Q&A Anthony Hirschel

The Smart Museum director talks museum technology, community outreach, and student employees.

Anthony Hirschel has worked at academic art museums at Yale University, the University of Virginia, and Emory University. The Dana Feitler director of the Smart Museum of Art since 2005, Hirschel trained as an art historian of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Before joining the Smart Museum, he was director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

How has the Smart worked to engage visitors in recent years?

One of the most effective ways the Smart is able to reach new audiences is through collaboration and cross promotion. Collaboration is part of the Smart’s DNA; it is built into nearly everything we do. For example, our current exhibition, Performing Images, on view through June 15, was the inspiration behind a wider festival of art and culture on campus called Envisioning China. By joining with the Logan Arts Center, the Film Studies Center, University of Chicago Presents, and Court Theatre, we’re able to build thematic connections that enhance the art and ideas on view while at the same time introducing film buffs, classical music aficionados, and theatergoers to an exhibition that they may not have otherwise known about.

How is the Smart responding to changing demographics in the United States?

The Smart has the dual fortune of being a part of a diverse urban community and being located on a campus full of passionate, inquisitive younger adults. And the museum is free and open to all. So we’re on solid footing to think about and engage with these issues. We are already piloting projects that take a new approach. One initiative, known as CoCre8, developed in partnership with Arts + Public Life and Urban Gateways, rejects traditional top-down learning to bring Chicago Public Schools students, local artists, and teachers together to look at, talk about, and respond to art. Another partnership provides training to graduates of the Odyssey Project—a free year- long course in the humanities offered by the University for adults at or below the poverty level—to be Smart docents and lead tours of the museum.

What current or recent exhibits exemplify how the Smart is looking toward the future of museum experiences?

Over the last few years, the Smart has started to bring more technology into exhibitions, in particular, iPads with short documentary videos and interviews with artists. In an exhibition like The Sahmat Collective, which had to do with contemporary art in India, the videos provided political and social context that would have been difficult to address in a label or handout. We’re also using the museum’s 40th anniversary as a catalyst to rethink our approach to education, interpretation, and engagement. We will be collaborating with architects, artists, community partners, and experts in the field to create experimental museum experiences and come together to debate this very question: what is the function and future of museums?

How does the Smart engage with members and visitors through events and social media?

The Smart offers a number of programs that cater to different types of visitors: family days, after-hours parties and study halls for College students, interactive social hours for grad students and the creative community, and so forth. These events are more informal and social and are designed to spark conversations and exchange. We want people to have a great experience when they visit the Smart—one that they want to share with their friends, coworkers, and family, through social media or in person. The Smart is engaging with its audiences via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, but we aren’t steering people to respond to art in a predetermined way or throwing up restrictions on taking photos in the galleries. If they like, visitors can tweet their way through an exhibition or share photos of their favorite artworks. But just as importantly, if one wants to look and reflect and talk, then one can do that as well.

What would the average reader be surprised to know about the Smart?

The “Smart” in our name isn’t a nod to the University’s intellectual prowess. It’s a family name. The museum is named after David and Alfred Smart, brothers who founded Esquire in the 1930s in Chicago.

What important items has the Smart Museum received as a result of an estate gift?

The Smart recently received more than 700 outstanding European and American photographs through the bequest of Betty, SB’43, and Lester Guttman. The collection ranges from the very earliest days of the medium to more recent work. Throughout the next academic year, a PhD curatorial intern will be tasked with researching the collection and helping the curatorial staff develop an exhibition drawn from it.

What does the Smart Museum lack that perhaps a generous donor could help procure? Where are the greatest funding needs?

The Smart employs more than 90 College and graduate students from the University of Chicago each year. The students play an essential role in the day-to-day life of the museum, working alongside the professional staff to lead tours for schoolchildren, do research into the collection, make visitors feel welcome, and assist with a host of administrative duties. In these roles, students gain valuable experience and develop an understanding of professional museum practices. Smart alumni now work at major museums in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The majority of funding for the student staff comes from the Smart’s annual operating budget. A gift in support of student employment would help support the Smart in its efforts to shape the next generation of arts leaders, educators, advocates, innovators, and patrons.

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