This past weekend I got the the opportunity to contact Mary Salvante, the curator of the Rowan University Art Gallery. I was able to ask her about the local art scene and her own experience as she has been working in the art scene for the last 20 years.
Q: Can you tell me about yourself and your background in art?
A: I am originally from New York and grew up in Long Island. I went to an art school in New York City called School of Visual Arts and was a practicing artist in New York for a number of years. Around 1999, my husband and I moved to Philadelphia. Before that, after college I was working in the city for an art consulting firm. It was a very interesting place, we found art for corporate offices, so we worked with a lot of big companies. We also did a lot of public art projects, working with organizations that wanted to place public art in public spaces. I did that for about 12 years and then in 1999 moved to Philadelphia. Instead of starting a job right away, I decided to go to graduate school at Drexel University in their Arts Administration program. While I was doing that, I decided to start doing a lot of freelance work, a lot of independent curating work, and started a few programs in Philly. One was an Environmental Art program and an Environmental Arts Center. That’s still going, 17 years later. And I started an event called “Art in the Open,” which happens every two years. Along the riverfront, artists come and make art along the pathways through Fairmount Park. Another program I helped expand is Philadelphia Open Studio Tours and worked with a group of people to make that a city-wide event, which is going to be celebrating it’s 20th year. 10 years ago, I got this job, so I’ve been here that long.
Q: So you’ve been working with Rowan University Art Gallery for the past 10 years?
A: Yeah, originally in Westby Hall, there’s an exhibition space that’s over there that’s been closed because we’re redoing the Sister Chapel installation. That gallery over there is where we did all the contemporary art shows and we only showed professional artists. But then when they renovated this building and turned it into a gallery, we moved over here for the contemporary art shows. Now we’re using Westby Hall gallery for our permanent collection. All of the paintings in the Sister Chapel installation are paintings that we own. Now we’re just about to open that space with a re-branding and we’re calling it The Center for Art and Social Engagement. And by doing that, we hope to be working with other units on campus and other academic areas to do interdisciplinary types of programming there.
Q: As the curator of the Rowan University Art Gallery, do you choose who gets to exhibit their work?
A: Yeah. So usually how it works is Jillian, the Assistant Director, and I will talk about the kind of artists that we’re interested in and whose work we’ve seen elsewhere. We’ll come up with a list of artists that we think have similar themes that we’re exploring because what I’ve done for a long time is try to build a season from September to June where we try to have each exhibition somewhat around a similar theme so that visitors could realize all the different diverse ways an artist could approach a single theme. Therefore, have a greater understanding in the different ways an artist can respond to a theme, whether through materials or content. So we’ll build this list and I’ll start to contact them and see if they’re available or if they have work available that they’d like to show here. It takes about a year to put an exhibition together. Once we find an artist that’s available, I’ll start working with them with what actual pieces we want to show.
Q: Are the artists locals from South Jersey or students/graduates from Rowan University?
A: The artists are professional artists from all over. Sometimes they’re from Philadelphia, and sometimes they’re from New York. The artist we have right now is from Jamaica. So we try to bring artists not just from the local area but regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Q: Are there any other galleries in the South Jersey area that speak up on important topics and diverse issues?
A: I think that there are places that will do that. There are a number of places that are more committed to show local artists. The gallery in Pitman for example focuses more on local artists. There’s other schools in the area also have smaller galleries. I think you’d find this kind of content-driven work that we show more common in colleges or universities because it’s an institution of learning. In many ways they’re motivated by the ideas of exposing students to new ideas and issues that happen globally.
Q: With all the narratives being told through exhibitions, do you think art is the best way to express and tell an issue rather than other forms of narratives?
A: That’s an interesting question, I’d like to think so. Because the artist is exploring an idea through imagery, the viewer can approach the idea in their own terms and they can spend as much time with it as they want. Through visual art, it’s not about sharing information, but rather setting up a situation where the viewer can realize something on their own. Hopefully, the viewer can discover an issue through the art. It’s a discipline that isn’t dictating how to experience the information.
Q: Personally, what do you think is the best medium to showcase art in?
A: It depends on what the artist is attempting to communicate what their intentions are. I don’t think there’s a best or one way solution, which is what we try to showcase in the gallery. There’s lots of different ways artists are working to communicate certain ideas. It tells the story in an alternative way, where the viewer can be attracted or not.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: New York has gotten really difficult, not just for artists but for young people in general, it’s very expensive. And over the last few years I hear about artists moving from New York to Philadelphia because it’s more affordable. But there’s been other difficulties because there’s not the same kind of gallery scene here. But then on the other hand, what opportunities there are in Philadelphia is the number of artist communities there are. For artists, it’s a challenge to do what you love and survive.