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Nourishing Art Through Academics

Experienced new Block director passionate about using art to teach and learn

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May 14, 2012 | by Matt Paolelli

Since assuming her new role in February, Lisa Graziose Corrin has been settling in as the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. As the former director of the Williams College Museum of Art, Corrin has years of experience guiding an artistic institution in a college campus setting.

She recently spoke with Northwestern News about her curatorial background as well as her vision for future installations and collaborations at the Block Museum.

What is your artistic background? How did you become interested in art?

While I was in graduate school, I met George Cissel, a man who would become one of my great mentors and who wanted to create a museum for contemporary art in Baltimore. He invited me to become the assistant director of a non-existing museum and, even though neither of us had any museum experience, we invented it as we went along and created the contemporary museum in Baltimore. It was a nomadic museum without walls that went from community to community doing exhibitions in all kinds of unusual sites -- everything from abandoned bus garages to abandoned banks. The example that is most well known is Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum,” which was one of my first exhibitions as a young curator. I was there for nine years and I think it was the single most transformative experience of my professional. I not only shared my knowledge of contemporary art, but I also functioned as a community organizer. Very often contemporary art is a really tough hoop for people to jump through. George was an incredible teacher. He taught me diplomacy and gave me the pedagogical skills to be able to win over the hearts and minds of people who often didn’t even go into museums. That’s where I started really believing that I wanted to spend my life being an advocate for the creative process, and I started working with artists.

What are your areas of interest in art?

After the contemporary museum in Baltimore, I went on to the Serpentine in London, and after that to the Seattle Art Museum, where I helped build the Olympic Sculpture Park. What is consistent from all these jobs is an interest in artists who are interested in working outside the museum space. I’m really interested in where art in people’s lives can come together in incredibly unusual ways that don’t have to include gallery spaces. I’ve never been limited to contemporary art, and I think at heart I’m always an art historian, which means I’m interested in old stuff as much as new stuff. I’m interested in how you get the past and the present to speak to one another. The voice of the living artist is important in helping to keep even the most traditional museum animated and really alive and relevant to the lives of people today. So many of the objects that we find in museums are remote from audiences in time and sentiment and contemporary artists can do is help bridge that gap.

What interested you in coming to work at Northwestern University and leading the Block Museum?

One of the exciting things about being at the Williams College Museum of Art for me was discovering that in my heart of hearts I’m really an educator. My great passion is for mentoring students and readying the next generation of public intellectuals who will take over cultural institutions, as well as students who are not majors in art history, to give them an appreciation of the different kinds of sensibilities and intelligences that they can draw upon regardless of the field of activity that they choose to go on in. They can learn a lot from the artistic creative process even if they’re going to become engineers. I also learned that the kind of museum where I am the happiest is in a college or university setting. I guess I’m a lifelong student. I think to some degree I live vicariously through my students. I like to be around ideas, and I think I really like to see the immediate impact of my work. When students you mentored call you to say they just got their first curatorial appointment at MOMA, I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than that for me.

Chicago has many fine institutions of visual art. What sets the Block Museum apart?

What separates the Block from other museums and institutions in Chicago is Northwestern University itself and what it has to offer -- from the incredible special collections in our library to the phenomenal music school to one of the best journalism schools in the world.  And being situated in that context and drawing upon it in our program or with artist commissions, involving faculty and students in our publications and thinking about our exhibition program, this has the capacity to lead in directions that no place else can go because there’s only one Northwestern.

The Block happens to be located on one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate in the whole city, and our staff has been talking about ways in which we might animate the lake in relationship to our artistic program, so I think that will be another way that we are doing things that no one else can do.

Topics: University, People