By Paul Krainak
Kendra Paitz has worked at University Galleries at Illinois State University since 2003, beginning as curatorial intern, graduate assistant, curator, curator of exhibitions, senior curator, and as of 2018, director and chief curator. Colleagues have cited her dedication to new knowledge, the municipality, and the history of the gallery. Recognized for her passion for education, as well as a flexible and supportive leadership style, exhibitions recognize input and collaboration with faculty, students, and community members. She displays a steady commitment to social justice, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and community engagement – striving to provide resources and enabling discourse with multiple audiences. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, her staff has expanded their reach through online content, including project activities, exhibition video tours, and recorded conversations with artists. In 2014, the galleries moved to a custom-built storefront space with tall ceilings, expansive windows, and accessible parking, with the Amtrak station and bus depot on the same block. The impact of Kendra’s tenure is her ability to excel at the task of accommodating an institutional charge of community access while juggling a radical inventory of artists and projects intended to “stimulate empathy and present art as a force for change.”
PK: Given the wide range of exhibition formats and subjects, and the needs of your academic and regional constituency, what guides your selection process?
KP: The gallery model is a laboratory of expression for artists, students, and visitors and it has consistently yielded collaborations I’ve found exciting and meaningful. We were just recognized by the Center for Civic Engagement as being the ISU unit doing the most to critically engage the public. We concluded a partnership with Normal Community High School for a two-month research and art-making program connected to climate change-related issues in Alice Hargrave’s exhibition, The Canary in the Lake. Nearly 60 students were able to conduct their own research on a climate-related issue and translate that into both an artwork and text for exhibition. We organize professional development experiences for high school and university students, including curating exhibitions and interviewing artists. Shortly after being hired as the director and chief curator – after having served as the senior curator – I converted that position into a curator of education to emphasize our commitment to educational opportunities and community-building.
With all of that in mind – I gravitate toward work that is intellectually rigorous, incorporates degrees of interdisciplinarity, and serves as a platform for cultural inquiry. At the most basic level, I find a balance among the mediums and content we are exploring in any given year. Sometimes the exhibitions are organized in response to, or timed with, a specific event, or because I notice that our students are particularly interested in a topic or medium. Or because it is simply the right time with an artist. For example, I included poet/artist Jen Bervin in Strange Oscillations and Vibrations of Sympathy – a multi-generational group exhibition about women-identifying artists acknowledging or responding to women writers – and our visitors strongly responded to her monumental embroideries of Emily Dickinson’s “fascicles.” Jen and I stayed in touch, and I wrote an essay for her Des Moines Art Center exhibition, and it was a natural progression to work on a solo exhibition. Although her work had been exhibited widely, there had not yet been a survey to bring it together, so I wrote it into a Warhol Foundation grants as well as an NEA grant. As a result, we were able to bring all of her work together for the first time, including premiering Su Hui’s Picture of the Turning Sphere, a five-channel video and textile installation about a 4th-century Chinese poem. She and filmmaker Charlotte Lagarde, her wife, had been working on the project for four years (2016–2020).
PK: I understand that you’re working on some new book projects which I assume to be exhibition documents. Can you tell me about those?
KP: There are so many book projects happening right now, in part, because of delays due to all the planning and facilities management issues related to COVID. Aram Han Sifuentes’s monograph just went to the printer. Published in conjunction with her solo exhibition, We Are Never Never Other, the book extends beyond an accounting of the exhibition and includes archives of information for her Protest Banner Lending Library, Official Unofficial Voting Station, U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler, and A Mend – projects rooted in social justice, community, and textile-based practices. Bethany Collins’s monograph is about to go to the printer. Like Jen, Bethany and I first met for Strange Oscillations and Vibrations of Sympathy and later worked on a solo exhibition. Because the publication is happening quite a while after the exhibition, we were able to include brand-new works, including a black wallpaper installation that just premiered at the Frist Art Museum this summer. In addition to reproductions of 11 years-worth of her drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, and installations about the critical intersection of race and language, Bethany is also sharing archival images related to her research of early American patriotic hymns, post-Emancipation era ads for family members trying to reunite, and more.
For Alice Hargrave’s and Jen Bervin’s projects mentioned earlier, the artists and I are in design phases right now. Jen’s will be a comprehensive survey with a wide variety of texts about her interdisciplinary research on, among other topics, the history of silkworm cultivation, gendered editorial interventions into Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, and geocentric perspectives of the Mississippi River. Alice’s will be inspired by both a field guide and a cabinet of curiosities as we explore her work on climate change-related impacts to bird species and freshwater habitat. Last, is a catalogue for a 2020 group exhibition titled An Infinite and Omnivorous Sky. In short, it was about the mysteries and militarization of the sky. Several of the exhibiting artists have contributed texts, including Amy Balkin, Jen Bervin, william cordova, Basim Magdy, and Kambui Olujimi.
In terms of your question of books I’m most proud of… Leading up to the ones I just outlined, it’s been an honor to edit/write/supervise production of 11 monographs and catalogues. I’ve appreciated working with each of the artists and designers on the group catalogues. The books have their own back stories, successes, heartaches. Although University Galleries does not have the budget or staff resources to produce one for every exhibition – most are grant-funded – they are part of the services we are providing for artists, as well as for researchers and students.
If I had to highlight only one, it would be Strange Oscillations and Vibrations of Sympathy, which I’ve already mentioned, or Terry Adkins: Soldier Shepherd Prophet Martyr, published in 2017 in conjunction with organizing the first survey of the artist’s videos (in 2016). I primarily work with living artists and only had the chance to meet Terry once before his unexpected passing. Researching his astute videos, interviewing his generous friends and colleagues, creating the book in a way that honored the integrity of his work, and functioning as one of many stewards of his legacy – particularly so soon after his passing – was an incredibly moving and intense experience. It was also inextricably connected to a love of ISU – Terry was a distinguished alum from our Wonsook Kim School of Art, was inducted into the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts’ Hall of Fame, and, importantly, a memorial scholarship has been established in his honor.
PK: Given your background in Visual Culture theory, are there any future projects that you would like to pursue, that would conceptually be out of the range that you outline above?
KP: I have endless files of the exhibitions I want to organize! There are several in the works and I am especially excited to dive more fully into the research for a 2023 survey of Kambui Olujimi’s work. While still a survey, it will be informed by his experiences as a filmmaker, writer, and artist, and will encompass our entire space. It is also likely to include a variety of interactive and/or performative elements.
For many years, I have wanted to find the space to write a non-exhibition-related book on a critical history of the haunted house. My Visual Culture thesis was about ethical representations of Sarah Winchester, the architect of the Winchester House in San Jose, California, and I curated a 2013 group exhibition inspired by themes of haunting, architecture, photography, and the uncanny in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, The House of the Seven Gables. I hope to someday expand that research and interweave both textual and visual elements.
PK: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what might define Midwestern visual culture. It’s a unique place for artists to live separate from the pressures and spectacle of coastal art markets and constantly shifting trends in art journalism. You’re from this region where stability is often perceived as overly-cautious or traditionalist, and there are difficulties in developing a career in any part of the art profession without thriving art communities. Do you have a perspective on the things that influence Midwest art discourse and/or mitigate the canard of regional conservatism? Do you think Midwest art venues and curators have a responsibility to flesh out that identity?
KP: While it’s true that there are more institutions, writers, and publishers in some of the coastal markets, many things have changed as the art world has become increasingly, and sometimes frenetically, globalized. I would also argue that there are countless institutions of varying sizes, organizational structures, and levels of autonomy in the Midwest – including independent project spaces or collectives, online entities, university-affiliated galleries, museums, and more – that are creating experimental projects, supportive opportunities, and senses of community. That being said, I would absolutely love to see more financial support of Midwestern art institutions outside of the major metropolitan areas. The limited geographic restrictions with so many funding agencies are challenging.
In terms of your question, it’s clear that Chicago’s wealth of artists and institutions has had a tremendous impact on this region – certainly our proximity to the city has been reflected in University Galleries’ exhibition history. The independent spirit of artist-run spaces in Chicago and throughout the Midwest runs deeply; it infiltrates research and programming decisions at cellular levels.
One of the many things that I love about being located here is the time for research, reflection, and supporting artists’ visions. Although some days, weeks, months, years, it can feel difficult to catch my breath, this has been a place to truly invest in artists, students, and community. I appreciate a dedication to working both hard and sincerely that I see reflected in my friends and colleagues at institutions throughout the region. One of the artists that I’m working with right now, Caroline Kent – whose solo exhibition, What the stars can’t tell us, just opened at University Galleries – has spent much of her life in the Midwest. She grew up in a small town in Illinois and currently lives in Chicago but has also lived in Minneapolis and Romania. We’re featuring several of her monumental abstractions on unstretched canvas and a new site-responsive installation that address communication, translation, temporality, and reckoning with the unknown, among other topics. She has talked about the space to dream and imagine in a small town. She recently shared that she used to visit University Galleries when she was a student at ISU and that experience was part of what prompted her to switch to an art major.
When working with Oliver Herring for his large-scale TASK Party, we did so much outreach to invite participation. It was thrilling to see hundreds of people from throughout the Midwest – not exclusively our university or town – come together for hours of improvisational creativity and community-building. Herring has conceived TASK as an almost open-source collaborative model, and several educators and institutions throughout the Midwest organized their own as a direct result of this one, sometimes including Oliver and other times working independently. Through those events and the process of creating a TASK book, we had countless interactions with people from elementary school through post-retirement who talked about their transformative experiences, some momentary and some still unfolding.
Caroline Kent exhibition on view August 11 through December 16, 2021. Curated by Kendra Paitz. T.J. Dedeaux-Norris exhibition on view August 4 through December 11, 2021. Curated by Jessica Bingham. (Thanks to former ISU Gallery Director Barry Blinderman, Peoria Riverfront Museum Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Bill Conger, and Illinois State University Galleries Curator Jessica Bingham for their insights on Kendra Paitz’s tenure.)