Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

A Vision for the Gund Gallery

Sean Decatur
April 6, 2015

Anyone who has made an experimental observation knows that one of the most important parts of the process is separating the signal from the noise — determining what parts of an observed phenomenon have meaning and what parts are random fluctuations that mask the deeper significance.

A recent series of articles in the Collegian and online commentary about the Gund Gallery and the senior studio art exhibition have generated a great deal of noise. With the benefit of some time to reflect, it seems appropriate to extract the important questions — and answers — about the gallery and its role at Kenyon.

The visual arts are an important component of a liberal education, and developing an understanding and an appreciation of art can transform a life. The mission of the Gund Gallery is to infuse the Kenyon experience with fine art, integrating it seamlessly into the many dimensions and aspects of the curriculum. This helps ensure the opportunity for all Kenyon students to engage with fine art, and this practice also is consistent with pedagogical methods that deepen student learning. Approaching art from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches prompts students to integrate ideas from a number of subjects, and this is one of the essential learning outcomes of a good liberal education.

In order to meet these goals, the gallery mounts thematic exhibitions of world-renowned art. This is not merely a vain pursuit of prestige, as some have suggested. Exhibitions of the highest-caliber art enrich the educational experience, and the pursuit of excellence at the gallery is no different than the pursuit of excellence across all of our academic departments.

Students not only have opportunities to engage with the works of art through their classes, they also may engage with art through the Gund Gallery Associates program, which provides students professional-level experience in the curation of exhibits. Many students, from a range of majors, participate in this program each year, and some have benefited from the experience by securing career-related internships.

In fact, in a short time, the gallery has been remarkably successful at its core goals of enhancing the teaching and learning that occurs on this campus. This is a testament to the hard work and determination of its founding director, Natalie Marsh, and the donors, faculty, staff and trustees who have planned and supported gallery activities during the course of its first four years.  The gallery also has become a popular community gathering spot and event venue. The gallery is not the domain of any one department, as is evident by the success of its many academic and social functions, and that is central to its progress.

Part of the gallery’s tradition, and an extension of the studio art curriculum, is the senior art exhibition. This, too, is a powerful learning experience for our students: an opportunity for a polished exhibition in a gallery that also displays professional work. As some students and alumni recently have declared, this has become a memorable and significant component of the Kenyon experience for studio art majors. It is, of course, the presence of outstanding work by professional artists in the gallery that helps give this experience its power and cachet. Our students share this space with regular exhibitions of world-renowned works of art and work closely with a professional gallery staff in mounting a show. This is a defining experience for our students.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone in the Kenyon community that I see themes of the Kenyon 2020 vision throughout all of these activities: providing opportunities outside of the classroom to challenge and enhance student learning; complementing our core academic work with professional-level experiences; fostering a sense of community among alumni, faculty, staff and students. And I believe there is a great deal of agreement among members of the broad Kenyon community on the mission, meaning and impact of the Gund Gallery. The gallery is one of the strengths of Kenyon that will contribute to our success in achieving our overall mission — to provide an excellent liberal arts education to a diverse group of talented students — as we look to 2020 and beyond.  And I believe that these principles and a commitment to this mission are shared. While some in recent days have claimed to see a division or distance between the administration and the faculty or between the campus community and the gallery trustees on these issues, I state with confidence that no such divisions exist.

When I reflect on recent discussion about the gallery, I extract those core signals. I’ve also learned over the years, however, that one should not casually dismiss the noise, even after the core signal has been detected. Lessons can be learned, if not from the noise itself then from its causes. In other words, if there is a consensus on larger mission and principles, as I outlined above, what are the factors that generated this recent concern and what do we learn from them?

We need to embrace two lessons here. The first is that, while we may agree on core principles, our practices often require prioritization and compromise. In the case of a facility such as the gallery, the resources of space and time are limited. All of the possible uses of this wonderful resource simply cannot be accommodated at all times. This means that decisions have to be made on how time and space are allocated. Compromise is essential, and disappointment may sometimes be expected.

These types of decisions are best made when there is a clear understanding of mission, from which a set of priorities can be generated. In this case, mission is clear (enhancing the teaching and learning that occurs on campus), and this helps to set priorities on gallery time and space. I believe it is possible to accommodate the teaching and learning priorities of the College, including the needs of the studio art students, with what we have available.

And this brings me to the second lesson: If fulfilling the mission and vision of an institution requires prioritization and decision-making, what is the best way for this to be managed? The management of a large and complex institution such as Kenyon (or a smaller and complex venue such as the Gund Gallery) cannot be accomplished through a public forum or via direct democracy. Our values, however, dictate that we make decisions that are informed by all voices and perspectives, that the process by which a decision is made is clear to all, and that the conclusion of the decision-making process is communicated directly and openly.

Much of the concern voiced in recent days has been derived from a sense that the administration had violated these principles — that a decision was made and not appropriately communicated to the campus community. I believe this is a misperception: No decision on scheduling in 2016 or beyond had been made in advance of the March 26 Collegian article.  I have said this before and I say again: As president, I take responsibility for the actions of my administration. A flaw in our communication must be addressed. Indeed, this is an example of what I intended in the Kenyon 2020 plan, where it addresses the improvement of campus communication.

With respect to the Gund Gallery, this means that more communication about the gallery’s planning, programming and collections is needed; that we need to ensure the processes of decision-making are clearly understood; and that we need to deploy structures, such as the advisory committee for the Gund Gallery, to help in these areas.

As an institution, we must commit ourselves to stronger, better communication, and this goes beyond more effectively announcing events and streamlining email, which are also priorities. We need to embrace an institutional culture of clear and effective communication, including listening to voices of concern, clarifying the making of decisions, and effectively communicating those decisions. We are not perfect, and likely we will never be perfect in these areas, but we can and will improve.

I conclude with these two clear and direct commitments. I have already stated that I believe Kenyon should make space in Gund Gallery programming for the senior studio art exhibition as a part of its scheduling, that the schedule has been set for next year, and that the schedule for 2017 and beyond will be tackled at the appropriate time. This should not be seen merely as a reaction to the recent campus conversation but rather as a programming decision that is consistent with the core mission and values of the gallery. And I commit to continually improving our mechanisms for communication on campus, in keeping not only with Kenyon values but with best practices on campus.