A professionally run gallery with a sophisticated exhibition schedule is not what most people would expect to find on the campus of a community college. Raise those expectations, though, and they will be disappointed to find anything else.
At San Diego Mesa College, that process is well under way with the recent appointment of Kathleen Stoughton as the school's first full-time gallery director. Stoughton's appointment sets in motion a major revitalization and expansion of arts offerings at Mesa. By the 1990s, the school will boast a large new gallery for its permanent collection and changing exhibitions, many of which will travel and be accompanied by catalogues. Mesa will also offer the only museum-studies curriculum in San Diego.
Stoughton, 32, has worked at many of this country's finest art museums, including the National Museum of American Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. None of the prestige enjoyed by such institutions has trickled down to the level of the community college gallery, however, and Stoughton is prepared to fight the prevailing prejudice against community colleges. Her energy, experience and ideas suggest that credibility won't be long in coming.
Mesa's student body will number more than 25,000 this year, with more than 4,000 enrolled in the school's art courses.
"We have a culturally diverse population at Mesa College," Stoughton said. "We want to address that. We want gallery programming that supports the art history program here, which is growing. Ultimately, we want to fill a gap in the art community in San Diego. We want to provide something different."
Mesa's proposed gallery, designed by San Diego's hottest young architect, Rob Quigley, will indeed fill at least one gap in the local art scene. Part of its 3,500 square feet of exhibition space will be devoted to the display of the Charles Robertson collection of African art, which was donated to the college in 1985. Every two years, another exhibition of African art will also be shown at the gallery, making it the only venue in San Diego to regularly show African art.
Stoughton said Mesa is committed to serving the student.
"I want that to be reflected in the programs at the gallery. I want the whole program to be active, participatory, not just an exhibition to walk in and see."
While a student at UC Santa Cruz, Stoughton studied art history and music "with equal intensity. What came out of all that was a profound interest in interdisciplinary arts." As a graduate student in art history at the University of Southern California, she curated an exhibition that brought together an architect, painter and composer in collaboration. For another exhibition, she invited composers to interpret abstract paintings through their music. The response was tremendous, she said, and it reaffirmed her interest in explaining art in alternative forms.
In exhibitions at Mesa, she said, "I want the music, literature, history and interior design departments to be active. Their participation will be critical to the exhibitions."
Stoughton plans an "eclectic, well-balanced" exhibition schedule for the new gallery, one that will feature emerging artists as well as historical shows.
For the upcoming season, she has already lined up some ambitious fare: an exhibition of emerging Mexican artists (organized by USC's Fisher Gallery); "Values Made Visual," a show of African art curated by Mesa professor Barbara Blackmun; a "mini-retrospective" of local artist Reesey Shaw; a show of new work by San Diegan Carole Laventhol; and the annual student art show. Three catalogues will be produced during the year.
To bring the present gallery space (a converted classroom) up to the same professional standards as the shows themselves, the ceiling has been lifted, track lighting has been installed and the walls have been resurfaced.
"Now that we want to have more professional exhibitions here, we want to make sure the students are well trained," Stoughton added, since students make up most of the gallery's support staff.
This year's course in Gallery Exhibition Skills will be "team taught" by Stoughton, art historian Sally Yard and gallery preparer Michael Golino. Eventually, Stoughton would like to extend the course into a three-part museum studies program that would allow more time for both behind-the-scenes introductions to museums and galleries and direct experience in organizing shows, from filling out insurance forms to installing the work.
"I know a lot of people are going to ask why a junior college is offering a museum studies program," she said. "It's about exposing people to the art world, teaching them about art and letting them explore this as a career option. It's a place to start."