The Handwerker Gallery brings art to life through hands-on courses, interdisciplinary salons, and, yes, thought-provoking exhibitions. By Sherrie Negrea
“Every time I enter a museum, I feel my heart skip a beat because I am going to experience real live works of art,” says Cheryl Kramer, assistant professor of art history and director of the Handwerker Gallery on campus.
Under Kramer’s leadership, the gallery has become not only a focal point of the College’s cultural life but also an integral part of its academic programs, offering students practical experience in operating a museum and opportunities to work with objects from its collections.
Take Cynthia Engle ’08, for example. An art history and anthropology major from Hilo, Hawaii, Engle didn’t expect to return to Hawaii after graduating and thought she would look for a museum job in New York City. All that changed in her senior year, when she enrolled in a seminar taught by Kramer. Along with a group of seven students, Engle helped research and design an exhibition of Inuit sculpture, on loan from the private collection of an Ithaca couple, Fred and Mary Bench Widding ’70, M.S. ’71, which was shown in the gallery last year.
Preparing the exhibition was a transformative experience for Engle, who later accepted a position as a library and archives technician at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “Going to the library and researching the Inuit, I realized that their culture was similar to my culture,” she explains. “We don’t use oil lamps, but I wondered what my culture had done in the past. I realized I didn’t even know what type of artwork would be classified as Hawaiian or Polynesian. I thought, ‘Here I am learning about somebody else, but I don’t even know anything about myself.’”
Besides teaching a full array of museum studies courses, Kramer has instituted two new programs at the gallery: the Tuesday Salon, monthly discussion groups on topics such as sustainability or political polling; and Thursdays at the Handwerker, weekly events such as readings by faculty and students, music performances, or screenings of student films. Since she was appointed director in 2003, attendance at the gallery has more than doubled to an average of 7,500 visitors annually.
“The Handwerker offers a very broad view of what art is,” says Stephen Clancy, chair of the art history department. “It’s not just looking at paintings within frames but an experience that taps into the larger cultural life, not only on campus but in Ithaca itself.”
Despite its small size, the gallery, with less than 2,500 square feet, has gained a national reputation among artists who show their work in museums on college campuses. While the gallery hosts between five and eight shows a year, it now receives as many as 60 proposals annually from artists hoping to exhibit their work.
“It’s a prestigious gallery to exhibit at,” says Dawn Hunter, a South Carolina artist whose paintings were displayed in Spectacle Spectacular: Cautionary Tales and Other Stories, the first show at the Handwerker for the current academic year. “People were impressed when I said I was going to exhibit there.”
The show by Hunter, who visited campus this fall, was also the first professional exhibition selected by student interns working at the gallery: Jade Ang ’10 and Marianne Dabir ’11. After sifting through dozens of proposals, both students chose Hunter, whose paintings focus on images of women in popular culture, as one of their top three artists.
“I thought it would be a great exhibition,” says Dabir, a journalism major with an art history minor from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. “It appealed to a lot of areas such as gender studies, anthropology, psychology, and all of the arts.”
Hunter’s talk at the gallery on a late September afternoon drew 25 students, a handful of faculty members, and College president Thomas R. Rochon. The next day, Hunter, who teaches at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, presented workshops for two introductory visual culture classes, where she guided the students in making collages with images cut from popular magazines.
One of the students at Hunter’s gallery talk was Tina Orlandini ’11, an art history major from Altacena, California, who found the exhibition to be one of the best she has seen on campus. “They bring in a lot of diverse shows,” says Orlandini, who hopes to run a gallery of her own someday. “It’s nice to have an art museum on campus and not have to leave to get exposed to artists and art.”
Named for its benefactors, Murray and the late Dorothy Handwerker, the gallery opened on the South Hill campus in 1977, replacing the Ithaca College Museum of Art, which had operated on Buffalo Street downtown for six years. The Handwerkers, whose family fortune was made from the fast-food restaurant chain Nathan’s Famous, were avid American art collectors from Long Island. Their two sons and daughter-in-law attended Ithaca College: Kenneth Handwerker ’72, William Handwerker ’76, and Amy Thalheim Handwerker ’77.
When Murray and Dorothy Handwerker decided they wanted to fund an art gallery at IC, the library was being restructured, freeing up space on the first floor of the Gannett Center for their project. “Their interest was to ensure that there was a place where professors and students could express themselves through exhibitions and seminars and learn from each other,” says William, whose father was a college trustee from 1977 to 1994. “That was important to them.”
In the 1980s, the gallery was enlarged, creating the formal space for exhibitions that remains today. Over the next two decades, the Handwerkers donated nearly 20 works of art to the gallery. Under previous gallery directors, a course on museology was established, but it was theory-based and did not focus on the practical skills necessary for working in a museum.
When Kramer arrived in 2003, she immediately began developing the gallery’s first mission statement and a set of formal policies and procedures. A former art gallery director at the University of Montevallo in Alabama with a research specialty in Russian and contemporary art, Kramer also expanded the range of course offerings, adding a class on museum practices and methods and the exhibition seminar.
“The gallery is here to enrich the Ithaca College campus, to be a pedagogical resource, and to provide faculty and students an outlet for their creative and intellectual work,” Kramer says. “I see it as a laboratory for experiential learning.”
The College originally approached the Widdings about developing an exhibition from their collection of American paintings, but Mary Widding believed that the Inuit art would engage students more since it is a relatively new area of art interest.
“This was a unique project for undergraduates to do,” says Mary, a former speech pathologist. “The students chose the images, wrote the catalog, led docent tours. That to us was the best thing that could happen to our art — providing the opportunity for students to acquire these skills hands-on via our collection.”
Impressed by both the process of putting the exhibition together and the show itself, the Widdings decided to make a separate donation that funded a part-time outreach coordinator at the gallery. “We wanted to recognize the absolutely excellent efforts and accomplishments of Cheryl Kramer and her students.”
For Engle, working on the Inuit exhibition was a deciding factor for getting a job at the Bishop Museum. The skills learned in the seminar also benefited another student who helped organized the exhibition, Amanda Brownbridge ’08, who was hired last year as an accreditation assistant for the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education in Washington, D.C. “One of the things art history is really good for is giving you transferable skills that you can use somewhere else,” Brownbridge says. “A lot of people think you just look at pictures all day, but it involves a lot of analysis and a lot of writing that you can show people.”
Besides the temporary exhibitions that form the basis of the gallery’s calendar, the Handwerker also has a permanent collection of paintings and artifacts that nearly doubled in size when 300 pre-Columbian, Peruvian, and Mesoamerican objects were donated last spring. Originally presented to the president of the Institute of Andean Research in New York City, the collection of jewelry, pots, and tools was then delivered to an archaeologist at Yale University when the institute’s president died two years ago. Because of the archaeologist’s friendship with Michael Malpass, an anthropology professor at Ithaca College, the prehistoric artifacts ended up on the doorstep of the Handwerker Gallery.
As a protocol, the gallery must obtain permission from the countries where the objects originated before adding them to the permanent collection. Once that permission is granted, Malpass says the artifacts will be used to illustrate objects in the College’s archaeology classes. “Rather than showing students a picture from the Internet, we will be able to show them actual objects, which is much better,” he says.
As the collection grows, Kramer and other faculty who work with the gallery are concerned that the facility is running out of storage space. There is not enough room at the gallery to showcase works from its permanent collection while a traveling exhibition is on display. And there are no classrooms connected to the gallery for teaching museum studies classes.
Leslie Lewis, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, says there are currently no plans for a new arts facility at IC. “We are definitely looking at and interested in all possibilities for the future that might include expanded facilities, but there’s a resource question here,” she says.
In the meantime, the Handwerker Gallery will continue to serve as a cultural hub on campus with its eclectic discussions, readings, and exhibitions. “We are unique in what we do,” Kramer points out. “There is no other place on campus that brings together all the arts like we do.”
Visit the Handwerker Gallery online at www.ithaca.edu/handwerker