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Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 12.24.2009

 

Challenges and Changes

Jill Hartz on the past, present and future of the J-Schnitz

by Suzi Steffen

Budget cuts, understaffing, a 75th anniversary — and the most successful opening in the museum’s history, replete with caped crusaders and surreptitious cell photos.

A female three-toed sloth carrying a baby beneath herself crosses a playa to reach the Asunta River in Bolivia, from the “Amazonia” exhibition. Sam Abell.

Jill Hartz. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Jill Hartz, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s director, may be only a year and four months into her tenure, but her time at the UO has been filled with a mixture of cooperation and blocked paths. As staff prepare for a show she brought with her from Virginia — a show sure to resonate with the environmentalism of many UO students, staff and faculty — Hartz stays busy setting a course, or several, for the museum.

Good news first. Obviously, there’s “The Art of the Superhero,” which occasioned a huge line at its opening and brought in thousands of visitors, many of whom wouldn’t usually go to a museum. That exhibit, which closes Jan. 3 (get in there now!), came about directly because of an English professor and his desire to collaborate with the J-Schnitz. 

Hartz has been pleasantly surprised, she says, to find people in Eugene “really open to new ideas, anything that might work.” Like many arts institutions that spend a considerable amount of time fundraising for a building campaign, the museum didn’t have a clear strategy after the three-year renovation process, and several directors and interim directors have come and gone. Hartz seems to be here to stay, at least for a while. “Having a plan has been really warmly welcomed,” she says.

But she was also surprised by the lack of collaboration across campus in the arts. Hartz wants arts festivals, perhaps organized by themes and reaching across the visual arts, theater, dance, music and more. In the ’60s, she says, arts departments at the UO collaborated on a regular basis. Then budget cuts (long before Measure 5, if you can believe it) moved departments and institutions like the J-Schnitz away from each other and even into competition at times.

After Hartz arrived, she and the Oregon Bach Festival’s then-new executive director, John Evans, started to meet to talk about collaboration. They and others restarted a UO Arts Council, and Hartz says she’s eager to collaborate with others in the visual arts in the city as well. “I’m happy to support the idea of arts tourism,” she says, especially “if we’re going to be a city known for the arts.”

In this city, too, Hartz knows that the museum needs to take the lead on diversifying outreach and programming. Though she says the primary constituency of the JSMA remains the students at the UO (“It’s a teaching museum,” she repeats), she knows that K-12 students need access to the collections as well. Public school budgets strained under the burden of years of neglect can’t always stretch to cover transportation to the UO, however, so the J-Schnitz began a modest campaign this year called “Fill Up the Bus.” Hartz says that 95 percent of all schools that heard about the transportation help took the J-Schnitz up on it, double what the program expected. “We didn’t realize how big the need was,” Hartz says. “We’ve had huge visitation numbers this fall, but there’s also great need.”

 For last fall’s “Cuba Avant-Garde” exhibit, the museum produced all materials, from catalog to wall labels to brochures, in both English and Spanish. But a Latin American show shouldn’t be the only place for bilingual publications. “Looking at statistics, the Latino population is going to be about 20 percent in Oregon,” Hartz says. “Many of the first-generation students will have families from Mexico. What does that mean for the community and the university?”

She wants the J-Schnitz to “create a dialogue” both with the Latino and the Asian and Asian-American populations of Eugene and the UO, and partly to that end, she’s created a leadership council and some student advisory groups. “We have a strong Asian collection, and we’re building a strong Latin American collection,” she says. “There’s an opportunity for enrichment at all levels, not just students.” 

With Oregon in financial crisis for much of the recent past and the severe recession, all of Hartz’ goals for the collection and the physical space of the museum sometimes seem like a dream. Cuts in staffing mean that filling the galleries, including the 4,000-sq.ft. exhibit space, requires the staff “to do more work and more varieties of work,” she says. Like former UO president Dave Frohnmayer, Hartz says it’s time to turn even more to private donors. “Fundraising is building friends, building support because we believe in what we do,” she says.

In the immediate future, 2010 brings several new exhibits to the J-Schnitz. One, opening Jan. 17, is “Amazonia,” which came with Hartz from her former position at the University of Virginia’s art musuem. Photographer Sam Abell planned to go to the headwaters of the Amazon as a documentarian, and when Danish photographer Torben Ulrik Nissen met Abell, they decided to work together on the project to document ecosystems in Peru and Bolivia. From an ecological point of view, “it’s amazing,” Hartz says, but she’s also interested in the photographic choices of the artists in a place where “there aren’t huge herds of animals.” That means the artists show single animals, insects and flora “as part of a much larger system of life,” she says. 

Later in the year, contemporary fans will be glad to hear, the museum hosts both a Nam June Paik exhibit and an exhibit of portraits by Andy Warhol and Gus Van Sant. In the Charlottesville, Va., weekly paper The Hook, a 2008 article on her job at the J-Schnitz said that, “Under Jill’s direction, the [UVA] museum became a place that actively encouraged people to view art as a means for exploring crucial social issues” — something she’s clearly eager to explore with the Warhol/Van Sant exhibition as she plans collaborations with LGBT groups on campus and in town.

The J-Schnitz, like most other arts institutions, has to adapt to the 21st century and social media. “We need to get away from the old system, the ‘We know how to do this best and we’ll tell you,’” Hartz says. Staff members have started a Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/JschnitzMoA) and, much more alive right now, a Facebook fan page (http://wkly.ws/28). They’re planning to use YouTube and other streaming video services as well. With cell phones, of course, visitors can take photos and write their own narratives on their blogs — even when the museum doesn’t have permission for those images. “Something is going to change,” Hartz says. “We have to follow UO protocol … but access to images is impossible to stop.”

Finally, she says, “We’re still a work in progress.” As that work continues, Hartz seems to want participation and feedback from the UO and the community. Visit the J-Schnitz and then send feedback to us and we’ll send it on; comment on this story at blogs.eugeneweekly.com or email Hartz at hartz@uoregon.edu with your thoughts.

“Amazonia” opens Jan. 17 and runs through May 2. The free opening reception runs 6-9 pm Saturday, Jan. 16, at the J-Schnitz on the UO campus. jsma.uoregon.edu or (541) 346-3027 for more info.