The Visionaries

by Suzanne Muchnic '92

So many Scripps alumnae are doing something interesting in the visual arts, something challenging, something that makes a difference. With too many to summarize neatly, I’ll begin with a November 1989 memory.

The art market was at its peak and I was in New York covering record-breaking auctions for the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a controversy was raging about federal funding of the arts. The same week that publishing magnate Walter Annenberg plunked down $40.7 million for a Picasso, and film director Billy Wilder cashed in on his modern art collection for $32.6 million, elected officials debated the propriety of allocating relatively tiny amounts of tax dollars to projects that some deemed objectionable. One of the offenders was an AIDS-related exhibition that had won a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since I was already in New York, my editor asked me to report on the show, just before it opened at Artists Space. I made arrangements and arrived early the following morning at the nonprofit organization’s bare-boned quarters in the TriBeCa district. As I sat on the front steps, agonizing over impending deadlines, the curator of Artists Space appeared.”Hi, Suzanne,”she said.”I’m Connie Butler. I went to Scripps, too.”

A decade later, after Connie ’84 had joined the staff of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, I had a Scripps moment at the 1999 Venice Biennale. After attending an island party for artist Ann Hamilton, whose ethereal installation of cascading pink powder and whispered sound filled the American Pavilion, I boarded a boat back to Venice. Suddenly, there was Elizabeth Turk ’83, a gifted sculptor whose career was about to take off.Then I discovered that Lilli-Mari Andresen ’92 had coordinated the Hamilton project while working at a New York gallery.

In the art world, Scripps is everywhere. Elizabeth Leach ’79 has a contemporary art gallery in Portland.The writings of Leah Ollman ’83 appear regularly in the New York-based magazine Art in America, as well as the Los Angeles Times [and this magazine, p. 36]. Sarah Schmerl ’62 leads plein air painting classes at various sites in Europe.Victoria Huang ’96 is an assistant curator at the Singapore Art Museum.Yoshiko Shimada ’83 has made a mark for herself in her native Japan with a controversial body of work examining the role and responsibilities of Japanese women during World War II. Lisa Adams ’77 is best known as a Los Angeles painter, but she is working on a public project at a fire station in Watts and has done residencies in Slovenia, Finland, and Japan.

Still, the Scripps factor is most evident in Southern California.Among a stellar group of curators, Diana C. du Pont ’75, curator of 20th-century art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, has co-organized a major retrospective of Rufino Tamayo’s painting that will open this fall at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City and travel to Santa Barbara and Miami. Polly Roberts ’81, an African-art specialist who is deputy director and chief curator of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, has pulled 250 of the best works from the museum’s vast collections for a new installation, “Intersections:World Arts, Local Lives,” which opened September 30.

Joanne Heyler ’86 is director and chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, one of the world’s leading— and constantly growing—collections of contemporary art.The astonishingly versatile Jennifer Wells Green ’84 has held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art and the PaineWebber Art Collection and administrative posts at Citibank’s Art Advisory Services and the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles. She is now director of development at the UCLA Hammer Museum, home of a critically acclaimed contemporary art program.

And that brings us to artists.A 2004 Hammer show praised by the Los Angeles Times as “an enchanting wonderland of visual delight and sensual savvy” featured labor-intensive visual poetry by Pae White ’85. Using nothing more than crisply cut bits of colored paper strung on thread, she transformed the austere museum lobby into a mesmerizing environment, describing it as “a flurry of color and gentle movement, suspended for contemplation.”

As might be expected, artists schooled at Scripps have found many sources of inspiration and traveled diverse directions. Ruth Andersson May ’40 has pursued botanical art. Idelle Weber ’54, whose paintings are in the collections of major museums nationwide, has viewed nature through a highly personal filter.The paintings of the late Susan Hertel ’52 reflect her joy in the simple pleasures of home, family, and a menagerie of animals. Betty Davenport Ford ’46, known for sculptures of animals and figures, has fulfilled commissions for residences, churches, and banks throughout Southern California.

The life of an artist is never easy, and women often face additional challenges, but many Scripps alumnae have excelled. Laurie Brown ’59 established herself as a photographer to be reckoned with when the art world’s embrace of the field was still tentative. Regula Campbell ’69 has distinguished herself in architecture and landscape design, Angela de Mott ’71 in ceramics, Christina McPhee ’76 in new media.Amy Ellingson ’86 and Jane Park Wells ’93 have instilled abstract painting with fresh energy and vision.

But no one embodies the full range of Scripps ideals better than Mary Davis MacNaughton ’70 (PhD, art history, Columbia University). An associate professor of art history at Scripps and director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, she is a scholar, teacher, curator, writer, and a model of what can happen when intellectual curiosity is packaged with social responsibility and imagination. She has headed Art Table, a national organization of women in the visual arts, and she constantly mentors students who fondly call her “the network queen.” It’s often said that you can’t leave Mary’s office without being given two networking phone numbers. Every summer when I meet a new crop of Scripps’ Getty interns under her tutelage, I see the future, and it looks very good.

Five women exemplify the wide range of Scripps alumnae who contribute to the art world.

Susan Ball ’69

Art Historian/Administrator

When she left Scripps, Susan seemed to be headed for a career in academia, probably teaching art history at a university, doing research on modern artists and producing an impressive list of publications. She earned her MA degree in art history at UC Riverside and her PhD in art history and architecture at Yale University. Her research and dissertation on French painter Amédée Ozenfant led to the book Ozenfant and Purism:The Evolution of a Style, published in 1981.

But Susan also had a talent for administration and business. As her professional life evolved, she began to see possibilities for using her knowledge of art in a broader arena. She has taught art history at the University of Delaware and New York University, but she also has directed government and foundation affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, completed two years of courses toward an MBA with a concentration in non-profit management at the University of Chicago Business School, and worked as a research associate at the Real Estate Board of New York.

In 1986, she landed a job that seemed tailor-made for her range of skills and interests. She became executive director of the College Art Association, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to providing professional services and resources for artists, art historians, and students in the visual arts. Activities go on year round, but attendance at CAA’s annual meeting is almost obligatory for anyone wanting to take the pulse of the field.

Thousands of members gather each year in the dead of winter at a designated city, where scholars deliver papers, artists and curators pontificate in panel discussions, prospective employees and employers get together, advocacy groups strategize, art publishers display their wares, and local museums host exhibition openings and receptions. In a special session, awards are presented for scholarship, teaching, publishing, and criticism.

In October 2005, after almost 20 years at the helm, Susan announced plans to retire a few months later. She had joined CAA in 1972 as a graduate student and had no desire to sever her relations with the organization, but it was time to move on. Looking back at what had been achieved during her tenure, she saw an association that had grown from 6,000 to 14,000 in membership, from six to 30 in staff, and from $750,000 to $4 million in budget. CAA also had strengthened its leadership in issues of advocacy, arts funding, freedom of expression, employment, and copyright.

Stepping down from her position gave her chance to pursue a project that she had been thinking about for several years, a history of CAA. She will spend the next two years as director of CAA’s Centennial Book Project, to be published in 2011, the organization’s 100th birthday.

Lilli-Mari Andresen ’92

Contemporary Art Appraiser

Lilli-Mari began her career as an intern at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) and continued her formal education at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. She wrote a thesis on “The Impact of Diminished Government Funding on Contemporary Visual Art in Manhattan” and received her MA in 1995.

During the next five years she immersed herself in the New York art scene, working with a broad historical spectrum of art at Richard L. Feigen & Co. and then concentrating on contemporary work as associate director of the Sean Kelly Gallery, where she coordinated major projects for prominent figures including Laurie Anderson,Ann Hamilton and Lorna Simpson. For one exhibition,”Marcel Duchamp/Man Ray: 50 Years of Alchemy,” she processed loan requests, provenance research, essays, and catalogue entries for the artists’ works.

Lilli-Mari returned to Southern California in 2000 to direct Angles Gallery in Santa Monica. She managed exhibitions and sales for 19 artists and supervised the gallery’s participation at two art fairs,Art Basel in Switzerland and the Armory Fair in New York. She also lectured on the contemporary art market at Southern California colleges and universities including UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Long Beach and Art Center College of Design.

By 2003, Lilli-Mari had compiled an impressive résumé. As she pondered her next step, she faced a choice. Should she open her own gallery, making a round-the-clock commitment that would involve financial risk and lots of travel, or take a path that would lead to a family-compatible, flexible schedule? She decided to use her knowledge of art and the market to become an appraiser.

Now, after completing course work and receiving a certificate in appraisal studies at UC Irvine, she has two jobs: caring for her baby daughter and working with Jacqueline Silverman & Associates in Los Angeles to accrue the 4,000 hours of appraising required for full accreditation with the American Society of Appraisers.

“I love the truth in it,” she said of her new profession. Unlike the free-wheeling world of contemporary art dealing, appraising is strictly regulated. Still, determining the value of contemporary art, which may consist of an idea or a transitory form, is a challenge. As the market has surged over the last decade, values have soared and fallen quickly. But most collectors call an appraiser when their property must be sold or divided, not to make a quick profit. “Appraisals are often done at unhappy times,” Lilli-Mari said,”but I think having a professional job done can provide some solace.”

Cornelia H. Butler ’84

Curator

Connie became involved in curatorial work in her undergraduate days and saw her future, but she couldn’t have imagined all the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.Twenty-two years after her graduation from Scripps, she has arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the world’s foremost repository and showcase of 20th-century art, as the chief curator of drawings.

She spent her first post-Scripps years earning an MA in art history at UC Berkeley and gaining curatorial experience at the Des Moines Arts Center in Iowa,Artists Space in New York, and the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York, in Westchester County. In 1996, she returned to California and moved into a much more prominent position as a curator at the young and vibrant Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.

Although most of her MOCA colleagues did not specialize, Connie was hired to oversee the Marcia Simon Weisman collection of works on paper and a related study center, which opened in 1998.That gave her an opportunity to gain considerable expertise in contemporary drawings (a field that is often overlooked but represents the heart and soul of much contemporary art practice), while organizing and co-organizing a wide variety of exhibitions. One of her drawing shows,”Afterimage: Drawing Through Process,” is remembered as a particularly creative, open-ended approach to art making. It was a surprise hit with continuing reverberations, but she also has won praise for her efforts in major exhibitions on single artists, including earth artist Robert Smithson, video artist Rodney Graham, and abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning.

Last fall, when MoMA appointed Connie the Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings, she was hard at work on “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an eagerly awaited international survey of 1970s feminist art. The show will go on, opening in March 2007 at MOCA and traveling to four other venues. So will two other projects begun in Los Angeles, exhibitions featuring the work of painter Marlene Dumas and conceptual artist Dan Graham.

“I feel that I am coming in on a wave of change,” Connie said of her new position in New York. Always under an international spotlight, the Museum of Modern Art is still settling into its recently remodeled and expanded building—and enduring a considerable amount of criticism. It’s a time of transition for the staff too, including a changing of the guard among curators.The big question facing the museum is not new, she said, but it bears repeating:”How does the premiere museum of modern art deal with contemporary art? The museum has been dealing with it, but as we go forward, that’s still the question.”

Alison Saar ’78

Artist

Born into an artistic family, Alison has benefited from a nurturing environment and emerged naturally from the shadows of her renowned mother Betye Saar. With an MFA degree from Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) and a long list of exhibitions, public commissions, museum acquisitions, awards and grants, Alison is a powerful aesthetic voice and prominent figure in the national art scene. Her reputation is based on a poignantly expressive body of sculpture that explores the troubled history and spiritual strength of African- American women. Facts, memories, dreams, and fantasies merge in narrative works that have an undeniable physical presence and an unforgettable aura.

Her bold, archetypal figures are rooted in youthful contact with a global array of artworks treated by her artist/conservator father Richard Saar and her study of black visual traditions at Scripps with art historian Samella Lewis. As Alison found her own voice and perfected her skills in assemblage, wood carving, and bronze casting, she won residences at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Last spring, she announced her affiliation with L.A. Louver, a prestigious gallery in Venice, California, with “Coup,” a breathtaking exhibition of sculptures and drawings.The title piece was a mixed-media sculpture of a woman seated on a straight chair, her long hair forming a rope attached to a pile of old suitcases behind her. Apparently ready to sever herself from past bondage, the woman holds a large pair of scissors on her lap. In “Cache,” another striking piece, a nude woman lies on the floor, her hair flowing into an enormous ball that seems to encapsulate her personal history.

One important component of Alison’s exhibition list is a family affair. In 1990-91, UCLA presented a joint retrospective of works by Betye and Alison.This past summer, the Pasadena Museum of California Art offered a large show of works by Betye, Alison and her sister, Lezley, addressing their relationship, multi-racial heritage, and affinities to African cultures.

Alison also has landed commissions for large public projects in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. One complicated piece, still in the works, is a 10-foot-tall figure of abolitionist Harriet Tubman to be cast in bronze and installed next spring in New York, in a triangular park bounded by W. 122nd Street, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and St. Nicholas Avenue. Picking through the bureaucracy of publicly funded projects is often an “intense” experience, she said, and that’s certainly the case with “Harriet Tubman.””It’s in a street, over a subway, on a park,” she said. “I think I had to talk to every commission in New York City.”

An exhibition at the Delaware Center of Contemporary Arts, featuring 20 of Saar’s prints, will open April 20, 2007, and will run until August 2007.

Ariana Makau ’93

Stained Glass Conservator

Ariana’s interest in stained glass was sparked in Paris, where she took her first class in the subject during her junior year abroad. Unlike tourists who become enchanted with cathedral windows at Sainte-Chapelle or Notre Dame de Paris but soon move on to the next attraction, she had a life-changing experience.When she returned to Scripps, she created a life-size self-portrait in stained glass, merging her image with the venerable art form.

After graduating from Scripps,Ariana took a summer internship in the antiquities conservation department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.The program appealed because it would offer an inside view of many career possibilities, but she saw that conservation—requiring knowledge of art, science, and history— would suit her best.With a scholarship from the Getty Trust, she enrolled in a three-year conservation program at the Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art in London.

In 1997,Ariana graduated as the first woman and second person in the world to receive a master’s degree in stained glass conservation. She also acquired a new name, Nzilani, from her father. In his native culture, the Kamba people of Kenya, children are named at birth and again when they have found their life’s work. Eventually, his daughter would bestow her new name (her Kenyan grandmother’s name) on her business.

Although her specialty might seem too rarefied to be practical,Ariana’s services are in great demand. In 1998, after taking a year of advanced training in conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she returned to the West Coast and settled in the Bay Area. She worked for a studio that restored windows of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and took on independent conservation projects on the side.

In January 2003, she established Nzilani Glass Conservation as a fulltime business in Berkeley.Three years later the studio became a limited liability company. Providing window removal, restoration, and reinstallation services, the firm specializes in conservation surveys. Recently,Ariana and her crew completed the conservation of a 34-panel lay-light for the historic Pacific-Union Club in San Francisco. Nzilani also has established itself as a company that is equally adept at working on a project management team with a large construction company, as in a 76-window survey for Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco and subsequent conservation work there. Under the auspices of Architectural Resources Group, Nzilani has completed surveys for the Olympic Club in San Francisco and a historic church in Santa Rosa.

Maintaining a balance of big and small projects and offering personal service to individual clients,Ariana is still developing her career, but in one respect her journey has come full circle.The J. Paul Getty Museum, which has many stained glass works in its collection, is among Nzilani’s clients.

Suzanne Ely Muchnic is an art writer for the Los Angeles Times and author of Odd Man In, a biography of Norton Simon.