When I moved to Chicago after graduating from college I thought my art history degree would lead me into a stable job. I soon learned that work and career paths in the arts are unpredictable and changeable, often affected by how art and the arts might intersect with other ideas beyond the arts and pertaining to social needs.
Like most young college graduates, I looked for role models, or people to model my career after and I came across Allison Glenn. In the windy city I often heard her name and of her work, as a former director at a Chicago based art gallery and graduate of School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but what really drew me to Glenn was the vast experience she had in different sectors of the art world and her goal to, in all of her positions, create not only access but to disseminate inclusive art histories. Art histories that both mirror and inspires us all.
In 2011 Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened its doors to the public. Situated in Bentonville Arkansas it is twice the size of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the brainchild of Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, with a mission to celebrate the American spirit through art and nature. When Glenn was appointed Associate Curator of Art in 2018 I rejoiced, feeling secure that she would help shape the history of American Art at the young institution.
Earlier this month I sat down with Glenn to speak about her work at Crystal Bridges, her time in Chicago, and her plans for the future.
Caira Moreira-Brown: At Crystal Bridges, you have focused on public sculptural projects. How does your curatorial work create bridges between the public and the private sector of the art world?
Allison Glenn: Crystal Bridges is a nonprofit, public art museum that exists—like many nonprofit art museums—for the public interest. During my time at the museum, I have had the opportunity to oversee and develop the outdoor sculpture program. This includes exhibitions, acquisitions, and solo artist projects. I have invited an internationally-recognized American artist to create a work specifically for our North Forest in 2020 and curated a major touring outdoor sculpture exhibition that opened in summer 2019. The connections that I make in my role tend to extend to the collection of objects both within the museum and outside in our 120-acre forest.
How do you integrate your urban studies background and personal background to create conversations involving diverse communities from the artists to the patron?
What a huge question! I am not sure that I do this, but can say that I have found myself at the intersection of contemporary art and cities or publics at multiple times in my career. I worked with Theaster Gates in 2014 to open the Arts Incubator, which is a collaboration between his studio practice and the University of Chicago that was located in the Washington Park neighborhood adjacent to the University. Theaster sought to create connections to the community and the university through the arts. Another example is my time with Prospect New Orleans, an international art triennial that was started post-Katrina as a way to bring tourism to the city through arts and culture programming. While the mission of the organization has shifted over time, the beginnings were rooted in the city of New Orleans. And, finally, Crystal Bridges that has had a major impact on the NW Arkansas region. It’s all connected to me!
During your time in Chicago, how did the influences of segregation in the city play into your curatorial process?
Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country—due in most part to redlining practices created and enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s impossible to avoid noticing the drastic and lasting demographic shifts that occur depending on the train line you are riding to a neighborhood.
In 2016, I curated a billboard exhibition that sought to explore different parts of the city, including areas that were usually not considered places that contemporary art lives. Through the use of billboards, sculpture, performance, and sound, I coupled artists with the materiality of the built environment; asking them to think about the landscape of Chicago, the brevity of space and opportunities for engagement with the less traversed areas of the city.
Previous: Allison Glenn. Above: Cheryl Pope, I PLAY LIKE NO ONE IS AROUND from I’VE BEEN HEARD, in collaboration with NYC Youth on Streetball, 2017, nylon and tackle twill applique, rod sleeve on back, 60 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.
How does being a woman of color influence your work, especially your role as Associate Curator at Crystal Bridges?
I am one person in this world, and I can only speak to my unique journey through life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to make an impact. From a young age, I knew that I wanted people to know who I am.
I dreamt of the career that I have, which doesn’t mean that I did not work hard for it. On the contrary, it’s likely that I’ve worked harder simply because of my passion and drive. I’m not alone in this–many people in creative fields find that inexplainable drive deep within themselves.
Agreed, the art world is largely driven by passion. What art historians have inspired your thinking?
Kellie Jones, Kimberly Pinder, Delinda Collier, Deborah Willis, Huey Copeland, Fred Moten, Janet Dees, and Darby English.
As a curator, do you have a constant motivation and if so what is it?
I love researching artists, practices, and ideas. I am endlessly fascinated with history—it was one of my favorite subjects as a kid—and I really enjoy understanding why people think the way that they think, and how their personal experiences drive their life decisions.
This artist-centric approach is very important. What led you to the art world?
I started on my path through photography which led me to art history and curatorial practice—so, it’s only natural that I couple that with my fascination with, people, history, and ideas.
Awol Erizku, Herbie Hancock, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery.
Which contemporary artists do you find particularly interesting right now?
There are so many contemporary artists that I am interested in, that it’s difficult to pick just a handful. Artists that I have or am currently working with include Joanna Keane Lopez, George Sanchez-Calderon, Genevieve Gaignard, Hank Willis Thomas, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Scott Hocking, and the architect Marshall Brown.
I am fascinated by Livia Corona Benjamin’s work that is focused on grain silos built throughout rural Mexico from 1965 to 1999 that were abandoned after the NAFTA agreement, Postcommodity’s “With Each Incentive” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Firelei Baez’s new collage works and sculptural exploration of “Sans-Souci” on the High Line, and Tavares Strachan’s “Invisibles” exhibition at Regen Projects in 2018.
What, if anything, do you feel is missing from the collection of the Crystal Bridges and why?
We are such a young museum—just 8 years old—and we have roughly 3500 objects in our permanent collection. As we grow as an institution, our collection should and will grow around it. One way that I actively support this growth is to include a selection of loans in the collection’s focus exhibitions that I curate, to provide opportunities to create conversations among artworks in our collection and artworks on loan. A great example is “Small Talk,” a group exhibition that begins in the mid-twentieth century explores this increase of images and text circulating in magazines, on billboards, and on the internet, and how it has influenced artists to investigate the power and impact of language in our everyday lives. This exhibition includes a recent acquisition of Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President” alongside loans from Pope.L’s “Skin Set” drawings and a wall painting by Kay Rosen, under the theme of “word play,” a literary technique where text and words are used to question or confuse the meaning of language. By arranging these objects together, a broader conversation emerges that allows for synergies, and hopefully encourages a conversation around what and how these different viewpoints can enhance our understanding of the world.
If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, or recent graduates pursuing an art career, bluntly what would it be?
Ask questions, explore ideas, make sure to prioritize travel as it expands your knowledge, don’t be afraid, listen to and respect the people who have come before you, and the work that they have done—but do not be afraid to expand the purview, watch out for student loan debt, prioritize self-care, and always ask for what you need.
Very good advice. You are a true role model. As 2019 comes to a close what is up next for you?
I am working on a research project that aims to map connections between the United States and the larger Americas, through a framework of landscapes and desire—pushing the boundaries of what we consider “American art.”