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Blazing a New Trail


by Marty Demarest

Walking among the quirky television sculptures that make up part of the current Kienholz exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Jochen Wierich seems to draw some energy from the fact that these defiantly modern works of art were made here in the Inland Northwest. "On my first visit," observes Wierich, "I got the sense that there was so much momentum here in the arts. It was very encouraging."

For the 41-year-old German, encouragement is welcome. Wierich has just arrived in town to take over the position of Curator of Art at the MAC. The position is one of the region's most visible posts in a thriving, but still unsteady, arts community. Most precarious, however, is its role in the museum.

According to MAC Executive Director Bruce Eldridge, the mission of the museum as it is currently constructed "is to help the people of the Inland Northwest understand history, arts and culture through a series of activities that promote lifelong learning." While in principle it's an admirable, even necessary, mission, it can be more complicated in practice.

"The way I look at it is [that] it is a multipurpose museum," explains Wierich. "In many ways, I look at this as sort of a miniature Smithsonian Institution. People who are familiar with the Smithsonian Institution know that it's an institution of different components -- not just an art gallery. So in some ways, that's what the MAC is."

The challenges come as Wierich settles into his new position, one of the challenges being to concentrate on the part of the museum's mission devoted specifically to the arts. Now that the museum's new facility has opened and exhibits are beginning to fill the galleries, members of the community are beginning to wonder what will make the museum different than it was before. In hiring Wierich, the MAC has taken the first active steps in defining the new role that it will play in the Inland Northwest's artistic community.

It's a position that has held its share of challenges in the past. Previous curators have found themselves caught between the museum's different goals. Urged by some people to attempt a unification between the artistic exhibits and the cultural and historical shows, the Curator of Art has also been held up to the standards of the local artistic community, which is consistently looking for challenges on a purely artistic level.

For Wierich, however, the different areas the museum wants to cover presents him with familiar ground. Raised in Dusseldorf, which has a long tradition of welcoming American artists to Europe for study, Wierich started his academic career by studying American literature, before moving to American studies and art history.

"There is no direct conflict between these different missions," Wierich says of the museum's goals. "There's great potential and opportunity to integrate -- and to bring into dialogue -- the arts with other programs such as history and culture. Because I think that, for me at least, as somebody who has always had something of an interdisciplinary interest, that is where new frontiers of knowledge can be explored."

Whether this approach of integration will work to the museum's advantage remains to be seen. In the past, limited by space, the museum has had no choice but to attempt an often uneasy union between the organization's different branches. But with a new, larger building --five galleries and 13,000 square feet, as opposed to the previous single gallery and 5,000 square feet -- Wierich will have a greater opportunity to develop the arts as a separate, essential component of the museum. It's a task that he's eager to tackle.

"This position certainly offers the opportunity to make such a strong contribution to what I think is already a thriving arts community. I don't see my role as somebody who needs to teach people how to be creative -- I get the sense that there are already great resources here. But I do see the museum as a leader in generating art programs, exhibitions and a greater public awareness of the arts."

Artistic education for the public, however, is only one part of Wierich's job. Contributing to the balancing act is the need to have successful shows that will highlight the museum within the region, and a need to respond to the dedicated arts community, which is often looking to be challenged.

Many curators talk about "blockbuster" exhibits -- shows of old masters that often bring in record numbers of visitors, such as the MAC is scheduled to bring to town. But in reality, the success of such shows is not financial. After a museum takes on increased costs simply to acquire the show, additional insurance coverage, and the operating support required to deal with increased attendance, it becomes harder to make a profit. Often, underwriters and donors will take on the bulk of the expenses, leaving the museum to reap the benefits of greater exposure -- more visitors often translate into more returning visitors.

Incidentally, much has been made of the MAC's affiliation with the Smithsonian, which -- while also being a partnership with one of the most prestigious names in the country -- means the MAC has access to the Smithsonian's roster of traveling shows. But having access is not the same as a guarantee that the shows will come.

"I think there's a tension between people who want to see contemporary, leading-edge work and people who want to see fine, already established artists who can be seen at the Smithsonian and the Louvre," observes Jim Kolva, MAC board member and chair of the museum's Art Committee. "And I think there's always going to be that tug-of-war.

"But the question is how you bring people in to see things that they might not normally want to look at. Is it a small group of people that always wants to see contemporary art, and they're a vocal group? So in the museum, you have to ask who the audience is. Do you cater to the art crowd, or do you work towards engaging people who don't consider themselves patrons of the arts? In the museum, how do you grab them and build a broader audience as a whole?"

Eldridge says that's a task the museum is going to be addressing more directly in the future, as it begins to revise its mission. "We're going to be looking at a new mission for the museum in the future that will continue to do those sorts of activities, but will also put us in a context of trying to become the best museum for arts and culture in the Western United States. So we're trying to move the museum to a higher level of operation to go along with the new facility."

It's a lofty goal, which will require the MAC to expand even more than the physical move that it recently completed. "In our board's long-range planning process," continues Eldridge, "we've been investigating how to better utilize the auxiliary facilities, like our Art @ Work space downtown, and other avenues, to expand the whole idea of exhibiting arts, history and culture. On one hand we have a lot more, new space. On the other hand, it's not enough new space to do the job that we believe we have to do."

This development could prove valuable to the museum, which resisted moving its new facility to downtown Spokane and has consequently remained on the fringes of the developments taking place there. "What I'm seeing from my board," notes Eldridge, "is that this is a wonderful facility in Browne's Addition that will be serving the public for many years, but that there is also a need for additional facilities -- especially exhibition space -- and that might go downtown. At least that is what our planning process is really developing right now."

"I would greatly welcome it," Wierich says of the idea. "And as far as my schedule allows it, I'd love to be involved. I think that talking about the downtown district between Browne's Addition extending beyond the Davenport -- just the architectural setting there lends itself so wonderfully to more galleries and more artist studios. And I think the MAC should have a presence there.

"As I said, we're trying to bring in some very strong and significant traveling exhibitions. But we'd also like to show the permanent collection, and unfortunately the new building doesn't have really that much gallery space to work with."

Also crucial will be developing a close and mutually supportive relationship with art lovers and artists in the local community. "I sort of see myself -- and I hope that this is to my advantage -- I see myself as a little bit of an outsider," Wierich says hopefully. "But I know quite a number of artists in the Northwest. And speaking to the artists, it seems that there is a greater expectation now that the museum would highlight contemporary artists, Northwestern artists, and really be a space for artists to interact with the public."

Of course, what any project requires is funding. Currently, the museum has several fundraisers each year, including the Works from the Heart auction, which sells works by local artists. The funds raised benefit the museum's acquisition fund, which is the resource for acquiring new art. "The acquisition budget -- as far as I can tell -- is a very modest one," says Wierich. "So I have to start modestly and realistically. I would very much like to acquire contemporary art, because, first of all, it's relatively cheap; but also, we have an obligation to collecting that's not perhaps quite as tested as more established art.

"Because what we see is that people like Ed and Nancy Kienholz, and Jim Hodges, who is going to be our next artist, are people who have their roots in Spokane. And we should not wait until young artists go to New York or L.A. and become famous -- we should buy these works now. We should support these artists now.

"Second, there are a lot of holes in some of the other media -- not just painting, but building a strong print collection, the decorative arts, sculpture. So I really want to slowly expand and round out the collection in its different media and chronologically, and really have a broad spectrum represented."