Amanda Donnan, who’s been curator at Seattle University’s Hedreen, Kinsey and Vachon galleries for four months, is bringing artist Michelle Grabner to Seattle. Grabner’s show opens June 30 at Hedreen Gallery.
Amanda Donnan has been at the helm of Seattle University’s art galleries for only four months, and she’s already brought a big name to campus: artist/curator Michelle Grabner, whose solo show “Michelle Grabner: Northwest Work,” opens June 30 at SU’s Hedreen Gallery.
(Full disclosure: I teach as an adjunct professor at Seattle University.)
Donnan has also dealt with various small challenges, such as how to dispose of furniture that once was art but now is not. But more on that later.
“Michelle Grabner: Northwest Work”
1:30-6 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays through Sept. 10, Hedreen Gallery at Lee Center for the Arts, Seattle University, 901 12th Ave. (206-296-2244 or www.facebook.com/TheHedreenGallery).
Donnan comes to Seattle from Pittsburgh, where she was assistant curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Before that, she worked in artsy jobs in New York, including editorial work for the Whitney Museum of American Art and the award-winning PBS series “Art: 21.”
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And now she’s taken on a revamped position at SU that, over the years, has suffered from a lack of funding and institutional clarity but has also given rise to some innovative programming.
The three SU galleries include the Kinsey Gallery in the Admissions and Alumni building that showcases work by SU alumni, faculty and students from a range of majors; the Vachon Gallery in the Fine Arts building, which often exhibits work by art and design students; and the Hedreen Gallery, the most visible and experimental space.
Donnan will also develop connections across departments and will teach a class that explores the history, theory and practice of exhibitions.
So, how does she feel about stepping into this complex position?
I visited the curator at the Hedreen as the space was being prepared for Grabner’s exhibition. There were still remnants from the last show, a surreal art installation by Sean M. Johnson, who literally suspended furniture from the ceiling and wall.
As we sat on the leftover pieces (a sofa and chair), Donnan said, “The challenge that I’m feeling most acutely so far is being a pivot point between the university community, the art community and the broader public, and how to create programming that appeals to all of those constituents, how to draw in people with different levels of engagement with art.”
With a smile, she added, “That and figuring out the logistics of how to get things done.”
As if on cue, a facilities employee stopped by to consult about Donnan’s request to remove the leftover furniture. Donnan was good-naturedly informed it wasn’t a “mainstream” work order.
But she is excited about the possibilities of working at a university. “I value the interdisciplinary environment of a university campus, and the way that, in a university gallery, art-making is perhaps framed more as a form of scholarship and seeking understanding than it is in other contexts,” she said.
In this spirit of inquiry, Donnan invited the acclaimed artist, curator and critic Grabner to respond to the Hedreen’s long narrow space with its wall of windows facing 12th Avenue.
In addition to teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Grabner co-directs two art spaces in Wisconsin, writes regularly for Artforum and other publications, and co-curated the lauded 2014 Whitney Biennial.
When Donnan learned Grabner would be in the Northwest, organizing the Portland Biennial (July 9-Sept. 18), she wisely invited her to show her own work in Seattle.
In a phone conversation, Grabner shared that, early on, Donnan encouraged her to take risks.
“It’s an interesting space in terms of its history of experimentation, and it has such great street presence. So I’ve taken on something very new — painting directly on the wall. But I can also protract some of things that I’ve been dealing with: pattern, time, domestic situations and painting’s relationship to abstraction,” Grabner said.
The wall painting serves as backdrop for other paintings, a sculptural mobile, and video works, some of which explore glassmaking as an important and debated medium in the region.
“My research for the Portland Biennial and the exhibition in Seattle has led to ideas about centers and peripheries,” Grabner said. “The sense of regionalism is so profound here, more profound than in other parts of the country, quite honestly. It’s more ethical here, perhaps because of strong environmentalism.”
As a newcomer herself, Donnan is inspired by Grabner’s definition of localism as a “set of relationships.”
“I like what Michelle is saying about the importance of responding to region and being both inside and outside of art centers. She can be the patron saint of doing it all,” Donnan said.
And perhaps Donnan, in this newly strengthened position, can be SU’s resident saint for continued innovation and a strengthened curatorial program.