superstar of culture

noun [ C ] / su·​per·​star of cul·​tur /

a cultural change-maker; a champion of all things arts, culture, and education-related; a leader within the arts and culture field; an individual that we can all learn from

see also: cultural superhero, cultural role model

  • Clare Murray

Lauren Lessing, the change-embracer

However strange, change just cannot be arranged. Though many of us dream to outpace and replace it, why not embrace it, retrace it, and even chase it? Why not face that it is commonplace for our human race and let it move us at some certain pace with neuve grace?

In whatever case, space, or place, it:

“is the only constant in life” ~ Heracules ;

“is the dominant factor in society today” ~ Isaac Asimov ;

and “takes place when a person has risked [them]self and dares to become involved with experimenting with [their] own life” ~ Herbert Otto

Whether it comes in the form of a simple turn in some long, winding road or a total redirection of river flows, change brings new opportunities and potentials. It reshapes us. It remolds us. And even more, it renews us.

Of course, recognizing just how powerful and positive change can be is something we may not always do in our day-to-day lives. Instead, in the moment, an abrupt failure or new demand may make us upset. It may worry us. And it may overwhelm us. But, wouldn’t it be nice if we could welcome change – after the fact AND in the moment – with open arms and excitement? Moreover, wouldn’t it be nice if we could celebrate the stories of the superstars among us, who are already able to do that and currently working to support us all in that end as well?

Whether turning or twisting, transforming or transitioning, Lauren Lessing, one of my past mentors at the Colby College Museum of Art and the now-director of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum, is without a doubt one of the most inspirationally optimistic-about-change superstars of culture there is. Her story is rich in changes and ripe with even more. From studying library sciences to art history and later methods of teaching with and through art, Lauren has embraced each stage of her personal and professional development. Never has she shied away from change and never does she wish to miss an opportunity to meet new people, share her passions, and invite new perspectives.

This March, while in the midst of working determinately on the last stage of the Stanley’s major capital campaign to rebuild its facilities after a 2008 flood, Lauren has graciously and generously offered a bit of reflection on what change means to her and so many other great topics at the intersection of the arts, culture, and education. Here is what she has to say:

What inspired you to work in the arts? And how did your journey bring you to the Colby College Museum of Art, and most recently the Stanley Museum?

I suppose that it was pretty much inevitable that I would work in the arts. My father was a sculptor and graphic designer. My mother was a painter and high school art teacher. I grew up in studios and galleries and museums. Still, I took a round-about route to where I am. After earning a fine art degree at a small liberal arts college (Earlham College) in Indiana, I decided to become an art librarian. I went to Indiana University to get two masters degrees—an MA in art history and an MLS. While I was there, I met my mentor—the eminent historian of American art Sarah Burns, who encouraged me to get a Ph.D. in art history. Because of her—the way that she taught and the liveliness, humor and deep insight of her scholarship—I fell in love with art history. But I had a library degree by then, so I used it. I worked as a reference librarian at the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago for five years under the amazing Jack Brown before taking a fellowship at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. It was in KC, where I co-wrote a catalogue of the Nelson’s American Paintings collection with two more mentors—Margi Conrads and Randy Griffey—that I really completed my education. But it was a temporary position, and when the catalogue project was over I had to find another job. I had always found ways to teach—generally night classes at local colleges—and I loved working with college students. I also loved working in museums. So, when I saw a position at Colby that combined these two things, I jumped on it. And I learned so much at Colby! I learned from Sharon Corwin—a visionary director—and I learned just as much from my colleagues and the students and staff that I managed there. After eleven years at Colby, though, I knew that I was ready to be a director. I wanted to have the opportunity to follow in Sharon’s footsteps and build something, and the University of Iowa Stanley Museum has offered me that chance. Like Colby, this is an incredible place. We have a wonderful collection, a talented staff, a supportive, creative community, and all the resources that a research university can provide, but we lost our building in a 2008 flood and we are still homeless. I am pleased and proud to report that we’re now in the last third of a campaign to raise 25 million dollars for a new, state-of-the-art building. I can’t wait to open its doors to the campus and the community!

In your opinion, why is it worth building synergies between the arts and education?

Art and education are simply inseparable. The best art inevitably changes the way that we see the world, and I can’t think of a better definition of education than that. So, being able to use a world-class collection of art to teach is a dream come true! And one can teach far more than just art history with powerful works of art. For example, here at the Stanley, we have an important painting by the mid-20th century American artist Jackson Pollock. In 1943, the collector Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint a wall-sized canvas for the foyer of her New York apartment. She bought him a huge bolt of primed canvas—very expensive stuff—and Pollock, who was desperately poor at the time, was intimidated by that vast expanse of white. He was afraid of making a bad start, so he used the bits of extra canvas that he’d trimmed from the edges to work out some ideas. He painted various stories on these remnants—the myth of Pasiphae and the Bull, for instance (that remnant is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Then he turned back to the big canvas and he let all the stories go, and painted something new—a purely abstract work. And that movement from the familiar to the new is what his painting, Mural, can teach—innovation, epiphany, creativity, and how to embrace and lean into change. Guggenheim, who was always ahead of the curve, knew the painting belonged at a university, so she gave it to us.

What has been the most rewarding part of working at the intersection of the arts, culture, and education?

Watching the way that art transforms people—particularly young people. Next to having my family, it has been the greatest joy of my life to watch students learn their own strengths--their talent, their intelligence, and their capacity to make change—through encounters with art.

What legacy do you hope to impart upon those who you work with, interact with, and mentor in the museum field?

I have benefitted at every stage of my education and career from the support that teachers, mentors, and colleagues have given me. I have been welcomed into each new phase of my career. I hope that I can do the same for others, and teach them to do the same for those that come after them. Many people see art museums as closed, intimidating, and elite spaces. I want to help change that. I want everyone to feel welcome in art museums, whether they are pursuing careers here or coming to us as visitors. I want to fling open the doors and keep them wide open!

Any last words of wisdom on change and the future of the arts?

This is a moment of extraordinary change for art museums, and that’s a good thing. We are in the midst of what some call the “educational turn” because we are turning around to face our audiences, and incorporate their voices and points of view, as we never have before. I want to move and bend and grow with the way the field is changing.

Superstar snapshot: Lauren Lessing

Superstar strength: flexibility

Superstar secret talent: always maintaining a sense of humor!

Superstar noteworthy quote: “museums belong to everyone!”

(photo credit: Stanley Museum)

#change #StanleyMuseum #CCMD

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