The Jacob Lawrence Gallery turned 25 years old on February 16 this year. Formerly known as the University of Washington School of Art Instructional Gallery, the space was given new life when it was dedicated to artist Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917). These days, the gallery exhibits twelve shows annually. In January, there was the annual Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency and Exhibition, this time featuring Danny Giles. Throughout the year, there will be eight shows of student work, including the annual MFA summer works exhibition. The gallery’s director, Emily Zimmerman, selects the remaining three exhibitions for the year, while facilitating events and resources year-round.
In our conversation, Zimmerman explained that students of the School of Art + Art History + Design use the gallery as “a space for embodied learning…the display of art, and what it means to move artwork from the private space of the studio to the public setting of the gallery.” While the commitment to the students tops the list, the gallery’s mission goes far beyond the University that houses it.
In January, The Jake partnered with artist collective SOIL Gallery to host dual shows by The Jake’s most recent resident artist, Danny Giles. In our dialog with Zimmerman, she expressed excitement and gratitude about the opportunity to see a dialog around Giles’ work between campus and a larger community. The reach of this dialog continues to expand as artists who have received space and support from The Jake continue to show and develop their work internationally.
Speaking of developing work and dialogs, last week The Jake announced the participants of Strange Coupling 2019. The annual tradition pairs UW student artists and Seattle-based working artists to create collaborative works for a juried exhibition. This week, the gallery presents a brief exhibit of student augmented/virtual reality works, Untethered. The gallery and its mission are still evolving, and with a full year of events and exhibitions ahead, it’s a perfect time to talk with Zimmerman, about the past, present and future of The Jake and what informs the curatorial practice there.
VS: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue curation?
Emily Zimmerman: I knew I wanted to be a curator towards the end of my undergraduate studies. I went to the Gallatin School for Individualized Study at NYU, which allowed students the extraordinary freedom to take classes in any school in the university and to change courses of study at any point as long as you had a justification for it. I switched between photography, archaeology, art history, and web design. Ultimately, it was in my classes with Pepe Karmel, an art historian, curator, and art critic for New York Times, that I decided to pursue curating.
VS: A lot of artists just starting out wade into curation as a matter of necessity, in creating venues to display their works and those of others. Do you have any specific advice for those working in DIY settings and spaces?
Emily Zimmerman: Many of the curators I admire the most began their careers as artists. In curating, there is often a massive emphasis placed on planning, which is necessary to make sure the needed time and infrastructure is in place. However, once you are in the space with the work, if it doesn’t feel right, you have to be ready to abandon your plan and adjust as necessary.
Visit as many exhibitions as possible and look closely at the decisions made, and how the work thrives or suffers as a result of those decisions. Remember that the care is at the core of curating—cura means “to care.” And not only for the artwork, but for the artist, for the visitors, and the community.
VS: The term “curate,” has been thrown around so much in the last decade, especially in the context of arranging goods for sale. I really like that you bring it back to the root: caring. I’d love to hear more about what all this means to you and your practice.
Emily Zimmerman: For the longest time, I railed against the abuse of the term “curating” by commercial markets, but ultimately it’s a semantic argument that is less important than the real work ahead of arts institutions to address of how they need to shift in order to truly care for the artists they represent, the colleagues that enact their missions, and the communities they inhabit.
Originally, the idea was that you care for an object in order to see to its long term preservation. Recently, there has been a call to arts institutions to address the imbalances of power within institutions, to be more responsive, transparent and porous, and to repair historical omissions and under attended to subjects within art history. As James McNally says in “The Work of the Institution in an Age of Professionalization” the work of contemporary art institutions is “to embody and enact structures that are sustainable, just, conceptual and diverse in idea, manifestation, and act.”
McAnally calls for building alternatives structures for art that are sustainable, supportive of artists and organizers, that fundraise through ethical channels, and that consider the production of art as a platform for care. In reflecting this set of values, the Jacob Lawrence Gallery seeks to act more like a community space than a traditional white cube.
VS: Can you tell us a little about Jacob Lawrence himself, how he became the namesake of the gallery?
Emily Zimmerman: Lawrence taught at the University of Washington from 1970 until 1985 and then was professor emeritus until shortly before his death in 2000. Prior to coming to the University of Washington, Jacob Lawrence had established an international reputation as one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed visual storytellers of Black American experience, coming to fame with his epic, 60-panel series, The Migration Series (1940 -1941). He was one of the first African-American artists to be represented by a major commercial gallery, and the first African-American artist in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. After moving to Seattle in 1970, Jacob Lawrence had a tremendous influence on the artistic community here, and became a key figure in Pacific Northwest art history.
VS: How has the mission of the gallery evolved as the University and the community around it have grown and changed?
Emily Zimmerman: The University of Washington was the first to offer a Masters of Fine Art in the United States, so the roots of the School of Art + Art History + Design in the United States arts landscape run deep. Over time, I think the gallery has expanded its mission from serving an important set of practical functions for the students of the School to acting as a meeting place where the students, University faculty and staff, the artistic community of Seattle, and visiting artists, scholars, and curators can interface with one another around exhibitions and programs that uphold those things that Jacob Lawrence cared about: social justice, education, and experimentation.
VS: What are some of the recent changes to the gallery’s programming that reflect this expanding mission?
Emily Zimmerman: Four years ago, the Gallery underwent a renovation of the space and programming by Scott Lawrimore. Several major new initiatives were created, the most important of which is the Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency, which is now the cornerstone of the gallery’s annual exhibition program. Each year, an artist in invited to spend the month of January in residence in the gallery, producing new work that will then be shown in the month of February. It’s an incredibly important time to support the production of new artwork by Black artists that can act as a change agent to the conversations of the past, and lay the way for a more equitable future.
Last year, the Gallery became W.A.G.E. certified, and currently we are the only space in Seattle that is. We have been holding Wikipedia Art + Feminism Edit-a-thons to help redress historic omissions of female and female-identifying artists of color. We also started producing MONDAY, the biannual journal of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, to advocate for the continued importance of art criticism as a tool for valuing art, and creating meaning.
VS: When artists have a show or residency at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, what are you hoping that they will get from the experience?
Emily Zimmerman: For a residency, I hope that the artists have time, space, and resources to develop work outside of the demands of their everyday lives, and that the artist and the campus community have the opportunity to interface and learn from one another. I’ve been working with residency and commissioning programs for most of my career, and there is something extraordinary that happens when one is able to step away from one’s normal everyday life and think about one’s work surrounded by new people who are in the same field, but who are perhaps approaching it from a different perspective. In exhibitions, I hope first that the artists get paid for their work, that seeing their work the context of a University gallery embedded in the spaces of making helps illuminate another facet of their practice, and that some meaningful dialog with faculty and students is possible.
VS: Who are some artists working right now that you’d love to see participate at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in years to come?
Emily Zimmerman: I would love to work with Simone Leigh in the context of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Her work, like The Waiting Room shown at the New Museum in 2016, connects art, community, and care in that same way that James McAnally does in his article. It feels deeply relevant and necessary as a space for resistance. Her work is strident in its indictment of the past, and call for a new set of criteria for care. From The Waiting Room a new group was formed, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter.
VS: Tell us more about MONDAY, whose latest issue just came out in February, for those who want to get a copy.
Emily Zimmerman: MONDAY evolved out of The Jake Journal, a publication that was initiated in 2015 as a digital publication, distributed through the gallery’s website. With MONDAY we decided to make the journal a biannual, limited-edition print publication. Each volume is thematically organized, and brings together writing by the students of the School of Art + Art History + Design, faculty of the School as well as the broader campus, and thinkers who are working nationally and internationally. Usually the theme relates back to the exhibitions presented at the gallery that season. The journal makes a statement about the importance of art criticism. It’s there to support those students interested in working in the form of publication, and it seeks out the points of intersection between the School and the campus, as well as the School and the larger arts discourse.
The most recent volume is focused on the topic of Études, the short form musical pieces focused on the technical aspects of a technique. This summer I was particularly taken with Ligeti’s 18 Études for piano, not only because they are extraordinary pieces of music, extraordinary technical exercises, but they also acted for Ligeti as a form by which to process the culture of trauma surrounding the Second World War. This third volume includes essays from writers such as Fred Moten writing on Cecil Taylor, alongside Stuart Dempster, Professor Emeritus at the UW School of Music, and Emma Macintosh, MA student in Art History at UW.
VS: What are you most excited about for the coming year at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery and at the UW in general?
The gallery has been a partner on The Black Embodiments Studio, a writing incubator on Black art and performance, and I’m excited for the upcoming speakers in that series. I’m excited for the next Ann Focke Arts Leadership Award event this spring that is hosted by the UW School of Art + Art History + Design. It promises to be an extraordinary event.
Emily Zimmerman: Then, this summer we will have an exhibition curated by our Assistant Curator, Juan Franco, entitled Angélica Maria Millán Lozano & Camilo Godoy: Lugar del Trabajo. Both artists were born in Colombia and moved to the United States. To quote Juan Franco: “Their works confront our understanding of history, time, and tradition through reenactments and performances that rely on the presence of the artist. Through multimedia artworks that include photography, textiles, and choreography, the artists ask how we can represent the past and moreover, how those representations bear on our contemporary world.”
VS: For those outside the academic system, what words of advice and inspiration can you offer to aspiring artists, curators and critics, in their practice and their research?
Emily Zimmerman: People sometimes forget that Jacob Lawrence was self-taught. He had extraordinary mentors such as Augusta Savage, but he never received an MFA. I think this advice applies equally well to those inside and outside the academic system: First and foremost, seek out the individuals that you want to learn from.
Featured photo by Jin Park, courtesy of Jacob Lawrence Gallery.
Update, Mar 13, 2019: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the Jacob Lawrence Legacy exhibition featured works by Jacob Lawrence, rather than a Jacob Lawrence Residency artist. The article has been updated with this correction.