Conversations in Contemporary Art, a series of adventures— there can be no other word—into the New York art world began in fall 2011. This September a group of 14 alumnae and friends— up from the eight to 10 of previous series—launched the third round of five Conversations designed to give participants intimate access to this fascinating, always provocative, realm. Under the guidance and direction of Kathleen Madden ’92, an art historian, critic, curator, and author who initiates and manages the itineraries, the “conversationalists” visit galleries, studios, and museum exhibits; they meet and enjoy discussions with curators, gallerists, critics, and many times, the artists themselves. Participants not only enjoy the art, they learn how to ask questions about it and engage comfortably in discussions about the works. They also explore the multitudinous centers of art in the city, increasing their knowledge about the creation, exhibition, and sales of contemporary works. Madden always sends out extensive memos to the group members to prepare them for an upcoming session, then follows up the session with a review of what was seen, how provocative it is, and its significance in the scheme of today’s art world. These groups include collectors and those who might become collectors; most are women who would like to understand current forms of artistic expression.
With extensive contacts in the art world, Madden keeps the mix of locales, exhibits, and people varied and fresh. For each series, she provides the program of scheduled visits and a suggested reading list, along with a list of related magazines and periodicals (she has contributed to several), and Web sites to browse. According to Dorothy Denburg ’70, vice president of college relations, the variety of the programs and the access afforded by Madden have greatly contributed to the series’ ongoing success, with several repeat participants signing up. In supporting the effort and making the needed arrangements for the outings, “We were responding to what we know our alumnae enjoy and want to learn about,” adds Denburg whose office provides a menu of special programs and events for alumnae, with the promotional and creative assistance of Alumnae Affairs director Erin Fredrick ’01 and administrator Susan Cohn ’66.
The sessions are held on Thursdays; they begin at 10 a.m. and last for about two and one-half hours. While there is a one-time cost for each series of Conversations, if a participant is unable to attend a session, she may offer her place to someone else. This has been a boon for Anne Altchek ’79, an enthusiastic alumna who has signed up for all three series. She says, “When unable to attend because of travels or previous engagements, I have been able to [send]…friends of mine who are all very involved and knowledgeable in that field.” Altchek also gives high marks to Madden who leads the seminars in an “accessible and brilliant way…with a very down-to-earth and direct approach.”
The final session of spring 2012 was held at the New York gallery of Hauser & Wirth, which also maintains exhibit spaces in Zurich and London. California-born artist Matthew Day Jackson whose work encompasses many forms—sculpture, collage, painting, and photography, among others—organized the exhibit, “Science on the Back End.” Jackson spoke to the Barnard group about form, content, and the relationships between works from the artists he invited to be in the show. Insisting that he not be considered a curator, Jackson told the audience that his intent was to explore the artists’ “larger creative impulse…the way in which each one of us processes and reorders our life experience into formal strategies, according to our personal priorities,” as he wrote in an essay about the exhibit. An off-the-cuff comment about one of the show’s works, Wheel, by Mark Ganzglass inspired the title. Wrote Jackson, “Science marks the frontier of the mysterious.…[Ganzglass’s wheel] embodies the similarities between art and science.”
The fall 2012 sessions include a diversified roster of venues that includes The Museum at Eldridge Street; a stop at the solo show of Erica Baum ’84 at Bureau; a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography; and a visit to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Often, a session includes more than one venue.
The efforts of several alumnae went into the creation of Conversations in Contemporary Art. Longtime Barnard supporter and volunteer Diana Vagelos ’55, herself signing up for all three sessions, had attended some of Madden’s talks at Sotheby’s where she is a frequent guest lecturer. Discussing her experiences with Joan Snitzer, senior lecturer and director of Barnard’s visual arts program, Vagelos wondered about organizing some type of similar program for alumnae. Snitzer immediately told her that Madden was an alumna and would be perfect for a Barnard group; Snitzer continues to help facilitate contacts with artists and museums.
Although a political science major at Barnard, Madden says she was always interested in art and “always enrolled in art classes.” Her Barnard degree was followed by a master’s degree in art history from Columbia, and a PhD from the University of Wales. Well traveled, she worked for a time with The Tate Modern and Phaidon Press in London and Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
Vagelos calls Conversations a “creative win-win” initiative, one that offers the continuing opportunity to learn, and, for the College, helps those connections among alumnae. “Some members of the group have had no previous contact with Barnard since graduation,” she says, and pausing for emphasis, adds, “This year there was so much interest generated for Barnard that we organized an art table for the College’s Annual Gala.”