Welcome to My Library Story, a recurring feature in the Library Update newsletter. In each installment, we're reaching out to individuals across campus to tell us about their experiences with libraries. This winter, we're joined by Corinna Ripps Schaming, Director and Chief Curator for the University Art Museum. 

Welcome, Corinna! I wanted to start our conversation by examining how libraries and museums kind of exist in a shared cultural space, especially in higher education, but I think also in the general public. What do you see as the relationship between museums and libraries?

I have to say that libraries and museums are my favorite places in the world. I was reflecting on this before coming in today, and libraries really were the first love that led me into my interest in art and museums.

Corinna Ripps Schaming

The thing that is so important about both libraries and museums is that they are these cultural depositories; they're the places where really all human achievement can be contained and shared. Think about the kinds of things that both libraries and museums hold within their walls, they’re the most important things we have. 

As far as the relationship goes, I think that you know not all museums are free, so that puts up a certain boundary. I feel very fortunate to work in a public university where our museum is free, so that access is a given. Not all museums have that level of accessibility, though, so I think that that the perception of museums being somehow not for everyone is different than the perception one may have of a library. But I think that they both are the most central elements to our society.

You mentioned that libraries started your journey and your interest in art. How did that story unfold?

I think I spent a good portion of my childhood in libraries. I just loved them. I remember them in elementary school, and I remember working as volunteer. I remember the days of card catalogs and shelving books. I feel very fortunate to have had that kind of tactile experience of being around books.

Books were part of my experience growing up. Just having access to them and going to the library to look at them, I think that really got me thinking about art beyond just drawing and painting. And that’s where I began my career! I have an MFA  in studio art. But I think from early on, that relationship between the text and the image that one has in an art book, that cued me in that there was so much more to how one can think about art in the larger context. So that led to my career thinking about making art, but then it expanded to thinking about ways to present art, and then the most important thing is to provide context for art. All of that really came out of my experience with books.

Was that a gradual understanding or did you have a light-bulb moment with a specific book?

That’s such a good question. I think it was more gradual. I don't have a specific art book in mind. I just love to read!

I will mention, when I was reading the other people who have done this, I noticed that Provost Kim’s favorite book as a child was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and we share that, the Provost and I, because that was, among others, one of my favorites. The whole story of these two kids running away to the Metropolitan Museum and the adventures that ensued, that as kind of a visual, is another inspiration that led me to think of museums as these amazing spaces.

"Art is many things, and a museum in an academic community has a responsibility to be able to make those links and to fulfill those collaborations. What better partner is there to do that with than libraries?"

The Art Museum and the University Libraries, we’ve partnered on a few occasions, such as The Art and Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, Libros/Arte, and others. How have these partnerships been successful?

I think they are successful on so many different levels. Making exhibitions always starts with good materials, and having the ability to collaborate with the Libraries and the vast resources Special Collections has, it lets us think about research in new ways. The way art creates new meaning, it comes out of the type of collaborations we did on Libros/Arte and the Edit-a-Thon. 

The Edit-a-Thon was great in not only bringing attention to artists that we had exhibited, but specifically to underrecognized women artists and to build on that research. Art is many things, and a museum in an academic community has a responsibility to be able to make those links and to fulfill those collaborations. What better partner is there to do that with than libraries? You can look at exhibitions within the museum context through multiple lenses and multiple points of entry with the resources we have on campus. And then hopefully that will generate research beyond that.

So an exhibition may come down, but the intellectual work and discussion behind it is still being pursued?

Absolutely! I keep going back to books and art and this realization of how important the two of them in tandem are. In the same way an exhibition has limited shelf life, it also is accompanied by scholarly and interpretive texts, and often a more substantive catalog. That is, in a way, creating a history for that exhibition. Many artists still want the catalog, for all those reasons, but especially because it creates a lasting, evergreen tribute to the exhibition. 

The University recently announced a combined program in Art History and Information Science. Would you agree that a curator requires some of the same skills a librarian has?

I think so, of course. I can speak to my role as a curator and think about how one approaches research, about how one creates an archive—both very important for museums and libraries. How does one approach that? To be able to have a combined program that looks at it from both vantage points is just central and becomes so valuable to curators. I think it’s also about gathering information, and that commitment librarians have to make their resources and knowledge public, that is ultimately what a curator does as well. 

"I think it’s also important—extremely important—to make the point that within an academic context, the discipline of art generates new research. These are all things an academic museum works to put forward as well. It gives a great deal of pleasure and meaning to peoples’ lives, but that it is also a place where ideas are generated."

The Harvard Library Lab recently published an article exploring the role of the modern academic library. One of the themes they touched on was libraries as the curators of cultural knowledge. That’s a question we like to explore in the Library Update newsletter. But how about museums? Are the functions of an art museum in the 21st century different than in the past?

Oh, so different. So, so different. The University Art Museum is a contemporary art museum, and it’s been since its inception in 1967. What that means is you’re always responsive to the culture that surrounds you. 

Some of the things we think of in the museum world are issues of accessibility and how to create a space that is welcoming to everyone. How do you do that through programming? How do you engage people in the physical space? Gone are the days of white walls and very contained art that just sits politely with the expectation that you receive this and learn from this, that the curatorial voice is the final world. And that is not at all how we do exhibition making here. A really successful exhibition, in the end, poses more questions than answers. 

Within an academic context, museums are a hub for new ideas and ways of thinking in a different way than in a classroom. We have classes that take place in a museum! That’s very different than when I began my career. We are always in a position to question old models. Think about the importance of what people previously collected, the holes in terms of representation. How do we look at the narrative of art history or contemporary art and find a more inclusive way to think about artists who maybe aren’t in the canon, or who don’t always make the top tier? How do you open up that world and conversation?

Also, I think the rising admission costs for museums is becoming increasingly prohibitive to break down those barriers. I keep coming back to the fact that we’re open to anyone and we’re free. That’s very important to us.

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Panel discussion during Libros/Arte

Corinna Ripps Schaming (third from left) participates in a Libros/Arte panel discussion. 

Especially from a perspective of making art part of a fulfilling life for everyone.

Absolutely. That’s the thing art can do, it can certainly add to everyone’s life in that way. I think it’s also important—extremely important—to make the point that within an academic context, the discipline of art generates new research. These are all things an academic museum works to put forward as well. It gives a great deal of pleasure and meaning to peoples’ lives, but that it is also a place where ideas are generated. Every time we do an artist commission, we bring an artist to create new work, we feel that very much aligns with this idea of being part of a research library. Those new commissions are generating new research in the field. 

I’m excited because you’re the first My Library Story profile who is a UAlbany alumnus. How did you like to use the University Libraries as a student?

That I am! I spent so much time in this building as a student. In fact, this morning I went upstairs to my favorite place in the library, just to kind of anticipate this question. My favorite place is on the second floor, where the very large art monographs are. I would study here, but as a Studio Art and History major, most of my time was spent with these incredible books that would cost hundreds of dollars, but they were here! That tactile experience you don’t get any other way. I remember coming to the library, wanting to learn about a particular artist we might have been studying in class or whom I was interested in. Just to be able to walk over and know that this art section—which is super great and so up to date—would always be here, and I could see them and I could take them out and I could study them. That was one of my main connections to the library. I mean, I did all the other things—I was a study-oriented person, but that component was so important to me. 

Thank you for the conversation, Corinna. I wish we could chat longer! Before you go, though, what do you have in store for the Art Museum this spring semester?

Well we will be continuing the Barrow Parke: Systems and Mythologies, and what’s very exciting about that is we will be launching our catalog that accompanies the exhibit in the spring semester. That is going to be a beautiful publication, fully illustrated with scholarly essays. Hopefully it will end up in our library!

Then I’m very excited about the exhibition we have on the second floor, Body Maps, which is past exhibiting artists in conversation with works from the University at Albany’s fine arts collection. We took some signature works from our collection – Robert Rauschenberg and Marisol particularly – and we thought about them in relationship to the physical body, and how the body becomes a medium often in an artist’s work, and how the artist interprets the physicality of artmaking through their body or represent larger social and cultural issues through the idea of mapping the body. We brought back a group of some of the artists who exhibited with us in the past, some very well recognized artists who were excited to participate, so familiar names but not familiar works. One of the artists we brought back was Kate Gilmore, who is a video and performance artist, and she made an amazing video—talk about new research—we filmed it in the museum in 2015 and it has traveled to exhibitions all over the world. We commissioned it and now we’re bringing it back. It opens the first day of the semester and will run through April 2nd. Then we close for a period of time every year to work closely with our graduate students for the MFA thesis exhibition. That will open on UAlbany Showcase Day. And that’s our spring!

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