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Friday, July 01, 2022 — Houston, TX

Inferno Gallery is on hiatus. How did it lose its flame?


By Ella Feldman     3/3/20 11:25pm

First, it was an office. Then it transformed into Matchbox Gallery, a 1,600-square-foot gallery nestled into the Sewall Hall courtyard. The space was the only student-run art gallery at Rice, overseen by the visual and dramatic arts department. In 2018, after a decade that saw numerous exhibitions, renovations and leadership changes, Matchbox rebranded as Inferno. During the 2018 - 2019 school year, Inferno hosted six exhibitions and evening gallery openings that featured music, wine and a delectable array of snacks from Trader Joe’s.

Then, the fire quietly went out. This academic year, for the first time since its inception in 2009, Inferno Gallery has been on a non-construction-related hiatus, with no student gallery director to chart its course. 

According to Rachel Boyle, an administrator in the VADA department, the department initially had conversations about putting Inferno on hold in May 2019, when they thought VADA studios would be moving by the end of the year. Although Boyle did not mention a reason for moving, Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby had previously said that  Sewall Hall would undergo construction to make space for VADA faculty displaced by the destruction of the Rice Media Center, slated for the end of 2020

Upon learning that the gallery space would be available for at least another year, the VADA department decided to move forward with temporarily closing Inferno in order to rethink the gallery’s organization and mission. Boyle said the department plans to appoint a new student gallery director in time for the 2020 - 2021 academic year.

Christopher Sperandio, associate professor of painting and drawing and founder of Inferno, said that getting Inferno back up on its feet is a top priority for VADA.

“I think it’s a shame that the gallery wasn’t up and running this year, but we all had a lot on our plates,” he said. “We want to get it going again … it’s always been really important to the department.”

Through the cracks

Sperandio turned his office into Matchbox Gallery and Art Space in 2009 to rectify Rice’s lack of a student-run art space. He said the decision to rethink Inferno was the result of many factors. 

“We had a lot on our plates and it fell through the cracks,” Sperandio said. 

Although Sperandio said he noticed a lot of student support for Matchbox in its early years, he said that recently, student enthusiasm and attendance has dwindled.

“Without a lot of student energy, things like this just can’t exist. The students are driving Matchbox, so they need to drive,” Sperandio said. 

Last fall, Sperandio was awarded teaching release by the Humanities Research Center and took the semester off to spend time in Leipzig, Germany and prepare two books for print release. He places some of the fault for the VADA department’s inability to get Inferno Gallery up and running this year on his absence at the start of the school year.

“My energy wasn’t there to help move things along, and that’s probably the biggest culprit,” Sperandio said. “Usually, everybody says, ‘Hey Christopher, what’s going on with the student gallery?’”

The students behind the gallery

This isn’t the first time student interest in the position of Inferno Gallery director has been sparse. As former Inferno director Suzanne Zeller (Lovett College ’19) neared the end of her junior year, she said she heard similar murmurings. Zeller, who graduated with art history and VADA degrees with a concentration in film and photography, said she had dreamed of leading Matchbox since her junior year. She emailed VADA to inquire about the position and a few weeks later, in May 2018, Zeller assumed the responsibility of rebranding the gallery as director.

After coming up with the name Inferno and a new logo over the summer of 2018, Zeller assembled a team of students to help her oversee the gallery in the coming school year. Throughout her tenure, Zeller and her team presented six exhibitions at Inferno, featuring both student and Houston community artists. The art that cycled through the gallery featured an array of mediums and messages — exploring everything from Filipino and Latinx identities to reproductive rights.

“When I was selecting artists, I really wanted to focus on marginalized identities,” Zeller said. “I personally am a queer person, and I thought it would be really great if we could bring artists to Rice that would actually be informative and educational to the student body.”

Zeller said she perceived plenty of support and enthusiasm for the gallery from Rice students. “When we had our opening events, the turnout was always fantastic, and I really, really felt supported by the student body at Rice,” Zeller said. “The overwhelming support that I got from students on campus was fantastic, and I just loved seeing everybody at the openings and having conversations with them about the art. It was very rewarding.”

Zeller also said working with a gallery team was tremendously rewarding. Her most consistent team member was Julia Fisher, at the time a Lovett sophomore. Zeller said she left Rice and the gallery thinking Fisher, who is now a junior, would fill her shoes as director — a prospect Fisher was thrilled about.

“I was instantly super, super excited about [becoming gallery director], because I had been working so hard because I wanted the director position,” Fisher said. 

Zeller recommended Fisher to the VADA staff members she’d worked with throughout the year, including Boyle and Maria Martinez, an events and programs coordinator in the department. After a number of email exchanges between Zeller, Fisher and the VADA department, the students last heard from the department in September, when Fisher said Martinez told her that the status of the gallery was up in the air and that she’d keep her updated. Martinez did not respond to request for comment.

“I apologize and deeply regret that I failed to let the students know that the gallery has been paused this academic year and reasons why,” Boyle said. “The department has so many exciting things happening, I forgot to respond during this busy time.”

Relighting the fire

Today, Zeller works at a photo gallery in Montrose and although she’s no longer on campus, she said she feels the absence of Inferno.

“I would still be going to the openings as a graduated alumn[a] if they were still happening,” she said.

In Zeller’s eyes, Inferno’s benefit to students was twofold. For student-artists, it provided an opportunity at a solo show that was in reach, which she said can go a long way on a resume. And for everyone, artists or not, it made the creativity and culture brewing in Houston accessible and easy to witness.

“A lot of students don’t have a car, a lot of students don’t want to ride the Metro late at night and openings are generally around 7 p.m.,” Zeller said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get to places, but when you have awesome art opening on campus, with food and drinks and music, there’s no reason not to go to that, and students really did show up for that.”

For Fisher, as a non-VADA major, Inferno provided an unique opportunity to explore her interest in museums and art.

“I’m pretty bummed,” she said. “It’s important to have these kinds of spaces on campus where students can gain firsthand experience in these museum or gallery spaces … and it’s upsetting to not have these spaces on campus anymore.”

Sperandio said this dearth won’t last much longer. He said VADA students have been extremely active in other projects this year and predicts that finding a VADA major to take the reigns of gallery director will be a “piece of cake.” The professor intends to make a decision in April so that programming can resume in the fall.

“[Inferno is] a physical form for student voice, and that’s the job of the university ... to help young people find their voices,” Sperandio said. “Hopefully, we can get some good candidates from within VADA and find somebody who wants to relight the fire.”

[3/4/2020 7:25 p.m.] This article has been corrected to reflect information sourced from previous reporting on the Media Center. It was previously incorrectly attributed to Boyle.

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