At the Crossroads of Art and Science: Art Center’s Williamson Gallery

From Caltech to the Norton Simon Museum, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Craig Ellwood Associates’ modernist design for Hillside Campus, Pasadena has always been a city of art and science. Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery is a perfect fit for a city like Pasadena, establishing a national reputation for its exhibitions exploring the boundaries, relationships and perspectives on art and science.

© Steven A. Heller/Art Center College of Design

Drawing inspiration from all areas of Art Center’s educational programs, the gallery’s mission is twofold: to serve as an active partner in the education of our students, who will shape visual culture in the future; and to engage the broader public community in a progressive dialogue about art and design for the 21st century.

We caught up with Vice President and Director of the Williamson Gallery, Stephen Nowlin, to learn more about his relationship with the gallery and to find out what we can expect in the coming year.

Dotted Line: You have a long history with Art Center.
Stephen Nowlin
: I do. The first time I visited Art Center’s Hillside Campus—shortly before I became a student, and before there was a single tree growing on campus— was to see an exhibition by the famous photographer Richard Avedon in 1976. The first show I helped curate for the College was a retrospective of the pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, a few years later in ’79.

I’d learned about Art Center in high school—and at the risk of dating myself, that was before the College had moved to Pasadena. I used to visit the Third Street campus and stare in awe at the drawings in the little hallway gallery, and then I’d go home, get my pencils, and imitate what I’d seen. I earned my BFA from Calarts, but came to Art Center a few years later for my MFA. Then, three weeks after graduating, I was hired by Laurence Dreiband to teach a couple of painting classes and to help with recruitment for the Fine Art Department. I was terrified of teaching for the first time, but also grateful for the job.

There was no Williamson Gallery back then. There was the student gallery, and occasionally shows like Avedon’s were organized and installed in a studio space shared with the Transportation Design Department. In those days, it was not unusual for staff to wear multiple hats, and so I was also conscripted to help Midge Quenell, who was a sort of quasi-provost and seemingly in charge of all things having to do with admissions and curriculum, in addition to many other things. One of her duties was changing the student gallery at the end of each term, and overseeing anything exhibition-related. Things just kind of grew from there. From the perspective of hindsight, I realize how privileged I’ve been to have had an opportunity to shape the Williamson Gallery’s exhibition program from its earliest beginnings.

Dotted Line: Your Pasadena roots run deep—you grew up here. Does this influence what you curate and display in the gallery?
Pasadena is a world-class “City of Art and Science.” There are larger cities in the world with larger institutions, but none are as defined by those two domains as Pasadena. My parents met and married as musicians in the Pasadena Symphony, so from an early age I was exposed to the city’s culture. My dad liked to tinker with technology, and he designed a clever machine that crafted bamboo reeds for the bassoon, which was the instrument he played. Perhaps I inherited some of his interest in the technosphere.

Lita Albuquerque, Stellar Suspension, 2008 (OBSERVE) © Steven A. Heller/Art Center College of Design

In 1969, after returning from living in Berkeley for three years and attending California College of Arts and Crafts, I worked for the Pasadena architect who designed Calarts. I then moved on to California Institute of Technology, where I drafted computer parts for the Mt. Wilson and Palomar observatories. Being a Caltech employee qualified me to participate in an E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) program that they had. I was about 20 years old, and spent a year working on projects with artists and scientists, learning some early lessons about trying to bring those two worlds together. I still draw upon that experience today.

Dotted Line: You often talk about the intersection of art and science. Why do you find this particularly interesting?
Art and science, intuition and reason, emotion and intellect—these are ancient dualities to consider, and they seem more relevant today than ever. They summarize different modalities of how we think and how our brains comprehend and react to the world. Our archetypes of human endeavor seem to yearn after an integration of both components. We marvel more at the one brilliant rational scientist who plays passionate virtuoso violin than the two individuals who can only do one of each. The future has some compelling challenges that will best be navigated using both sides of the brain. So I think that to be an enlightened innovator for the 21st century, one will need to put science into their design equation.

The Williamson Gallery’s exploration of a meandering border, or overlap, between art and science is really more multi-themed than just those two domains—it brings natural history, cultural history, social history, political history, art, poetry, cinema, technology and science together around a subject. It’s reflective of many strategies today that look at phenomena in the human realm from a multi-disciplinary perspective. It’s really about visual culture being a more complex composite than ever before.

Dotted Line: What is the benefit of having a gallery of the Williamson’s caliber on campus?
If you want to be a world-class city, you need to include pillars of civilization and culture—a symphony orchestra, an opera company, theater, art, the sciences and museums—that bring the world to you. If you want to be a world-class school of art and design, you need a gallery that brings the best of those domains into your learning environment.

The gallery’s construction was funded by Art Center trustee Alyce Williamson and the James Irvine Foundation, resulting in the 1992 opening of a 4,600 square-foot space designed by noted architect Frederick Fisher. Its first audience is students, and for 19 years the gallery program has drawn inspiration from all the fertile domains of the College’s educational programs. Its mission is to be an active partner in the education of intelligent and spirited students who will shape visual culture in the future, and to engage the broader public community in a progressive dialogue about art and design for the 21st century.

The close alignment between exhibition content and Art Center’s educational priorities assures relevance between the gallery program and the College’s classrooms. But at the same time, a gallery should not be a purely pedagogical forum that merely echoes classroom teaching. Centered in the College’s learning environment, the gallery is both protagonist and antagonist for concepts core to the mission of the school, and is sustained by its role as a thoughtful provocateur. Offering students and the public an opportunity to form authentic and critical insights based upon first-hand experiences with the arts, it seeks out projects that will resonate deeply with the tenor of our times, provoke intellectual dissonance, and conjure unexpected pathways of thinking.

Dotted Line: What exhibits are you the most proud of, and why?
We originate exhibitions ourselves, and we also host exhibitions organized elsewhere. The AIDS poster show this year will be one of the latter, and we’ve brought some other spectacular shows here, like the collection of Nineteenth Century American Paintings from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, or the landmark Mathematica exhibit designed by Charles and Ray Eames, as well as the recent collection of curious and innovative American Patent Models, prototypes for innovative products going back to the early 1800s.

TOOLS, installation view, 2009-10 © Steven A. Heller/Art Center College of Design

Over the years we’ve done solo shows with internationally known 20th century artists, many of which were alumni, such as photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. We’ve also featured the work of James Rosenquist, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, David Hockney, Milton Glaser, Donald Judd and Robert Venturi. We’ve done hot rods and custom cars, motorcycles, bicycles and human-powered flying machines. We’ve done surveys of local emerging talents from studios spread out across Southern California. We’ve resurrected visionary architecture and urban design from the middle of the last century, explored the pioneering efforts of electronic media-based art, and we’ve carved a unique niche bringing together the arts and sciences—probably the best-recognized part of our identity. The gallery has initiated or has ongoing relationships with some of the world’s preeminent science and art/science organizations, including Caltech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carnegie Observatories, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and the Huntington Library.

We describe Art Center as an institution—maybe think of it as a solid concept, like a building is solid. But really it’s an evolving organism, a shape constantly undulated by forces of changing knowledge, new ideas, and revolutionary technologies. We’re just hanging on for the incredible ride, trying to keep the roller coaster on its tracks. The gallery is like radar, a time machine attempting to remote-sense the face of visual culture at any given moment. I’m proud of its history, and I’m most proud that we’ve never been predictable.

Dotted Line: What will we be seeing in the gallery in 2011?
We do three shows a year, roughly corresponding with each of the three terms. An international retrospective of AIDS-awareness posters from the 1980s to the present will open in late February, and will dovetail with an Illustration Department and Designmatters project on the “graying of AIDS” and it’s impact on the aging baby-boomer population.

Then in June we’ll be partnering with an L.A. organization called the Institute for Figuring to produce the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. A project currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Coral Reef engages mathematics, sculptural form and color and feminine handicraft, as well as issues surrounding the science of ocean ecology and global warming. It is multiple reefs, entirely crocheted by hand using yarn and other materials including plastics and refuse for the “Toxic Reef” which addresses the problem of disappearing and dying corals around the planet.

This fall, the gallery is organizing WORLDS, an exhibition that draws objects and artifacts from the domains of contemporary art, science and history. WORLDS will look at historical visions of extraterrestrial planets, moons and other heavenly bodies that were constructed more from vivid imagination than science fact, and that were sometimes biased toward Earth-based mythologies and cultural narratives. It will include artifacts representing contemporary knowledge of those same places gathered from space-based telescopes and orbiting spacecraft—showing that sometimes reality can be even stranger than the fictions preceding it.

Dotted Line: Any personal endeavors and upcoming projects?
In 2000, I created Pasadena CultureNet, an online portal to the arts and sciences in Pasadena, accompanied by an email broadcast for events, exhibitions, concerts and lectures.

Around the same time, a group of representatives from various local cultural organizations began meeting regularly and collaborating on projects, and we still meet every month. The first project was a five-venue collaboration in 1999. Its success spawned ArtNight Pasadena, which has quickly become a huge citywide cultural open-house including art museums, libraries, live theater and music performance venues, drawing tens of thousand of visitors to Pasadena.

Also, this coming fall as a part of “AxS: The Pasadena Art & Science Festival,” a dozen cultural institutions will interpret the theme of their sixth collaboration since 1999, each from the unique perspective of their organization. The festival will last two weeks, and the theme is “Fire & Water.” The Williamson Gallery’s WORLDS exhibition will be part of the festival, which is organized and managed by the Pasadena Arts Council, a privately funded arts advocacy group.

Be sure to check out the Williamson Gallery’s website, and follow the gallery on Facebook.

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