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Sweeney Profile on the Rise

Sweeney Art Gallery's Profile Is on the Rise

UCR's downtown gallery is gaining a reputation for scholarship and innovation.

(January 23, 2008)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Two years after moving into the ARTSblock in downtown Riverside, the Sweeney Art Gallery is developing a reputation for intellectual research and as a leader in exploring new ideas about the relationship between art and life.

For example:

- The recently closed exhibition of Mexican artist Gabriela León will travel to the Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz. The exhibit is the third Sweeney-curated exhibit to travel in five years and is accompanied by the first major catalog on the artist.

- An exhibition of the work of Cuban painter Pedro Alvarez that opens Jan. 26 will include a 144-page scholarly book and an international symposium on the artist and Cuba.

- Seven of the 81 artists featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial — one-fourth of the California artists featured in the nation’s most important survey of contemporary art — were featured at the UCR gallery in the past two years.

“We are contributing original ideas to the field of art and culture, and when another gallery, especially another UC gallery, wants our exhibition in their gallery, it shows UCR's prominence as a national leader in new ideas about the relationship between art and life,” said Tyler Stallings, gallery director.

The Sweeney’s move to the ARTSblock, additional resources provided by CHASS Dean Stephen Cullenberg and the appointment of Jonathan Green as ARTSblock executive director have helped raise UCR’s profile in the art world, Stallings said. The gallery now has the resources to conduct the kind of intellectual research expected in the UC system and to engage the broader public, he said.

Stallings said he had three objectives when he came to UCR in January 2007: Do scholarly catalogs, which Sweeney hadn’t done; travel more exhibitions; and do first-time surveys or significant exhibitions of artists.

The Leon multi-media exhibition, “Sunday Walk to the Zocalo of Oaxaca,” was Stallings’ first major show at Sweeney. It was Leon’s first solo exhibition outside Mexico.

With a grant from UC MEXUS, Stallings visited the artist in Oaxaca, walked the streets where the annual teacher strike of 2006 became international news, and reviewed videos and audio tapes of the incident.

“When social issues get discussed in popular media the tendency is to reduce them to sound bites,” Stallings said. “The value art can bring to the same situation is to introduce ambiguity of meaning. It reminds viewers there are more complicated meanings that can’t be reduced down.”

Extensive research goes into the selection of an artist and contextualizing the work, said Shane Shukis, assistant director of the gallery. Once the decision is made about which artist to feature, art selected for the show must be professionally packed and shipped, and inventoried when it arrives at the gallery. Then the artist, exhibit curator and the gallery’s exhibition designer negotiate the show’s installation.

With the Sweeney’s new emphasis on producing ambitious scholarship to accompany exhibitions, it takes a major effort to assemble a catalog, Shukis said. Essayists interact with the editor and translators (both of the recent Sweeney catalogs were bilingual), and the designer incorporates the overall aesthetic of the work with the printer and sometimes a co-publisher.

The process usually takes about a year, but the Sweeney staff has worked hard to make such projects happen earlier rather than later in order to raise the gallery’s profile quickly, Shukis said.

“We try to find artists who produce work that is socially relevant and powerful, and has an inherent aesthetic quality,” he said.

The upcoming Alvarez exhibit — “The Signs Pile Up: Paintings by Pedro Alvarez” — will include two Sweeney firsts: a 144-page scholarly book about the Cuban painter and an international symposium, “Art from the Island Nation: Transnational Cuba and the Myth of Isolation.”

With financial support from the Center for Ideas and Society, the symposium will feature artists and art critics from Europe and elsewhere as well as UCR faculty discussing Alvarez’ work and the myth of economic, racial and political isolation of Cuba during the “Periodo Especial” of the 1990s.

“This painter was very complex,” Shukis said. “There are all sorts of intellectual nodes — colonialism, race and hybridity, politics — and the exploration of the many myths about Cuba.”

Stallings said he hopes to do more symposia and more international shows. He also wants to produce an exhibition about artists and nanotechnology, an artistic recognition that UCR is a national leader in nanotechnology research.

“Sweeney and university galleries in general are doing more experimental work,” Stallings said. “The UC system perspective is research and education. It’s not just about putting paintings on the wall. It’s about research and art. … Exhibitions curated by Sweeney Art Gallery represent the same principles of intellectual research and production that you see in the sciences.”

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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