Behind the canvases of Blaffer
For almost five years, the Blaffer Art Museum has flourished under new leadership. Tucked away in the UH School of Art, its curatorial arm has slowly brought national attention and has drawn emerging, contemporary artists.
The wheels were first set in motion by Director and Chief Curator Claudia Schmuckli, who has strived to create a portal into the art world for students as part of Blaffer’s mission.
“I think one of the most important services that we can provide is access to a group of internationally relevant artists — be it through the lecture series, be it through exhibitions, be it through studio workshop proponents that we organize — because that allows the students and forces them to think about what they’re doing on a global scale,” Schmuckli said. “To me, that has always been the driving force behind the effort of defining this program.”
By hosting internationally renowned contemporary artists, like Andy Coolquitt, Pamela Frasier and Mary Evans, students are able to reinvent their voices and participate in the global art conversation. Because Blaffer is in a unique position between the worlds of academia and practical application, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Amy Powell said she believes the museum can offer something that traditional institutions may be unable to do: provide a stage for innovation.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity to be a laboratory, a place for experimentation and a place for the creation of new work and new ways of thinking,” Powell said. “So we do this practically as a University art museum.”
Blaffer not only brings bigwigs of contemporary art, but also pays homage to the Houston community by consistently incorporating local Houston artists in major exhibitions. Most recently, “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” featured three Houston artists participating in the global conversation surrounding “artist-orchestrated” meals.
“The way we really like to work with Houston-based artists is to make them integral to the entire conversation that is happening in the museum so that there isn’t a sense of isolationism,” Schmuckli said. “We honor the Houston artists, but we honor them even better by placing them in a context that features artists from all over the world.”
But since the dawn of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, contemporary art has sometimes received a negative connotation. They may feel that contemporary art is disconnected from reality and that it exists for the upper echelon of society.
“A lot of people still have problems with contemporary art; they don’t know what it’s about. They have a certain idea of it being removed from them, from their daily lives, from the concerns that the average person deals with on a daily basis,” Schmuckli said. “And I think one of our goals is to — in everything that we do and through every exhibition that we put on — emphasize that it is not.”
For Amy Powell, the rocker image of the contemporary artist is a relic. They are expected to be articulate about their work and scholarly in their studio approach if they are to remain relevant and interesting. Artists with depth are highly sought after, especially by Blaffer.
“There’s still this romanticized idea of the artist — of ‘I do what I do, and I don’t know why, but I’m moved to do it that way, and it expresses myself’ — and it’s not interesting or important,” Powell said. “So we’re really invested in work that has a lot of depth of feeling, of materials, of engagement with really important ideas. And it’s vital that all the artists that we work with are able to articulate their work in those arenas.”
The museum caters to people from all walks of life. For Blaffer Student Association co-president Nohelia Vargas, art isn’t just for the highbrow members of society; everyone can take away personal experiences from exhibitions.
“I have learned that contemporary art serves as a basis for the awakening of curiosity and imagination, which … leads to knowledge and learning,” Vargas said. “I realized that whether the people from the audience are art connoisseurs or people that (are) not much in touch with the art world, which is, indeed, the majority of the audience … it makes them more aware of their surroundings and life.”
For many art students, post-graduation life is particularly frightening. Networking can make or break one’s path to a successful career, and painting senior and BSA member Javier Pulido is thankful to have a treasure trove so close to home.
“After you graduate, it’s really hard to get going. The connections we can make in school are what we need, and the Blaffer can give that to us,” Pulido said. “You can see their perspective; you can see how they work. I feel that helps a lot because you can compare how you’re working with how they’re working.”