with a single wooden leg, he directs me to hold the plaster word balloon balanced on that first leg. He then eyeballs the length of the next leg and the angles that would meet the floor on one end and the curve of the word balloon on the other. He then runs to the miter saw and makes a cut. He holds up the leg to see if the cut will work, [then] rinse and repeat. It was a physically grueling install, but in the best way possible because I was so invested in the process. John was really generous in talking about his experience as a young working artist, the pros and cons of getting an MFA, resources for applying to residencies, and how rejection is just part of applying to programs. Given that we work in similar material, I was really fascinated by his techniques for fabricating the objects he makes. A lot of my sculptures have some element of precarious balance to them, so I think I responded to a lot of John’s sculptural gestures for those reasons as well. Lori Waxman came to Buffalo to perform her 60 wrd/min art critic performance last winter. Over the course of three days, Lori did half-hour studio visits in a temporary office space with artists selected via online lottery. She then sat down to write immediate reviews of their work, which people could watch onscreen as she wrote.
Hallwalls was part of a group of organizations, including Squeaky Wheel, CEPA Gallery, and the UB Art Galleries, who collectively presented this performance. I served the role of secretary during the three-day performance. I kept the schedule, filed paperwork, organized artwork, gave participants info on how the process worked, etc. Sometimes there were a bunch of people hanging around our “office space” and sometimes there weren’t any. It was really fascinating to watch Lori’s writing process in real time. It made me feel both better and worse about how long I agonize over writing anything, especially when it’s someone else’s work.
I love ending with this question: what mistakes have you made, related to your career or not, that ended up helping you?
In 2012, after my junior year of college, I didn’t return to complete my degree. For several years, I felt really embarrassed that I hadn’t finished my undergrad, especially as I compared myself to many friends moving on into graduate programs. At that point, I had been interning at Hallwalls for about a year. I was working at a coffee shop, but made sure that I would request off work for the week leading up to every new exhibition so that I could continue to help install. It was something that I knew I loved, and I stuck with it because as I got more adept in different manual tasks, I found that each exhibition had its own particular challenges—the problem-solving skills and flexibility required to install a show felt totally invigorating. Eventually, meeting people through Hallwalls led me to a gallery assistant job at a commercial gallery in town. But even then, I was still requesting time off to do Hallwalls installations. Eventually what happened is that a Hallwalls staff member left in late 2014. I was offered a paid position because at that point, I had been around for four years and it was evident that I wasn’t going anywhere.
I can’t say enough how much I love my job. In 2015, three years after dropping out of school, with enormous support from all of the Hallwalls staff, I decided to return to finish my college degrees. I graduated (finally) in December 2016 with my BFA in Sculpture and my BA in Art History. I did college in a really roundabout way, but I got so much more out of school after taking that time off. I was motivated to finish. I already had the job I wanted and school became more enjoyable because I didn’t have the pressure of figuring out the direction of my life after graduation. I don’t know if I would have had the same amount of experience that allowed me to be considered for that position at Hallwalls when it opened up if I had gone a more traditional route, so I feel very lucky that things fell into place the way they did.