Taking the Reins of the Art Museum at UK: A Conversation with Stuart Horodner

by Art Shechet
The conversation with Stuart Horodner, the new Director of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, begins with a few brief pleasantries and then moves out of the gate at a brisk gallop as we traverse the landscape of the museum’s past and future.

stuart headshotFor Horodner, the beginning of the transformation of the museum began the moment he hit the ground at UK. Clearly not someone who will be content with a leisurely pace of change, Horodner intends to make significant moves to change the recent arc of the museum. His mission is to bring the museum to the fore as a vital and dynamic cultural and educational resource at UK, within the local art scene, and beyond.

Horodner is certainly aware of the much-discussed limitations of the museum. He does not dismiss those as much as maintain that they are not crippling impediments to his mission. An ungainly and limiting space? We walk around the museum, and he proffers ideas about how some nips and tucks to the galleries, removing this wall here, moving that dedicated space from here to there, can create a much more welcoming, user-friendly museum whose galleries present art more optimally.

Horodner’s background as a gallerist, curator, and artistic director certainly come into play in his creative ability to envision a more enlivened space. His notion is that creating that space and increasing its visibility and energy will only aid in any future discussions about possibilities of moving the museum to a different, more visible location. For now, Horodner is content to leave that for the future and focus on making the best use of the museum’s current resources.

And those resources, according to the new Director, are plentiful.

There is a staff whose talents have not been fully exploited or unleashed. And there is an entire major university campus, where the assets of the Art Museum at UK can be utilized to enhance teaching and learning, not only for students in the College of Fine Arts. Horodner sees collaborative opportunities with most if not all the disciplines on campus, vastly increasing the museum’s impact on the educational enterprise. Collaboration is a key word for Horodner, signifying his certain intention to work with a wide range of campus and community partners.

In that pursuit he has spent his first weeks and months curating and meeting a list of a wide range of people at UK and in the community with whom to establish relationships as potential collaborators or museum enthusiasts. Equally as important, Horodner has access, born of his years in the art world, to artists and gallerists, museum curators and directors, and to granting organizations such as the Warhol Foundation. These relationships promise to have an enlarging effect on the museum’s profile and offerings.

Horodner is excited about the fall show of photographic portraits by the provocative photographer and video artist Laurel Nakadate, on loan from other collections. He definitely views bringing in work from the larger art world as critical to the success of the museum and his mission.

The conversation turns to the topic of the museum’s permanent collection. A small university museum cannot aspire to a collection of the breadth and depth of a major museum. But there are strengths in UK’s acquired art that Horodner insists need to be acknowledged, fully utilized, and added to over time with careful consideration and guidance by the museum’s professional staff.

These include strong pieces ranging from a venerable Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington to pieces by the American painter, Milton Avery, known for his sublime use of color, and to works by contemporary artists, such as Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger. One of the shows currently up at the museum,Take My Word For It, primarily uses text-based works from the permanent collection, including those by Kruger and Ruscha.

The museum’s works on paper and photography are notably the strongest parts of the permanent collection. The Robert May collection of photographs was recently showcased in an exhibit at the museum and includes compelling photographs by Doris Ulmann of the people of Appalachia in the first part of the 20th century. Horodner sees Ulmann’s work as a very important artistic and historical asset with much to teach us, particularly here in Kentucky.

Other pockets of strength are highlighted as we pass the large piece in the upper gallery by Michael Goldberg, One Year Tim (1961), and at the quiet end of a second-floor gallery nook, a Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1956), that represent a small group in the permanent collection of valuable works of abstract expressionism.

It’s clear that Horodner is energized and eager to take on the challenges presented by the Art Museum at UK. He acknowledges that changes he is making to some long-established modes of operating and traditions, such as the Art in Bloom gala and the workings of the collector’s group, may be jarring to some. But he believes that changes are essential to having a museum that claims its stake to a central place in the life of the university and the larger community. His galloping pace does not appear to be artifice or momentary. This is someone coming to a slightly stale institution as a change agent who intends to move its arc outward and upward. His answers to questions I posed in writing to him clearly reinforce this notion.

UM: With access to content, including images and video, available at our fingertips how do museums stay relevant in the first part of the 21st century?

Horodner: Your question gets at the heart of what a museum is. Imagery is available to us in smaller and faster modes–on our phones and computers, and we can start to think that we are actually experiencing art. But we are not; we are simply receiving information. I still like the idea that a museum is a place, in a context, with objects and people coming together. Brains and bodies activated.  To stay relevant, museums must figure out how they negotiate a range of concepts–interpretation and advocacy, information and entertainment, scholarship and connectivity, time and scale. Not easy, but worth trying to do well.

UM: What do museums need to do to make the experience more accessible or enticing to people who never or rarely go?

Horodner: Obviously, I am trying to figure this out for the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky. I think clarity of intention is pretty important. Museums need to say what visitors will experience when they come and then deliver on that promise. We all need to be clearer about what we are doing and why, and messaging that steadily. I think we should collectively fight the impulse to “dumb things down.” Audiences are smart, and with a little guidance and encouragement, they can grasp complex ideas and handle challenging works.

That said, we occasionally try and send messages of welcome to entice people to visit, overcoming varying degrees of trepidation they may have. I am planning two pajama parties for October. One for members, and one for students. They are attempts at saying to two of our core audiences, that we’d like you to think of the museum as facilitating unique art encounters. I know that I’d appreciate the chance to see Laurel Nakadate’s exhibition Strangers & Relations, and many works in our permanent collection, while wearing  my PJs and enjoying a glass of Prosecco or some pancakes! I’m hoping that others will too. The key is to find ways to make museums even more connected to people’s lives, as important as their favorite TV series or sports team. A place where they feel encouraged and excited by ideas and objects.

UM: How does a small museum like UK’s make itself more relevant in the conversation about important university or regional museums?

Horodner: I think we demonstrate significance by doing several things simultaneously. We champion great art– presenting it in thoughtful exhibitions, interpreting it, and in some cases, collecting and caring for it. We provide numerous educational programs to help audiences appreciate and understand the works. We advocate for our peers at other local and regional institutions, by showing up at their events and collaborating whenever possible. We have a modest space at our museum, but we can use every bit of it more effectively and effusively.

UM: What are your main goals for the museum years one and two?  How will you know whether you are being successful?

Horodner: We are just finishing a redesigned fall booklet that will let people know all the exhibits and events we have coming up. So right off the bat, all our communications—in print, on line, through social media, are becoming more visually engaging and informative. In the coming year or two, we’ll be altering aspects of the gallery architecture and our museum store area. I think these will make the physical space more inviting.

We will also rehang the permanent collection, highlighting certain artists we have in depth, and exploring themes like improvisation and abstraction. We will increase the technological elements at the museum, offering visitors more interactivity. I’m very excited about collaborating with numerous colleagues on campus—to connect the content of our exhibits to other departments. And, this year’s Art in Bloom fundraiser will be at The Carrick House in downtown Lexington, with a wider range of activities to raise money while having more fun!

I know we’re being successful when membership and attendance increase, but also when campus and community audiences share more stories of feeling transformed by their interaction with the museum.

Current exhibitions of the Art Museum at UK

Laurel Nakadate: Strangers & Relations, through December 23

Take My Word For It, through December 23

Kurt Vonnegut: Madmen And Moonbeams, through December 23