Nice Work If You Can Find It
Gallery Profile: UVM's Francis Colburn Gallery
Renee vander Stelt, left, Nancy Dwyer
The University of Vermont’s Francis Colburn Gallery is so underpublicized that some UVM staffers have either never heard of it or don’t know where it is.
“The Francis Colburn Gallery?” a Waterman Building receptionist responded when asked for directions. “Hmm … Have you tried looking on a campus map?” Yes, but it’s not shown there.
The Francis Colburn Gallery, named for a painter and UVM art department head who died in 1984, is situated on the third floor of Williams Hall, one of the grand old brick buildings that line University Green.
Even when you find it, the Colburn doesn’t have much of a presence. It’s a narrow, roughly 600-square-foot space that could be brightly lit from the west — and afford a commanding view of Lake Champlain and downtown Burlington — if not for an installed wall that blocks a row of windows.
But there’s no obscuring the gallery’s affiliation with the university’s art department, which occupies much of Williams Hall. Line Bruntse, an art prof at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, introduced her recent Colburn show of installations and photos with this art-speak: “Bruntse’s work proposes haptic and material responses to the effects that electronically mediated communication is having on our lives. Here, ‘touch’ as an emotive, metaphorical and implied or actual element in communication is seen as having been altered or rendered obsolete by mediated interaction.”
To be sure, not all artists in academia sound so esoteric. UVM sculpture professor Nancy Dwyer, for example, offers plainspoken accounts of the recent history and changing mission of the Colburn. Dwyer, who came to UVM in 2004 after decades of working and showing in lower Manhattan, serves on an art department faculty committee that curates the Colburn.
Brushing back her long, gray-streaked hair, Dwyer acknowledges that awareness of the gallery doesn’t extend much beyond Williams Hall. It “doesn’t get full press coverage because it doesn’t get full press attention from our committee,” Dwyer says in an interview in her high-ceilinged office upstairs from the Colburn. Faculty members’ priorities are centered on teaching and, in many cases, on their own art — which accounts for the gallery’s marketing deficit, she suggests. “It takes a lot of time and energy to run a gallery,” Dwyer notes.
Locals who wouldn’t see posters hanging in Williams’ broad central stairway may become aware of Colburn shows via word of mouth, she says. Word had better travel fast, however: Artists’ works hang in the gallery for only three weeks at a time. (All exhibits and events are also listed in this newspaper.)
Shows tend to be front-loaded at the start of semesters. The faculty committee tries to arrange for students to see works by at least two professional artists — who are usually friends or associates of committee members — before a round of student shows that fill the Colburn during each semester’s closing weeks.
The gallery, which was dedicated in 1977, switched to this more ambitious and varied programming schedule a few years ago after having been used exclusively for display of student art. But many gallery-goers may be unaware that the Colburn is one of the few venues in Burlington showing work by contemporary artists from outside Vermont. Bruntse has been followed there by Baltimore-based Renee vander Stelt, whose show of two- and three-dimensional works on paper remains at the Colburn until the end of the month.
Dwyer agrees that these emerging artists, whose work departs radically from Vermont’s representational tradition, deserve an audience larger than the art department in-crowd. And the Colburn could find a following among the disproportionately large number of artists in the Burlington area, Dwyer suspects.
“I love the art scene here!” she declares. “It took me a while to come to it on its own terms — not to be looking at it from a New York perspective.” Now, she’s even got a studio on Pine Street.
A full-time Colburn curator may be beyond the art department’s budgetary bounds, but maybe a class could take on the task of running — and publicizing — the gallery, Dwyer suggests. That’s something worth looking into, she says, because it would be “great if the space got more focused attention.”