Photo by Seth Combs
Collective Magpie in the University Art Gallery in 2016
It’s just before the holidays and the University of California, San Diego campus is a flurry of movement, with students rolling suitcases, scurrying to their final classes and preparing for a three-week hiatus from their busy lives. Meanwhile, in the Old Student Center, The University Art Gallery (UAG) is quiet. A few students pop in and out, but for the most part the gallery goes unnoticed. Despite its quiet and seemingly benign presence on campus, the UAG was almost permanently shut down last spring, and there remains a behind-the-scenes struggle to keep it open.
2016 was the 50th year anniversary of the UAG, and a year of exhibitions were planned to celebrate this fact. However, the gallery may not exist after the Fall of 2018 if not sooner.
Jack Greenstein, the Visual Arts Department Chair and planner of the 50th anniversary exhibition, says Professor Emeritus David Antin was a “phenomenal” director for the UAG in its early stages. Greenstein noted that previous directors worked closely with the department and produced many notable artists such as Philip Pearlstein, Niki de Saint Phalle and Luis Gispert. Greenstein attributes Antin with fostering the national recognition of the Visual Arts program at UCSD, and says that “having a gallery in relation to a vibrant program is really important.” This was something that Antin promoted, he says.
However, Greenstein believes that the UAG suffered in the mid-2000s because of a lack of continuity. With directors who stayed for only a year at a time, the gallery’s status fluctuated from year to year. Over time, the gallery has lost funding from the University. Greenstein stated that this was particularly difficult for the gallery because “on the one hand you have to raise money, but on the other hand you don’t have the agency to do so.” Greenstein points out that raising money isn’t the same skill as being a good curator, so often the UAG director lacks the skills needed to raise a substantial amount of operational funds.
Greenstein explains that things only worsened in 2008 with the recession. The director was laid off and the position of running the UAG became supplemental to working as a professor. And in the spring of 2015, the final full-time employee of the UAG was laid off.
Then, last spring, it was decided that the UAG would be closed and would eventually be repurposed for classrooms. The decision was revealed on May 13, 2016, just days before a graduate student show was scheduled for the gallery. The group show was suddenly moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown, with little information given to the students. Graduate student artists Collective Magpie were particularly upset by this news. The duo of MR Barnadas and Tae Hwang, who create “site-specific and audience-specific” works, began to explore the root of the problem.
“When we found out the show had moved to MCASD we were kind of alarmed, and when we found out the gallery was closing, we were even more concerned,” Barnadas says. Collective Magpie realized that the university at large was not aware of the closure of the gallery. By speaking to the department, Magpie was granted access to the gallery to host an exhibition. With this freedom, Magpie spray-painted a large, red “X” on the front of the gallery doors and began to call for prayer and protest at the UAG on social media. In the 15 days that followed, Collective Magpie served as what they called “custodians” of the gallery and called for “art as activism” inside the gallery.
Photo by Seth Combs
Art created for the Collective Magpie show at UAG in 2016
Approximately an hour before the last day of activism, the vice chancellor put out an all-campus email blast stating that the gallery would not close. Barnadas points out the email “doesn’t speak to how it is going to be preserved, or that there’s funding attached to it.”
Multiple interview requests made to UCSD’s Dean of Arts & Humanities, Cristina Della Coletta, were not returned.
While Collective Magpie’s action took the UAG off the chopping block, there has been no budget allocation to the gallery since.
Simply put, the cost to sustain such a gallery exceeds the budget. Greenstein reiterates that “it was very clear the burden of running the gallery without the resources is totally unrealistic” and “that is the official position of the administration.” What’s more, Greenstein says he is “not optimistic” about the future of the gallery. He says that in order for a gallery to be successful, it must plan two years in advance and nothing is planned for Fall 2018.
Greenstein has brainstormed ways to save the gallery. His initial ideas include crowd funding through a Kickstarter page, buying and selling UAG merchandise and other social media outcries to the public. However, in order for the UAG to continue permanently, there would need to be a constant stream of money going into the gallery’s fund. Otherwise, the gallery would face a similar budget issue down the road. For that reason, Greenstein thinks crowd funding is ultimately not the solution to the financial problem.
Greenstein mentions that the likely only solution would be a more permanent allocation of funds to the gallery. One suggestion he had was for students to pass a fee increase. If students were to raise fees, the UAG would have a permanent stream of funds to stay running. Greenstein draws the comparison to UCSD’s recent decision to create Division 1 sports teams, hoping that something similar could happen for the UAG.
“Because the faculty is voting on the Division 1 issue soon, I just got in my head that maybe the way to go is fees,” Greenstein says. “Although it is still hard to see students getting the enthusiasm for a gallery that they have for a basketball team.”
Collective Magpie thinks it is a travesty for the university to lose the gallery.
“It is actually shocking news that a UC would shut down its university art gallery,” Barnadas says.
Hwang adds, “We would be the only school without one in the UC system.”
Photo by Duncan Moore
The University Art Gallery