September 15, 2011

Richard Rinehart, director of Samek Art Gallery

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Richard Rinehart, director of the Samek Art Gallery, discusses the importance of digital art and the Gallery's collection.

Q. What exactly is digital art and why is it important?

A. Traditional art in the Western fine art tradition would be those media that we are all familiar with: sculpture, painting, photography, printing and printmaking. Nontraditional art is any practice or form that doesn't fit into those standards, so anything from conceptual art or performance art, installation art. More recently, video art is a nontraditional form that has been around long enough to be on the cusp of becoming more of a traditional art.

Digital art is not digitized art, that is to say, pictures of paintings that have been digitized to go on a website. Nor are digitally assisted prints where somebody uses Photoshop to help design a print but then prints it out on paper and hangs it in a frame on the wall in a gallery. That is still traditional art, though it might be digitally assisted.

I define digital art as that which requires computational technologies for its production and its reception; computers are an essential component of making the art and viewing the art.

Digital art is important for some of the reasons that all nontraditional art forms are important, because they expand the vocabulary that an artist is able to use in order to explore ideas. When you expand your vocabulary you're able to articulate ideas better and you're able to ask different kinds of questions.

Digital art is one of a long series of formats that were once new media and have since become traditional media. At a certain point, oil easel painting, which we all recognize as a traditional art form, was once seen as a new medium. Previous to that in Europe, painting really only existed as part of architecture; it was in a stained-glass window or it was a fresco on a ceiling or it was painted on a wooden panel on the altar. This idea that you could put cloth on stretcher bars and cart it around and paint on it and then hang it, that was a new idea.

The same with photography in the 19th century. At first nobody thought of it as an artistic medium; people thought of it as a technological novelty.

The other reason digital art is important, particularly right now, is because digital technologies mediate almost every aspect of our lived lives, at least for those in the Western industrialized world. I think everyone would agree that digital technology has transformed news, education, entertainment and, naturally, art.

Because it is so socially pervasive, it allows artists to occupy the same social spaces, to open up social spaces, allowing artists to insert themselves into people's everyday lives by making art that lives on the Internet or, for instance, or on your cell phone.

Artists are taking themselves outside, so you don't have to go to a fine arts institution to see art; you can see it walking around on your smart phone or on the Internet from your bedroom. That creates a different social situation for the artists which gives them new opportunities; it allows them to do things that they couldn't do inside of a gallery setting.

Q. What direction would you like to take the Samek gallery schedule next year?

A. This year's exhibition schedule was already on the books when I arrived so I'm starting to plan for the summer of 2012. Even though my curatorial focus is new media art, the shows I have planned for 2012 feature sculptures and paintings.

This year allowed me the opportunity to do a lot of smaller, new media curatorial interventions, for example, the 'Not Here' exhibition, which was art you could see only assisted with your smart phone.

Then there's the video wall at the entrance to the Gallery which is a new permanent feature. In the coming seasons we'll see new video art out there. Recently we had the Arts. Everywhere. Festival at which I presented an electronic musician/performance artist, Author & Punisher. Next fall we're planning a sound art installation with a couple of artists so audiences are already getting a taste of the new curatorial direction of the Samek.

I would characterize next summer and next fall's exhibitions that I have planned, without revealing specifics, as shows that plumb the depths of the human psyche and others that will counterbalance that by pointing to the zenith of political hyperbole.

Q. What about your opinion of the Samek's permanent collection?

A. The Samek Art Gallery is actually a museum, which requires exhibitions with regular public hours, an educational and interpretive program, and a permanent collection, all of which we have. But we call it a gallery because we don't want to confuse visitors who might look for a separate building. There are some great works in the collection, some stellar pieces by masters from Rembrandt to Jasper Johns.

It's important to understand the nature of our collection, and any university's collection. The largest museums and institutions are often encyclopedic, like the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum. They have everything from Etruscan pottery to modern masters to digital art to paintings to costumes.

As the institutions and museums get smaller, the collections tend to be more focused. When you get to the really small museums and galleries, those which exist on university campuses, you get this weird inversion where they become encyclopedic again, like ours — we have Renaissance prints, video art to modernist Master paintings to artists books, all across the board.

It also provides a lot of challenges. Academic collections tend be encyclopedic because one of their functions is to support teaching and research on a campus and the teaching represents a spread of expertise.

Another co-equal function of any academic collection is to enable a university's contribution to cultural preservation, to cultural memory, to social memory. Universities are a site for social memory; as much as they are about the production of new knowledge, they're also about the retention of past knowledge as a spring-board for the new.

The museum collection is one of the main ways in which universities can do this. Toward that end, it's really up to each university to have a curatorial vision, not only for its exhibitions but for its collections.

Q. What do you see our contribution going to be?

A. As far as the Samek collection goes, we need to support teaching and research and instruction on this campus; but, as far as what our contribution in human history is going to be, I have an inkling that there might be room for some new media art alongside our master prints and Modern paintings.

There are a lot of small academic museums that specialize in similar and overlapping things; photography and prints are big, both because they're usually less expensive than paintings and sculptures and they're easier to store. You already have a lot of museums at colleges and universities that are making the same contribution, so in a hundred years, when people are looking for prints from a certain era, you can go to a lot of different places to find them.

I'm thinking about new media for a couple of reasons. A lot of institutions and private collectors are still somewhat scared of collecting it because of the ephemerality; they're not sure how they're going to preserve it. That's one of my areas of expertise, collecting and preserving media art, so Bucknell could take advantage of that; we're one of the places where we know how to preserve that stuff. The trick is to think of new media artworks not like sculptures or paintings, but as musical works - works that do not persist unchanged, but that are re-performed and re-manifested periodically.

It also would offer Bucknell a distinctive title, allow Bucknell to make a unique contribution to cultural heritage preservation such that in 50 or 100 years, when researchers look back, they'll say, "Where can I find some digital art from the early 21st century?" Bucknell may be one of the few places.

We're at a point in history where those artists are young, and other collectors aren't collecting it. Prices are not at all high, so we may be able to get in on the ground floor. We could have the master collection of digital art in the 23rd century. We could be the Barnes Collection of digital art.

One of the other challenges for the collection, and for me in the coming years, is to figure out the direction of this collection. For instance, is the Samek going to be an antiquities collection, an anthropological collection, an ethnographic collection, a history collection or an art collection?

Most people think of a curator as thinking toward the past; you're looking at old paintings and old dusty things and you're bringing them out, you're contextualizing them in history. But curators are really futurists, that's the real job; to take the past and then interpret it for the present and then, in terms of collecting, think about the future.

Preservation is a very future-oriented activity because you have to think, Why are you collecting this stuff? For whom? For students who are going to be at Bucknell in 100 years!

Interviewed by Kathryn Kopchik


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