Centennial Gallery art a letdown
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 05:10
Rice University Art Gallery is awesome, and it holds an important place in Rice’s community: It is completely unique in that it is the only university gallery in the country dedicated to site-specific installation art. It almost always hosts single artists (or artist pairs who always work together) to install temporary work that uses innovative, unusual materials. So the decision to host a conventional gallery show at Rice Gallery, especially right now, is an odd and not entirely welcome choice.
The current show in the gallery, “Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African-American Art,” “seeks to redefine the canon of African-American art,” according to the gallery’s website. While this collection of paintings, sculptures and print work is definitely thought-provoking and taps into issues of the avant-garde outside of traditional western art, it does not quite fit at Rice Gallery. The show is beautiful and meaningful, but it is so normal. You could imagine seeing it at any art museum in the country. Why is this the show – which is so out of character with Rice Gallery’s mission – that is being billed as Rice’s Centennial Exhibition?
The issue of Rice Gallery’s flexibility may be challenged, but I do not think it should be put forth during such a pivotal moment in Rice’s history. Perhaps there are questions of the gallery’s popularity on campus, and more traditional art shows might bring in more students, families and community members. However, the gallery is highly respected across the nation for its commitment to such inventive and site-specific work, however ephemeral or bizarre. It is the nature of the artwork, and it is part of what makes it special – but either way, this point does not need to be debated right now. In fact, Rice could have used the Centennial celebration to assert Rice Gallery’s position in the art world and its importance on campus. Why not use the celebration to pull in a widely known, popular artist to do some amazing original work just for Rice? Rice could have utilized the gallery’s particular mission in conjunction with its birthday to create work people could only see and appreciate during this historically meaningful moment for our university.
Rice Gallery holds not only a special position nationally, in comparison to other university galleries, but also in Houston. The local art community will doubtless notice this strange shift toward conformity. This change may actually have a negative effect on the gallery’s popularity, since it so opposes the gallery’s usually progressive contemporary stance toward the creation of art. It may jeopardize the gallery’s relationships with local donors and patrons that keep the gallery open.
Most of all, Rice needs to recognize that students notice the change this exhibition marks for the gallery. While it may be an honor to host part of a nationally recognized collection on our campus and we should note the importance this collection holds in and of itself, this show is a poor representation of the distinctive, one-of-a-kind art that Rice Gallery normally encourages. This should be a time to celebrate Rice’s individuality and distinction in the art world. The gallery’s own tradition should not be redefined in a moment that looks like a compromise for popularity.
Emily Nichol is a Wiess College senior and Thresher senior editor.