Art professor balances responsibilities

Grace Zaplatynsky, Campus Connections Writer

Located on the fifth floor of the Arts and Communications building sits the office of the office of Leslie Walfish.

Inside sit several plants that are slowly dying, a Bob Ross Chia Pet statue with seeds covering his forehead and a series of Russian nesting dolls on her bookshelf.

Walfish sits in front of her desk looking through composition notebooks and answering emails on her laptop about visiting artists, the campus art collection and her art history class.

As campus arts curator, she actually holds three important positions: the curator for the University’s art collection, the director of the Allen Priebe and Annex Art Galleries and an art history professor in the art department at the UW Oshkosh.

Walfish is the first of her kind, having been hired after the position was created in 2016. After being hired, her first task as the campus arts curator was properly documenting and storing all of the artwork the University owns, not including the Reeve Union collection, consisting of 812 works of art from two different collections: the Works Progress Administration collection and the permanent collection.

The University-owned collection consists of works of art on display around campus and in the storage area. Walfish cares for it by taking inventory, making sure it is being properly protected, doing research on it and letting people know what is in it so they can display a work of art in their own offices.

“Around campus, we have some work in different offices, like the dean’s suite is going to get some, and around the chancellor’s office there’s some, but out of our entire collection, I would say about 10 percent is out around campus,” Walfish said. “So we still have a lot in storage, so a lot more can be seen around.”

To get a piece of art hung on a wall in their office, a faculty member must email her first. Then she shows them a folder where all the pictures of the available art are.

“If they see something they like, they come to see it in person, and if they decide it would be a good fit for their office space, I have them fill out this loan paperwork that promises that they’ll care for it while it’s on display and that they’ll return it to us when they no longer want it,” Walfish said.

Art that is not hanging in hallways or offices is kept in a small walk-in storage closet inside another storage area off the Annex gallery room. There, Walfish keeps large artworks standing face-to-face with each other on a shelf with a large piece of cardboard between pieces that face each other.

Walfish said she practices passive conservation, which is taking the artwork out of any kind of situation that could potentially damage it.

“I store it in a way as best as I can – controlled, limited access to light so it doesn’t get light damage,” she said.

Currently, Walfish uses a spreadsheet with each work’s information on it, such as the artist, the title, the date, the medium, the size and any donor information, but she would love to create a database with all of that information for people to easily access.

“I’d like to put it onto a database where people can search it and can see what’s available for research, what’s the information we have about our collection; they can find where that object is located on campus and go visit it if they want to see it in person,” she said. “There’s funding issues with that, and I have to seek out funding, and once I get funding, then we have to put all that information in for every object.”

One of the collections Walfish is in charge of is the WPA collection from the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was finding ways to put people to work and the government sponsored some artists to beautify the nation through public art projects in public buildings.

“We have three murals on campus from the WPA period,” Walfish said. “One is in Dempsey and two are in Swart Hall.”

Walfish said many artists around the country also had created artwork that was purchased by the government and given to public schools.

“We have this great collection of images,” she said. “Some of them relate to Wisconsin history or look back at what Oshkosh looked like at different times, and some of them are celebrating farmers and workers and that kind of thing.”

The position was created out of a need from the art department spending too much time on managing the gallery instead of teaching classes and the lack of organization and curation for the art collection.

According to Chancellor Leavitt, the absence of a campus art curator position was brought to his attention when he wanted to make one of his meeting rooms more functional but didn’t know what to do with all of the artwork that covered the walls of the room.

“This room was actually like a little mini art museum, and, though I obviously very much appreciate and am a big fan of art, I couldn’t have it here because I needed to have some place that we could work in here, some works putting up some whiteboards,” Leavitt said.

He said he started asking questions about what to do with the art, where to put it and who is in charge of it all and found that the art department had been rotating the art curation responsibilities for several years, which brought to his attention the need of a campus art curator position.

“It’s a very time-consuming, intensive job to curate the art that they have but also to do the curation of student art,” Leavitt said. “So there’s a lot of different reasons why I think we needed to have a campus art curator.”

Leavitt said the decision to hire for this position occurred two years ago, and it took a full year to complete the search and get Walfish into the position.

“The search committee [was] made primarily from the art department but also had some members of the University committee, such as Josh Ranger, who’s the University archivist, and somebody from the Reeve Union gallery,” Leavitt said.

Susan Maxwell, the head of the art department, said she was a part of the search committee and Walfish stuck out from the other candidates because of her experience and education. Walfish has a Master of Arts in art history and museum studies from the University of Arizona and John Hopkins University, respectively. She was the curator for both UW-Stevens Point and UW-Green Bay for one year each, and before that she was the gallery and collections coordinator at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin for just over eight years.

“She’s got a lot of experience in handling different kinds of collections and has some really innovative ideas about how to manage art collection but also how to do outreach with our shows, the gallery events,” Maxwell said. “She’s also very knowledgeable about handling collections, so the sort of nitty-gritty of database management and things like that.”

Maxwell said she had met Walfish before the search when she took one of her classes to the gallery at Lawrence University during the time Walfish was working there.

“She’s really excited about the things that she does and her ease in talking to students, making them comfortable with things like 2,000-year-old coins and getting them excited about what they were looking at [were my first impressions of her],” Maxwell said.

Student Gallery Art Board President Carly Gomez said the board had the chance to meet the candidates and contribute their opinion on who they wanted to be selected during the search.

“Even though we don’t get huge merit in the decision of who got chosen for that position, we still got to meet the various candidates and kind of talk to them and have a vote as one whole gallery board, which was really nice because the position works so closely with us,” Gomez said.

Gomez said the board preferred Leslie over the other candidate because she was more local than the other person.

“The other candidate was more international, which could have taught us a lot of things, but then Leslie was more local and knew a lot about Wisconsin, which is nice for our case because one of our goals is to reach out to the community and offer our services to them,” Gomez said.

According to Leavitt, funding for the position was initially split between his office and the College of Letters and Science, but now the funds have been completely folded into the C.O.L.S.

Walfish’s new position of three responsibilities has made a positive impact on campus by lifting the responsibility of the directorship of the Allen Priebe and Annex art galleries from the other professors in the art department, curating and cataloguing the art collection and teaching a new class.

Leavitt said Walfish is affecting the art department and the campus positively by curating students’ shows, having an understanding of what the campus’s collection looks like and being able to consult on different displays on campus, such as in the chancellor’s suite.

“I know we have a lot of bare walls out there, but she’s helping us fill these walls,” Leavitt said. “And with walls, there are certain kinds of images or certain kinds of messages that I want to project when you walk into the Chancellor’s suite, and she is someone who can help decide what that is.”

Maxwell said Walfish is positively making a difference in the art department, not only through becoming the director of the gallery but also through bringing a new special topics class, museum studies, which was recently approved to become a new class.

“She’s teaching a new class for us called museum studies, which I think is going to be exciting for students in art, but also we’ve had students in history and anthropology be interested in this class,” Maxwell said. “So we’re hoping to build on that, and we’ve never had someone able to teach that before.”

Gomez, who had taken the museum studies class with Walfish, said it was an amazing experience for her as an art educator and others from around the campus, specifically art majors.

“That class allowed me to look deeper into why do we even have museums?” Gomez said. “What makes humans compelled to collect all of these things and show them? And then it kind of went deeper and deeper from there.”

The museum studies class will be offered every other year, and the next class will be in the interim of the spring 2019 semester as a study abroad class to Venice during the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious and long-standing contemporary arts show, according to Maxwell.

On the gallery side, Walfish has been forging relationships outside of the department with other members of the University and local communities, which has helped raise the gallery’s profile and put it in a more stable face, Maxwell said.

“We’ve had the Priebe gallery and the Annex gallery for a long time, and it was always sort of a faculty member who had to do this in addition to their other duties, and so now we have someone who does this professionally,” Maxwell said.

As director of the Allen Priebe Art Gallery, Walfish also works closely with the Student Gallery Board.

“It’s student-run, so she’s basically like their adviser, and the students I’ve talked to are really pleased with how she interacts with them and the respect she gives to them and their decision-making,” Maxwell said.

Walfish said her main goal for the position is to get more people use the gallery, realize that it’s a resource for them and that the gallery is there for everyone.

“I would like to share great art with people, get them thinking about different connections in the world and different connections in disciplines and that kind of thing through art,” she said.

Walfish said her favorite parts of the job are working with students, having the three different responsibilities to keep her busy and doing all the things she loves to do, including working with collections and artists, putting on shows and teaching.

“Sometimes I can’t believe that someone pays me to do this job because I am getting paid for doing what I love,” Walfish said. “I feel very lucky for that.”