♦ Interview with Ashley Kistler Director of Anderson Gallery

“ I think it’s also important not just to do exhibitions of video art. Sometimes it’s more interesting when it’s mixed with other kinds of art. I think delineating exhibitions by media—while that still serves an important purpose—doesn’t accurately reflect what is going on. The mix of different approaches and media is often more interesting.”

- Ashley Kistler

Inspired by the recent exhibition The Nameless Hour: Places of Reverie, Paths of Reflection at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery in 2010 which featured primarily time-based work (video and installation), Berangér LeFranc interviewed the gallery’s director and the show’s co-curator Ashley Kistler on the role of time-based media in the university art museum.

BL: What, in your opinion, is the role of time-based work (video and performance) in gallery exhibitions?

AK: Both of those art forms have been part of gallery and museum operations and exhibition programs for a long, long time. I think they are essential. They have become such important forms of expression and they are pretty ubiquitous these days. I think they absolutely need to be addressed and a part of the overall offering. Based on the last show here that was mostly time-based media, obviously I think it is very important.

BL: What has the overall reaction of the public been? Because this type of work is not necessarily traditional, and it’s not what people generally expect when they walk into a gallery or museum.

AK: But you know, I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think they do expect it. Video, as I said, it’s pretty ubiquitous. You run into it all the time. I think it’s like any other medium: there are plenty of challenging examples and then there are some that are more accessible, and then there are works that are just totally entertaining—it crosses a wide continuum of accessibility. Sometimes with more challenging works, because they do require a certain commitment of time from the viewer, they can be difficult. A general museum visitor will not make that commitment. I think you have to be creative and thoughtful about what you show, when you show it, how you show it, and what it’s combined with.

BL: Do you think you have encountered resistance from the community to time-based work, or felt pressure to incorporate it more?

AK: Well I don’t feel pressured to include it, but it is certainly a primary interest of mine. I think, coming back to the idea of university galleries and museums, those venues oftentimes lend themselves to showing that kind of work, rather than, say, a general art museum. The audience is different, particularly here. Speaking from my own experience at Virginia Commonwealth University, video is such an interest among both undergrad and grad students, and it doesn’t matter what department you’re in. Video has been used across the board. So, that’s one of our audiences in which there is a great interest.

BL: This show obviously required the staff to go above and beyond the usual challenges of handling and installing an exhibition.

AK: The Nameless Hour has been an especially demanding show to install. The countless logistics, creative problem-solving, dogged perseverance and long hours required to prepare and implement this exhibition would likely daunt the most seasoned museum staff. We just spent hours and hours troubleshooting, working out little details. It was not at all the typical process of installing a show, though one may argue the definition of ‘typical.’

BL: Have the trends in student work in the School of the Arts influenced the type of work shown here at the Anderson Gallery?

AK: Certainly the use of moving image media, as I said, regardless of what department you’re in, is highly visible, is in high use by students, is a fundamental interest. Of course there are different categories within that very broad category of video art. Like I said, it is very important to attend to it and to incorporate it in any way I can. I think it’s also important not just to do exhibitions of video art. Sometimes it’s more interesting when it’s mixed with other kinds of art. I think delineating exhibitions by media—while that still serves an important purpose—doesn’t accurately reflect what is going on. The mix of different approaches and media is often time a more interesting way to approach it.

BL: Have shows of new media or time-based work conflicted with the goals of building the gallery’s collection?

AK: We are not a collecting institution. We’ve never had any acquisition funds whatsoever, so anything that is in the permanent collection here as been gifted from one source or another. The collection in large measure contains many works that are part of the intra-campus loan program, so it does provide a means for hanging artwork in public spaces and offices around campus, which I think certainly has value and is certainly specific to the kind of operation that we have here. But as far as building a permanent collection whose primary purpose is really to investigate the current state of art making today… first of all it’s an incredibly expensive endeavor, and becoming more and more so all the time, and it requires staff to adequately care for it and, of course, adequate space and a whole host of other support services which we presently do not have. Furthermore, we have this incredible art museum sixteen blocks down the street [Viginia Museum of Fine Arts or VMFA] whose collections cover pretty much all periods and cultures, including modern and contemporary. The link between the VCU School of the Arts and the VMFA is becoming ever stronger, so I think there is a vast resource already in place.

BL: Can you offer me a brief version of the Anderson Gallery’s mission statement?

AK: Our mission statement certainly focuses on current trends in the art of today. In order to explore that subject, we mount challenging exhibitions, we do related educational programming which often involves collaboration with other departments in the school of the arts, and we also publish significant catalogs. All of that reflects back on the fact that the gallery is part of the state’s largest educational institution and we should be involved in that ongoing conversation about contemporary art and culture. It’s certainly applicable not only to the School of the Arts, but other schools and departments within the larger university. This gallery can serve a really important function that no other game in town serves, that being strong and challenging contemporary exhibition programming on an ongoing basis. That is how I think we can best serve the School of the Arts, the University, the wider community of Richmond and central Virginia and also on a national and international stage.

BL: How has The Nameless Hour been critically received?

AK: We’ve had an incredible response to the show. It attracted visitors well beyond the campus of VCU. First of all, we had more students and more classes in here than ever before, many making multiple return trips. This isn’t just because it’s time-based or non-traditional, I think that is because of the quality of the work. For example, with the Rist installation and with her other work, it’s all about pleasure. How can you resist that? It’s a totally delightful experience. Her work has great popular appeal. It’s excellent on so many levels, and not just within the category of video or installation art.