By Cindy Atoji Keene
That “ahhhh…” moment of awe when you walk into a gallery is what Lisa Tung works hard behind the scenes to create. As curator of the galleries at MassArt, the oldest – and only – public art college in the nation, Tung is tasked with showing work that inspires the public, and most importantly, the students of this college, so this next generation of artists is creating the most informed work. The school’s campus and its Bakalar & Paine Galleries – which are free and open to all – are just down the street from the MFA and Gardner, but one of the best-kept secrets on the Avenue of the Arts.
As university art museums around the country raise their profiles as cultural and education resources, so Tung, 42, has been aggressively exhibiting a wide range of programming. While “blue chip” exhibitions by established artists like William Kentridge and venerated photographer William Christenberry are impressive shows, Tung also curates offbeat presentations, like a tree that “draws” on a pad when branches sway in the breeze to a Japanese artist who dressed up in a stuffed beaver costume. “I don’t want to give the impression that this is a crazy funhouse, but this is thought-provoking art that engages the viewer,” said Tung, who has been MassArt curator for eight years, starting as an exhibit assistant and working her way up to curatorial director.
Q: What does the gallery space look like at MassArt?
A: The Bakalar gallery downstairs is like a white cube box, while the Paine gallery upstairs is a dramatic space with 40-foot ceilings and Palladium windows. You need to figure out how to best show the art – how do you create interesting juxtapositions between art works? How do you create a dialogue among the audience and the work? As a curator, I am involved with everything from procuring funds to making sure the art gets here safely. There is a fair amount of logistical planning involved.
Q: What have you done for the “cause” as a curator?
A: I have had lots of adventures, especially since we invite many artists to come to create new, site-specific work. I have been dumpster diving to find “materials” to fabricate a Cuban shack for Havana artist Carlos Estevez; asked by an artist to only invite pretty, single girls to his opening reception; shuttled every day for two weeks to Western Mass – while stopping at McDonalds for a strawberry shake for the artist – to film a beaver “documentary.” It’s all been surprisingly fun. Some exhibitions have been like long, strange dreams, but so far none has turned into a nightmare.
Q: Putting together a catalog or labeling the exhibits is also part of the logistics. How do you explain a piece of art in writing?
A: Creating a didactic label usually includes the artist name, title of the image, owner of the work, and other basic information, as well as interpretative information. So if you’re walking in the exhibition cold, and don’t know anything about artist Paula Hayes, for example, the label should inspire you to think about the work in a different way, but not be too theoretically driven, so the average person can understand.
Q: You recently curated “Verdant,” a group exhibition of artists who use plant matter as their media. Was it challenging to have live plants in the gallery?
A: “Verdant” explored the intersection between people and the natural environment using living plants in the artistic process. The caregiving of the plants became one of the performative aspects of the show, so while strolling through the gallery, you could see the de-snailing, weeding, and watering, all the tasks you never think about but that were needed to keep plants happy during the five-week show.
Q: One of your more unusual shows was The Beaver Project in 2006. What was the response?
A: Shintaro Miyake was a performance artist who starred in this multimedia exhibition about the life of a beaver. Miyake was here dressed as a beaver and would venture out into the gallery to draw. The galleries were mobbed with viewers waiting for a glimpse of Beaver. At one point there were 200 people in the gallery and Miyake was waiting in our office. I said to him that he’d better go out to draw and he said to me, in total seriousness, “This is like the zoo. You go to see the bears and sometimes the bear is sitting in the sun and sometimes it doesn’t come out of its house.” He finally
Q: Some people have trouble understanding or appreciating contemporary art. What advice would you give them?
A: Don’t expect to love everything. Contemporary art is not meant to
be reverential. The work is new and fresh and you won’t connect with some things, but over time viewers can find some things that open their minds in brand new, thrilling ways. Keep coming back. It gets easier, more fun, and more interesting. I started with a love of Italian Renaissance sculpture and keep finding more things that fascinate me. I don’t think I’m that unique.