Madeline Gent Dives in to Art Gallery Assistantship

Madeline GentMadeline Gent is a Ph.D. candidate studying Chinese art. She specifically focuses on art and graphic design created in Shanghai in the 1930s. For the past year, Madeline has been working as a graduate assistant in the University of Maryland Art Gallery. This academic year, she will conclude her two-year appointment curating an exhibition that will open in the spring. The conversation, which was taped in late March 2015, has been paraphrased, with direct quotes clearly marked.

Madeline, it is good to see you. How are you enjoying the University of Maryland Art Gallery?
It’s great. With John’s [John Shipman, former Director] departure to serve as Director of the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, I have a great deal more responsibility in the Gallery, but also more opportunity. I have been much more involved in shows, their installation, programming, and especially outreach.

What do you hope to achieve while a Graduate Assistant  here at the University of Maryland Art Gallery?
One of my biggest goals is to foster more interest in the collection among grads and undergrads and to facilitate their use of the Gallery collection, which normally is not on view. However, with the Herman Maril Teaching Gallery, and its display cases, students can curate installations drawn from the collection. I am really proud and excited that last fall (2014) we had over two-hundred visitors to the Herman Maril Gallery, a number I hope will grow in the semesters to come. Another related goal of mine is to work with undergraduates to develop opportunities to curate spaces. At present, I am working with some of the art history undergraduates on rehanging the space in the Collaboratory and the lounge just outside. They are making selections now, and while I would love to see the works installed this spring,  to coincide, for example, with the Undergraduate Symposium, the reality is that we probably will have to complete the project in the summer. One of the things I am really excited about is the new internship program we have established here at the Gallery. We had over fifteen applicants for this position in the fall [2014], and they were great. In the end, I chose Sibia Sarangan, who, among other things, is organizing a small exhibition in Herman Maril for the spring [2015], drawing on a new collectionfrom the G. Lewis Schmidt and Kyoko Edayoshi Schmidt Art Collection, which is a gift that relates to the research specialties of  Professors Alicia Volk and Yui Suzuki. Finally, the 3-D imaging project of The Art Gallery’s extensive African sculpture collection, on which I am working with Nicole Riesenberger and Ali Singer, Graduate Assistants in the Collaboratory, is going well, and I am very excited about its possibilities. This project has brought greater attention to the Gallery from University officials and donors.Madeline Gent working on exhibition installation in Art Gallery

While you are passionate about access to the collection and developing avenues for members of the University community to work with objects in the collection, you also have this amazing opportunity to curate a show. How is that going? What can we expect?
It’s going well. The show that I am organizing for the spring, Manhua + Manga, is one that I hope brings more people into the Gallery due to its combination of unusual subject and collection of objects. The show will focus on cartoons created in Japan and China in the 1930s, especially those works selected for the cover of publications. Works like these tend to come from collections to which or about which people may have limited access or familiarity, such as the Prange Collection here at Hornbake Library, which has incomparable holdings of postwar printed materials from Japan. Ohio State University has a large comics collection, especially manga, from which I hope to select many works. As well, by utilizing their collection, I’ll be taking full advantage of the benefits of belonging to the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation).

What additional programming around the show are you hoping to realize?
I’ll be organizing a conference or symposium on the tradition of cartoons and cultural differences from around the world, not just in China and Japan, which is the focus of the show. I am busy now lining up panelists.

Are you working closely with  Professors Kuo and Volk on this show?
I’ve been working more with Dr. Kuo, as he is my advisor, and 1930s Shanghai is the subject of my own scholarly focus. Interestingly, this period in Shanghai’s artistic development is starting to receive a lot of attention, especially in academic research and scholarly inquiry. This has much to do with the fact, I think, that China really is starting to emerge as a premier place for art museums. For instance, they recently opened  nearly 200 museums in one year. Also, Zhejiang University recently hired a distinguished art historian from Princeton to establish, essentially, a world-class center for the study of art history. So there are a lot of opportunities there.

Do you have many contacts in China?
Yes and no. Through work at the Freer and Sackler when I had a University of Maryland Museum Fellowship, I met many scholars from the Shanghai museum, but they tended to be out of my field, particularly focused on the calligraphy of the Yuan dynasties. It was exciting to work on translations of one scholar’s notes, and while it was tough because of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century terms with which I was not familiar, it was rewarding because of how much this work forced me to learn and to expand my vocabulary.

Can you talk about your experience organizing to save the Art Library?
“It was incredibly eye-opening.” Nicole (Riesenberger) and I were quite active in organizing the graduate students in both our department and the Department of Art, and thisSibia Sarangan leads visitors through her show in Herman Maril Gallery experience proved an exhilarating exercise in team building. As part of a team, which was led by Professor Gill, I met frequently with the Library administration. In those sessions we heard their presentations of data on the use of the Art Library collection, the state of the physical space of the Library, and their plans for reorganizing the storage of books over in McKeldin Library. We were able to counter some of their perceptions and present a winning argument for why preserving the Art Library is imperative.  

In some ways were you sympathetic to their views?
No. While I am very happy with the transparency that we received from the Library administration, I fundamentally disagreed with their recommendations for the future of the collection. In my many conversations with fellow graduate students, undergraduates, and faculty, both from our Department and those of the Department of Art, I became utterly convinced that preserving the Art Library as it is would serve the most needs. This is our library, it’s where we go.. It was so wonderful how everyone came together to demonstrate effectively and clearly that scholarship and research matter, and that the Art Library is a necessary and vital part of making those happen.

Tying back to work in the University of Maryland Art Gallery and access, has that commitment to access been informed by your experience with the Art Library?
Definitely. Here’s an example. The success of the internship program in attracting so many highly qualified applicants suggests, one, the excellence and quality of our undergraduates and, two, reveals “their hunger for meaningful academic experiences.”  While there are a lot of opportunities in D.C., I feel that an internship in this Gallery is particularly meaningful.Pages from Modern Sketch As we structure the internship, the student learns crucial skills. Sibia (Sarangan) has learned art handling, working with the collection management systems, and she is now curating her own show. She looks at her experience in this space as beneficial for any job, not just for one in the arts field, because it demonstrates the qualities (highly organized, excellent writing skills, creative vision) that make her a more valuable candidate for any job she might pursue.

So, what about you and your work?
I am writing my dissertation now, which focuses on the artwork produced for the journal Modern Sketch, which was produced in Shanghai in the 1930s.I am exploring the relationship between cover and content, cover and distribution, cover and sales. Artists continually returned to the journal with submissions, but there are lengthy periods when they did not contribute. I am quite interested in exploring the context for those artistic absences. As well, Punch, Puck, and Life were very popular in China and exerted strong influences on the artists in their cover art. Of course, there also was a strong Japanese exchange of ideas with China at this time, the extent of which the exhibition will explore. The scope of my dissertation is interesting because this journal is one of the more political at the time in China, so the veneer of humor present in so much of the artwork was necessary to both protect, and to reveal, the underlying ideas, some of which were pretty radical.

Five years from now, what do you see yourself doing?
Either teaching or museum work.  I have “made the most of my time here at Maryland, and I have tapped into a variety of personal teaching experiences,” always with an eye to expanding my potential for employment. In addition to teaching or curating, working in a place like ArtSpace interests me because of the way that is combines arts journalism with curating and art commerce.