Alison Gass

(UChicago News Office)

Alison Gass wants you to feel welcome at the Smart Museum

The Smartʼs new director believes art is for everyone.

In her 12-year career as a museum curator, Alison Gass has crisscrossed the country, with stops at the Jewish Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University, and, most recently, Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. Gass was “swearing up and down to everyone I would never leave California” when she heard the Smart Museum was seeking a new director. After visiting, “I was totally enamored of the really deep intellectual curiosity that I found everywhere I turned.” The 43-year-old museum felt like the right home for the politically engaged and risk-taking work Gass champions. 

Even before she officially started at the Smart in May, Gass set to work planning Welcome Blanket, a project by artist and Pussyhat Project cofounder Jayna Zweiman that invites participants to send in handmade blankets for newly arrived immigrants and refugees with notes of welcome. (The blankets and notes are on view until December 17, 2017.) Gass, now the Smart’s Dana Feitler Director, spoke to the Magazine about that project and her ambitions for the museum. Her comments have been condensed and edited.

What drew you to the Smart Museum?

My curatorial career has been very much bound up in thinking about art as a lens onto social and political issues and the way that artists help us understand those stories or shift our thinking. I really felt that the University of Chicago was the perfect place for a museum committed to thinking about the world through the lens of artistic practice and telling stories in the museum through art, in a way that not all universities and not all university museums are. 

The Smart feels so ready for a reinvention into its next phase of life. University museums are free, so they’re not driven by the door—meaning you don’t have to do a huge blockbuster exhibition every summer. You can be a little risky. And that’s a lot of what we’re doing this fall. What if we shake up the way we install our permanent collection? We’re not installing it chronologically at all. We’re installing it thematically, which is definitely a different approach. 

What are some of your plans?

My biggest goal is to make the Smart feel welcoming. One of the things I’m focusing on in this first year is the visitor experience. How does every visitor, no matter where they’re from, whether they’re on the faculty, or they’re a student, or they’re from the local community, or they’re a kid who’s never even been to a museum—how do we make sure we meet them exactly where they are and let them know that art is for everyone and relates to their life? So we’re doing things like rethinking the signage that helps you find your way into the museum and moving walls in galleries to make it a more open space that feels more comfortable for thinking and learning and socializing. 

We’re also focused on diversity and inclusion in the collection and our programs. This is a museum on the South Side of Chicago, and we want everybody who comes in to see art that reflects their own experience of identity in the world. We will be looking at telling a more serious story about the history of African American art, getting more women into this collection, and getting more Latin American art, so that the museum is reflective of the place that it’s in.

Has the role of museums changed in the 21st century?

We live in a world where images are ubiquitous and can be shared immediately. You don’t have to go to a museum to see an object, although I think everyone who loves art objects would argue that seeing something in person is always totally different. There’s something very special about standing in front of a work of art and doing some close looking, and thinking about the way things are made and the moment that they were made. 

The other thing that happens in museums is that you see objects in proximity to one another and you can begin to forge some connections. I think people start to unpack what they’re seeing or notice things that are different. It’s also important to have wall texts that aren’t overly didactic but prompt you with a way in. 

What was the first piece of art that made an impression on you? 

Growing up I had a poster in my room of a Mary Cassatt painting from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston of a little girl sort of smushed into a chair. I remember loving that painting because the little girl wasn’t all prim and proper. That’s where I got hooked.

How did Welcome Blanket come together?

Jayna Zweiman reached out to me because she knew about my interest in social and political art practice. Normally projects like this would take at least a year for a museum to pull off. But I am so grateful to this amazing staff, who took on this challenge and said, “Sure, we’ll figure out a way to hang 3,000 blankets in the gallery.” I thought that Welcome Blanket was a wonderful, tangible example of what it means to have a politically engaged museum. It felt like the perfect starting project. 

This story was originally published in the Fall/17 print edition as “Art for All.”