New JSMA director calls UO's art museum a 'genuine treasure'

John Weber

John Weber, an Oregonian by way of California and New York, has returned to his home state to be the new executive director of the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Weber, who has been on campus about two months, took the baton from retired museum director Jill Hartz. A Corvallis native and Reed College graduate, he most recently was the founding director of the University of California Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences.

During his time in Santa Cruz and at Skidmore College’s Francis Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Weber established strong ties among faculty members, students and the community around art and interdisciplinary exhibition programs of national and international caliber. Prior to his work in academic museums, Weber was a curator and department head at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Weber recently sat down to talk about his move to the UO and his vision for the museum’s future.

Q: Why are academic museums important?

A: Academic museums are important because we change students’ lives by giving them an educational experience like nothing else on university campuses. We offer students firsthand contact with art works that represent human cultures across time and geography, and we also let them experience what it means to create those art encounters, all the work it takes to engage diverse audiences with world cultures, and with our own.

You can’t teach science without a lab. You can’t teach dance and drama without a theater. And you can’t teach art without a gallery, a museum, because that is where you situate and encounter the real thing, the art itself. So a museum is FUNDAMENTAL to teaching art, and art is FUNDAMENTAL to understanding human history and human identity. If we want to understand who we are, both as individuals and as cultures trying to live together in the world, we need art, and the museum is where we can go to see it.

Q: What excites you about being at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art?

A: I’m excited because the JSMA is a terrific museum with a dedicated, hard-working, mission-driven staff, a good facility and a community of supporters who love it. Our East Asian collections are a genuine treasure, and I’m thrilled about the renovation of our Soreng Gallery, which features art from China, opening this winter. I’m excited about the capacity we have to generate new exhibitions that can travel nationwide, and I’d like to see us collaborate with faculty to create periodic interdisciplinary exhibitions that will be used across the campus in teaching, working with folks in art and art history, architecture and design, the humanities, the natural and social sciences, all of it! Those collaborations are complex and challenging, but that’s how you achieve deep and wide student impact. The museum already has a good record of faculty collaboration, and I know we can do more.

I’m also looking forward to a show next fall of Oregon artists who have received the Hallie Ford fellowship. It is the most prestigious award for artists in the state, kind of like an “art Oscar.” I was an out-of-state juror for the fellowship a few years ago, and I know our regional and statewide audience will be impressed to see the breadth of contemporary work happening now in Oregon.

Q: How has your first month at the JSMA gone? 

A: It’s been a whirlwind, and quite wonderful. I’m spending a lot of time getting to know the staff of the JSMA while making regular foray across campus to visit department heads, deans, program directors and others around campus who are or could be involved with the museum. I like to meet people where they work and hear about what’s going on, and it’s clear that there is great work going on all over campus. I’m excited about the development of the Knight Campus and about the range of things happening in relationship to environmental studies across the curriculum, in art, architecture, the humanities and social sciences, and physical and biological sciences. The Common Reading show we do each year will deal with that next fall, and that’s going to be a meaty, meaningful project for all of us.

Q: What is the coolest thing you are working on right now?

A: We are bringing a show of recent photography and video by Carrie Mae Weems to the JSMA this winter and spring when she gets an honorary degree, and I’m really excited about having her work on campus. Carrie Mae is a major contemporary artist and a MacArthur “genius” award winner. Her art is in collections all over the country, and she grew up in Portland. She deals with questions of race, history, family, the ways that people of color experience life in the U.S., and the politics of the moment we are living through now. I have tremendous admiration for her achievement as an artist, and we’ve been colleagues and friends since we were in grad school together at UC San Diego in the early 1980s. In part because we are both from Oregon and had closely related interests as artists (photography and language, art and politics), we’ve stayed in touch over the years. One of the first things I did at UC Santa Cruz, my last job, was to help bring Carrie Mae for a lecture and some dialogues with our students. She gave one of the best artist talks I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of them. Now that the U of O the Black Cultural Center has just opened, there’s a superb exhibit at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History ”Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years – The Eugene Story” and I know that having Carrie Mae Weems here will be a special moment for our campus.

Q: What is your favorite exhibition that you have curated or collaborated on? What made it special?

A: Tough question. But I’d have to say “FOREST (for a thousand years…)” a 22-channel audio installation by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The Institute of the Arts and Sciences that I directed at UC Santa Cruz brought it to the university’s arboretum and botanic garden, working in collaboration with the San Jose Museum of Art. Sited in the arboretum’s redwood research grove, “FOREST” immersed visitors in a sublime texture of sound that took them on a journey through nature, across time and human history. The piece has an indescribable emotional impact. It’s really a perfect work of art, but rarely exhibited since most museums don’t have forests to put it in. When FOREST premiered in Germany in dOCUMENTA, the most important contemporary art show in the world, the New York Times did a long profile on them and that installation. I love their work, and bringing FOREST to Santa Cruz was a career highlight for me.

Q: Do you have any exhibitions that you would like to see happen at the JSMA?

A: Yes. One, Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet,”a 40-channel audio installation of “Spem in Alium,” a glorious vocal piece by 16th century British polyphonic choral composer Thomas Tallis. Two, Isaac Julien’s new video installation and photography exhibition about Frederick Douglass, the 19th century black abolitionist, combined with a show of archival photographs of him Douglass was a towering figure in American history and reputedly the most-photographed man of the 19th century. Three, a major collaboration with UO faculty about a topic of widespread curricular concern, on a topic to be determined, that results in an exhibition and related events that bring thousands of students, faculty, staff, schools and the general public together in the museum.