Sara Cluggish

Interdisciplinary Art

By Jon Spayde
Sara Cluggish, the Perlman Teaching Museum’s new director, talks about mission, visual learning, and acquiring work for the permanent collection.

A bold watercolor landscape by postimpressionist master Maurice de Vlaminck. A blocky figure with a book in its lap by French sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. Toyohara Chikanobu's vivid woodblock print of aristocratic 18th-century Japanese women strolling beside a waterfall. James Baldwin casting a looming shadow in a portrait by photographer Anthony Barboza.

These are just four of the more than 3,200 works in the permanent collection of the Perlman Teaching Museum that invite attention, reflection, and learning. Located on the ground floor of Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity, the 7,800-square-foot space comprises two galleries—the Braucher Gallery and the Kaemmer Family Gallery—that offer new exhibitions throughout the academic year. The exhibits include themed shows that draw on the museum’s permanent collection; loans from other museums; student and faculty showcases; retrospectives of major regional, national, and international artists; as well as recorded and live performances.

The museum’s galleries aren’t the only place on campus to see art, of course. The art and art history department has a gallery in Boliou Hall. Gould Library’s Art in the Library program brings art to readers on all four floors. And many notable works can be found outdoors and in other campus buildings. The Perlman is special, though, largely because it is a “teaching museum” that not only affords students a space to curate their creations and curate those of their classmates in a sophisticated art-world setting—it also promotes art-based thinking throughout the college.

“We work with faculty members across the whole curriculum and help them incorporate performance, visual arts, film, and media arts into what they’re doing,” says Steve Richardson ’86, Carleton’s director of the arts. “And the Perlman Teaching Museum is a microcosm of that approach. The museum staff members are always looking for connections to what’s being taught anywhere at Carleton.”

These connections have included an exhibition of Eastern Orthodox icons to support a medieval history course; a survey of images of the universe (antique star charts, contemporary artworks with celestial themes) keyed to an astronomy course; and a show of propaganda posters to help students see how socialist countries used design as a form of persuasion during the Cold War.

Inspired by these and other projects, the museum’s new director, Sara Cluggish, is already on the lookout for equally inspiring collaborations.

Cluggish, an art historian and curator who was trained at Goldsmiths University of London and has extensive experience curating collections in the UK and in the Twin Cities, took up her post in August of 2020. Collaborating with Ross Elfline, chair of the art and art history department, and his students in an “Art and Democracy” seminar fall term, she mounted an exhibition (in record time, according to Richardson) called Being Public/Public Beings that debuted in January. “It wasn’t about the art that comes out of political campaigns,” Elfline says. “It asked the questions: To what extent can an artwork further democratic goals? How can a work of art become a catalyst by which we can learn to live together in public? Sara and I worked with the students to come up with a checklist. And then we brought these ideas into an exhibition, which after all is a public forum.”

Cluggish sat down with the Voice in February to discuss the show, featuring works by nine contemporary artists addressing themes that included public speech, protest, and national belonging; and to talk about the museum’s mission and her plans for the future.

Sara CluggishSara Cluggish Photo: Nate Ryan ’10 The Perlman Teaching Museum is very much an art museum, but that word teaching in the title means a lot more than just teaching about art.
Yes. One thing that attracted me to the job at Carleton was the ability to collaborate with so many different departments. I’m a very interdisciplinary individual. I love collaborating with people from many different walks of life, learning how they think, how they synthesize ideas. At the museum we naturally align ourselves with the art and art history departments, right? We have a close, special relationship with them; we show student and faculty work; we teach curatorial practice; we support art history courses. But I’m passionate about working with lots of different departments. A major part of our role as a teaching museum is to promote visual learning and visual thinking strategies in any field.

Working in this kind of academic setting must present different challenges from the ones in your previous curatorial career.
Yes. I'm excited by the dual role that the teaching museum plays as both a traditional gallery for students, the faculty, and visitors, and as an active, transformative educational space. One thing that’s different from my previous curatorial roles is that here I have the enjoyable responsibility of teaching Carleton students about the field of museum studies, and ultimately preparing them for a career path in the museum world. I’m also able to help faculty members translate their latest exciting research idea into an exhibition, sometimes for the very first time, and I’m often learning as much from them as they are from me. I try to challenge our faculty to think about how direct contact with art and objects can enliven their teaching.

How could gathering around an art object and discussing its visual properties differ from the traditional talk-and-chalk approach to learning? What does the space of a museum offer that a classroom might not? In working with colleagues to acquire new pieces for the Carleton College Art Collection, how do we collectively define which artworks make the best teaching tools? These are the kinds of questions that are natural in a teaching museum as opposed to other kinds of museums. I’m enjoying wrestling with these ideas in my first year as director.

The museum had an astronomy-related show a few years ago.
That was actually the show that opened our gallery back in 2011 when the Weitz Center itself opened. I love that you brought that up, because that’s one of my favorite exhibitions that the museum has ever done. It was visually stunning, and a great example of the teaching museum doing what it does best: encouraging wide-ranging conversations between disciplines, with the aim of opening up new forms of visual knowledge.

I recently met with a new professor in the mathematics and statistics department [MurphyKate Montee] who’s going to teach a course on the history of math, but not from a Eurocentric perspective. The students will look at the development of math across cultures and continents and time periods. We started dreaming together about an exhibition. If you took this new course and the research behind it, and you translated it into objects and images, what kinds of works might be included in the show? In general, I would love to have more STEM programming.

Both the artistic and the scientific fields build on processes of careful, close looking. I’d go so far as to say all disciplines inherently have some version of this close looking at their core. I’m interested in the possibility of the Perlman Teaching Museum experimenting with the codes of display you would find at a science museum or a natural history museum as well as an art museum. Art museums and science museums are both places I visit to become inspired about life’s big questions or to think about my small place in this world.

"Art museums and science museums are both places I visit to become inspired about life's big questions or to think about my small place in this world."

Earlier you referred to the promotion of visual learning and thinking as a key responsibility of the Perlman Teaching Museum. What exactly is visual thinking?
Visual thinking starts with taking an image, looking at it very carefully, breaking it down into its component parts, and then analyzing it. Every research area has some version of this close inspection and analysis of a subject. But visual thinking also offers something that other research methodologies might not: a special energy. Imagery can communicate an idea with such passion and vigor. And collaborating to help somebody translate their research ideas into an exhibition format is so fulfilling to me. After all, an exhibition is really an argument in space.

Really? How so?
If you're writing a research paper, you’re supporting a thesis. And paragraph A, then paragraph B, and then C all build on one another and continually refer back to your thesis. Exhibitions are similar. You have a thesis, an idea that’s driving the exhibition forward, and you realize that putting artwork A next to artwork B will synthesize meaning in a different way than putting artwork A next to artwork C.

What qualities and interests do you bring to your job that make you a good fit for the Perlman Teaching Museum?
Besides being interested in interdisciplinary approaches, I’ve had a lifelong interest in theater and dance as well as in the visual arts, so the idea of working for a museum positioned within the Weitz Center for Creativity, where I could collaborate with all of Carleton’s artistic departments, was very, very appealing to me.

I’ve always had a real love for photography, too, which is one of the strengths of our collection. Photography is a great gateway medium into art, because we all have had the experience of seeing and taking photographs, and we’ve all experienced the relationship between photography and memory.

Our permanent collection is also strong in prints. We have beautiful Japanese prints, which have been widely shown and celebrated. We received a gift of Inuit prints from Kip Lilly ’71 just a few years ago, and we showed those in an exhibition in 2018. Carleton art professor and printmaker Fred Hagstrom has helped to build that arm of the collection over the years. We’re building up our holdings in sculpture and other three-dimensional art, too.

The museum doesn't have a budget for acquisitions. So you depend on the generosity of donors, right?
I work with colleagues on Carleton’s Arts and Exhibitions committee to look toward the future of the collection and identify where we want to focus our acquisitions efforts. Yes, the generosity of donors—and especially our Carleton alumni—is crucial in building the collection. Along with my colleagues in the Development Office, I look forward to working with donors to align their passions and interests with the long-range plans of the collection.

Can you say something about those long-range plans?
I’m keen to look at how to include more work and perspectives from people and communities of color, both in developing the permanent collection and in creating exhibitions. Diversity is an important value for all museums to be considering today, and it’s a major goal of mine over the next five years.

A challenge, to be honest, is getting the word out about the museum. Sometimes students come to us and say, “Oh, I just didn’t know that the museum existed,” and by then they’re in their junior or senior year. So, I’m meeting with folks who run activities during New Student Week each fall to make sure that the museum is more integrated into the orientation process. I also want to collaborate with courses that are part of Carleton’s core curriculum and courses geared specifically toward first-year students.

Carleton students are busy.
Yes. Not only are they dedicated to their studies, but they’re also involved in multiple clubs. Actually, that’s another area where I think the museum could grow in the future: collaborating with clubs. If a club has an idea for an event or some kind of visual display that they would like to develop, I would love to hear from them.

We’ve upped our activity on social media and, in just two months, we grew our following by about a fifth. We want people to know that we’re here, and that if they have an inkling of a way that they might want to work with our staff, with the current exhibition, with works in the collection, then we’re here to support them and make that happen.

In the Galleries: Some Standout Perlman Teaching Museum Shows

Seeing Is Knowing: The Universe
September 16–November 16, 2011

Tristin Lowe, Comet: God Particle, 2011Tristin Lowe, Comet: God Particle, 2011 Curated by astronomy professor Joel Weisberg and longtime museum director Laurel Bradley, this was the Perlman Teaching Museum’s inaugural show. (Previously, says Steve Richardson, “the college art gallery was in the basement of the Music and Drama Center. It was small and dark and out of the way, and it leaked! There were good exhibitions, but the space was a handicap.”)

Featured images ran the gamut from early star charts and pioneering astronomy books, such as The New Almagest, 1651 (an early attempt to name the features on the moon), to contemporary digital images of the visible universe from powerful telescopes. The show was particularly memorable thanks to the inclusion of astronomically focused contemporary art: paintings, sculpture, and artists’ books. Philadelphia-based artist Tristin Lowe, for example, contributed Comet: God Particle, a neonillumined sculptural “comet.”

Lifeloggers: Chronicling the Everyday
January 17–March 12, 2014

Richard Garrison, Circular Color SchemeRichard Garrison, Circular Color Scheme “Lifelogging,” explains the show’s official writeup, “is a term to describe the extensive archiving of one’s personal experience.” The work of 12 artists revealed how the practice of thoughtfully tracking one’s daily life has made its way into contemporary art. For example, Boston-based artist Nathalie Miebach transformed daily weather data into brightly colored woven sculptures, and New York artist Jennifer Dalton photographed everything she owned and assigned values to each object, challenging viewers to consider the role of value in their own lives.

Ayomi Yoshida: As Cherry Blossoms Fall and Falling Blossoms Floating World
January 22–March 9, 2016

Utagawa Hirokage, Five, Cherry-Blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill, 1859.Utagawa Hirokage, Five, Cherry-Blossom Viewing at Asuka Hill, 1859. Japanese print and installation artist Ayomi Yoshida and a team of assistants from Japan attached thousands of tiny woodcut-printed cherry blossom petals to a museum wall in a meditation on the fate of the iconic Japanese flower, which is blooming earlier in the season due to global warming and could disappear altogether as the planet warms. In true Perlman Teaching Museum fashion, the show was mounted with the help of numerous academic departments: art and art history, Asian languages and literature, Asian studies, and cinema and media studies. And the Art in the Library program at Gould opened a concurrent show of prints by Yoshida’s students in Japan.

Accompanying As Cherry Blossoms Fall was Falling Blossoms, Floating World, a display of some of the museum’s trove of hanga, traditional Japanese woodblock prints, along with similar works from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, St. Olaf ’s Flaten Art Museum, and the Gould Library’s Special Collections. The works all celebrate the Japanese love of the short-lived cherry blossom as a symbol of life’s fleeting pleasures.

Sin: The Seven Deadlies in Clay
February 8–April 21, 2019

Kordula Coleman, Drama, 2015Kordula Coleman, Drama, 2015 A quirky homage to Carleton’s strong tradition of instruction in and production of ceramics, Sin invited 24 clay artists from around the country, including Minneapolis-based Jenn Angell, Baltimore ceramicist and folklorist Anthony Stellaccio, and St. Louis–based Kevin Kao, to illustrate what exhibition materials called the “persistent challenges of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.” The results were provocative, unsettling, a bit perverse, and often darkly funny.

Site Specific: Contemporary Cuban Photography and Film
January 10–March 12, 2020

Leysis Quesada Vera, Sin título, 2009Leysis Quesada Vera, Sin título, 2009 Michel Pou Díaz, Sin título, 2007Michel Pou Díaz, Sin título, 2007 This showcase of moving and still images from Cuba was drawn from the extensive collection of Madeleine P. Plonsker, a noted Chicago-based collector of artworks on paper. These images show a society undergoing rapid change as the old political guard turned over and market reforms began to take hold.

The show was accompanied by plenty of programming: Plonsker spoke at the museum with two of the 25 artists featured: Alejandro Perez Alvarez and Eduardo Garcia. In addition, Carl Elsaesser, a visiting assistant professor of cinema and media studies, spoke on Cuban cinema; Latin American politics specialist and political science professor Al Montero discussed political aspects of the exhibit; and French professor Chérif Keïta and Latin American studies professor Jorge Brioso illuminated Cuban-African musical relationships—with recordings.

The Perlman Teaching Museum’s 2021 spring shows put the spotlight on faculty and students. Chronologia, running March 1 to April 25, is a tribute to three retiring faculty members from the art and art history department: Daniel Bruggeman, a painter and printmaker who taught drawing for two decades; photographer Linda River Rossi, whose work was featured in the Seeing Is Knowing exhibit in 2011; and longtime art professor Fred Hagstrom, who was important in building up the museum’s ceramics collection. Then the art department’s senior majors display their work from May 14 to June 12.

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