Interview with Alison Gass

Director, Smart Museum of Art



Alison Gass started at the Smart in July of 2017. She came from the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University where she was the chief curator and deputy director. Prior to that, she was the founding curator at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.


Tom Mullaney—When you interviewed, I assume you told the search committee that you had a certain vision of what you wanted the Smart to be. Can you encapsulate that?

Alison Gass—I think what’s really exciting about university art museums in general is that they’re not driven by the door like big private museums. They have to do blockbusters in order to sell tickets, whereas the blockbuster at the university museum is more like a seminar. It’s a chance to think and learn through the lens of art practice.

What became exciting for me about the Smart was thinking about what are the great university art museums in an already rich cultural city full of museums. What makes us different from the Art Institute, the MCA, the Renaissance Society?

We came to a couple of conclusions. One was the really exciting opportunity to reflect the University of Chicago’s particular commitment to freedom of expression…to ask anything about the history of the world and try to answer it from different points of view. But then we also think about the place of this museum beyond just being at the University of Chicago. We think of ourselves as being very much of the South Side of Chicago.

The main thing we are really focusing on is reflecting the university’s commitment to global diversity, questioning the received thinking that many Western institutions have been teaching for years and years and the way many museums are organized around a certain version of the history of art. We’re really interested in expanding that canon. Who are the women artists, artists of color, artists from different countries who were very much involved in the stories but weren’t always the ones who came to the top of the market?


Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois


TM—You used several key words in your previous answer: place, diversity, inclusion. These have become museum buzzwords. These are not words museums have traditionally used. What is it in the moment that museums, big and small, now say they are committed to these values?

AG—Well, think about what’s happening in the world today. Look at our political climate. A movement called “Museums Are Not Neutral,” a very interesting movement, says museums should not pretend that they are just standing there, not taking a stand. Yet, it has been artists who have really been real movers of progress and protest.

Looking back over 20th century movements (feminism, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War), you see artists who have been the real movers of progress and protest. Museums have not always been in step with the artists. I think, right now, museums realize two things: that people have access to visual information like they never had before, and that they don’t even have to come to museums to see pictures online.

If you want museums to be relevant, you have to have some reason people would want to come. And it doesn’t have to be for the elite anymore.

TM—To what extent do you think the Art Institute has gotten that message?

AG—From what I know, I think they’re trying really hard to be inclusive. I know they have board committees that are designed to look at issues of inclusion and expanding the canon. But what I’ll say about the difference between [the] Art Institute and a place like the Smart is that we are more nimble. So we can move pretty fast.

We can say ‘Oh, this thing is happening.’ Since we’re not planned out five years ahead in our exhibitions calendar, we can put together something faster. Right now, we’re thinking pretty closely about 2020, an election year. What kind of exhibitions do we want to have when we know the country will be going through something pretty tough?

There’s a reason why I choose to make my career at university museums. There is this possibility to be both reactive and proactive. Proactive in the sense that we can help people shift their perspective or rethink their place in the world.

TM—I mentioned those buzzwords earlier that everyone is talking about.

AG—Yes, that’s exactly right. People are trying to figure out what is the role of the museum in an era now where people don’t have to go to museums. They can go to museums on websites or read a lot of reviews online. They don’t have to live in real time and real space as much as they used to. That’s a real shift.

How do museums tackle the technological revolution? I don’t think the answer is putting a lot of gadgets in the galleries. The answer is in making people feel like a museum is a space of leisure, is a space of social [sic], is a space of learning, a space of conversing. And a real chance to introduce an element of excitement.

TM—I think museums still have a big educational role to fill. I mean the major ones. There is this real acceptance and wanting to learn by visitors. The Art Institute is getting a lot of young people through the doors, but I think they are mostly leaving without a whole lot of context and history.

AG—I agree with that. You have to be very careful not to lose the context. I had a funny moment just this morning. I have a 10-year old-daughter who’s doing a global reading challenge. She was reading about the Iranian revolution, and I happen to know a lot about the Iranian revolution which I learned through art history. I also learned about Christian history—and I’m Jewish—by studying art history.

I’m a big believer in learning the history of the world through art. Which is also why I choose not to be at a strictly contemporary institution. You will see our historic exhibitions. We’re figuring out how to make them still feel really relevant today. What happened in the French Revolution that feels rather similar to what may be happening today? How can we look at the lens of history and understand?

TM—Would you have been able to do some of these large exhibitions in the past year without funding from the Terra Foundation, or were they always in your game plan?

AG—That was planned before I got here. But Terra definitely helped a lot with support for “South Side Stories” and “The Time is Now.” If I had been director back then and there hadn’t been funding for that, I still would have committed to doing that show. It’s too important.


Tom Mullaney is the Managing Editor of the New Art Examiner.

Alison Gass, Director, Smart Museum of Art



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