Smile Politely

Meet educator and gallery director Lisa Costello

I’ve written before about how in times of unrest, spaces like Parkland College’s Giertz Gallery can provide respite, inspiration, and hope. And it is one of the cruelest ironies of the COVID-19 shutdown, that these spaces remain shuttered when we need them most.  While Giertz has done an outstanding job of engaging with its audience online, I know I am not alone in missing the live gallery, where the work has been thoughtfuly curated and installed by its talented director, Lisa Costello. I recently reached out to Costello to see how she was faring, to get insight into her philosophy for guiding a teaching gallery, and to learn what we might expect from the gallery going forward. 

Smile Politely: How have you been faring during the shutdown? What have you done to keep yourself grounded and energized?

Lisa Costello: Connecting with people has really kept me grounded. When things shut down for the first couple weeks, I was busy with transitioning the gallery to an online format and rescheduling events. Preparing for what was to come next, and I wasn’t able to fully grasp the reality of what was happening. It wasn’t that I didn’t take it seriously, it was that I really didn’t have the time to fathom the magnitude of the situation.

It really hit hard after hearing that Jack Ekstrom passed away. He taught in the Art and Design program at Parkland College and had retired before I began working in the gallery. Still, I enjoyed seeing him at our receptions, and he always had something interesting to say about the artwork in the gallery. It was very upsetting and such a loss to the community. He was such a talented artist and made an enormous impact on many of our former students. I was really devastated by the news and still am. You hear the numbers and statistics, and you realize that each one of those numbers is a person. It is very sobering.

Everyone is going through so many different things in their personal life as the coronavirus has become the pandemic. To hear someone’s voice is much more telling than volleying texts back and forth. I’ve started calling friends and family more instead of communicating through text, email, and social media. It has been really comforting, and hearing their struggles and understanding their coping mechanisms has been helpful. There has been so much loss… loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of human contact, and change in routine.

It has been essential to begin processing how this will continue to impact anyone and everyone. We all have to stick together and not lose sight of our humanity. It is so frustrating because the arts can be, among other things, so healing and a way of bringing people together. Many venues that we have come to rely on aren’t able to be there in the usual way for us when we need them the most. It is unfortunate not only with the pandemic but also during this time of racial injustice.

SP: What have you missed most during these months?

Costello: I miss the casual lifestyle we have in Champaign-Urbana. It sounds weird, but I miss the chance encounters of bumping into people, spontaneously going to lunch with a friend, or hosting a reception. We actually have it really nice here in Champaign-Urbana. When I give our visiting artists a tour of the town, I joke, “you can get anywhere you want to be within 15 minutes.”  I miss the casualness of our former lifestyle of running a quick errand or picking up a couple of ingredients at the grocery store.

I also miss seeing and hearing from people that I am used to seeing daily like many of my Parkland friends, the travelers that go on our Art Expeditions, and all the people that go to art events. Some I see on Facebook and Instagram, but others I haven’t seen, and I hope they are doing well.

On a lighter note, I have discovered a few things about myself. While working at home I function better when I get dressed. I am not one of those who love to wear pajamas all day or can live in yoga pants! I set my alarm, make coffee, check emails first thing, and stick to a schedule. I stay more productive and focused this way. I do like working in different rooms throughout the day, and I love my dog, Ivy. She enjoys having me at home to be her doorman.

SP: How does being the director of a teaching gallery differ from directing a commercial gallery?

The director of a teaching gallery is very different from owning a gallery. There are so many types of galleries out there that it gets confusing. Many commercial galleries have a group of artists that they represent and have signed contracts with. Hopefully, a commercial gallery is working long term with an artist to promote and sell their work.

A teaching gallery, or sometimes called an academic gallery, typically curates exhibitions or selects traveling exhibits based on their students’ educational needs. Teaching galleries also host faculty shows, student exhibitions, and other college-related programming.

I like to think that we do all of this and more. We have an annual High School Art Seminar for high schools in our district. We have a paid High School Art Internship in the summer. Much of our programming is funded through grants provided by the Illinois Arts Council.

I have a responsibility to our students and faculty to bring exhibitions to campus that will be educational and engaging. It has to be compelling on many different levels because the gallery is used by faculty in so many areas across campus as an educational resource through tours and programming. Our exhibitions are part of the educational experience at Parkland College, and the gallery is a crucial component for our art and design students and many non-art majors.

Giertz Gallery also has the good fortune of having strong community support and engagement. We have a large turn-out for many of our receptions and programming. Our lectures have sometimes become so large that we have moved them into our auditorium to seat everyone.

We periodically collaborate with 40 North: Champaign County Arts Council and bring exhibitions like our Around the Block: Artists from our Neighborhood in the summers to exhibit artists and alumni in our community.

To put it in perspective, Giertz Gallery is truly an academic gallery with a twist of community arts center thrown in for good measure.

SP: Do you have a particular philosophy or mission that informs your work, your decision making?

Costello: I really focus on what our students and faculty need and want from the gallery, I also think about what resources are available to nurture the gallery, improve our visitor experience, and increase our supporters in the community.

I work with an advisory board and rely heavily on faculty to give me feedback to support our mission and meet their needs. Education is at the forefront of my mind when I work on the calendar for upcoming exhibitions and programming. There are also logistical and financial concerns that come into play. We want a variety of artists to show in our gallery, and it can be challenging to get them here from all over the country to engage with our community and students. Luckily, many of our artists are flexible and willing to go the extra mile.

SP: You interact with professional artists, art students, and non-arts majors, and I assume that the gallery provides each of them with different things.

Costello: The question that you ask is a good one because people approach the gallery in the way that they are ready to experience it.  Having taught Art Appreciation courses and giving numerous tours, I try to gauge what their comfort level or previous experience is, what has brought them to the gallery, and where they are at in this particular place and time. So many traditional-age college students have never been to a gallery before, and it is important to me that they have a positive and engaging experience. I recognize that one of the most important things is to have a relaxed, welcoming environment so that it can also be challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking to all visitors.

SP: The gallery installations at Giertz are always so beautifully done. What’s your guiding principle when preparing for a show? What’s your secret?

Costello: Thank you, that is very kind of you to say. I don’t think there is any secret, but I do really love exhibition design. There is a challenge in making things work together once a show has been curated. I picked up a lot of skills from my previous positions and I enjoy the installation process. Things change and shift depending on if it is a solo exhibition or a grouping of artists. I personally love walking into a space filled with art and trying to make sense of it. I try and relay that feeling. It is important to me that our exhibitions have a sense of place. There are so many levels of understanding work; because of this, the placement in the space is particularly important.  It might be that two pieces can have a visual conversation with one another, or there might be two that create a perfect juxtaposition. Each show is unique, and the Giertz Gallery space is intimate enough that it is vital to consider the psychological space that specific works require and think about how some works are better grouped together. I typically have an idea of where I want the artwork to go, but I am not afraid to get in there and say, “Nope, I was wrong. Let’s move it over here, or here, or how about that wall?” Until it feels right, and I usually won’t go home until it is the right fit.

SP: What keeps you engaged, inspired, and up-to-date in your work?  

Costello: I’m currently attending an online conference for Academic Museums and Galleries. I enjoy learning and take classes and workshops when I can. It is a great time right now to upgrade skills and learn about new things in my field. Online courses seem relatively new, but they have actually been around for a while, and I am a convert! Taking online classes allows me the flexibility to learn around my work schedule.

SP: How has the gallery continued to connect with its students and the general audience?

Costello: It was a difficult decision that Parkland administration made this spring to not come back to campus, but it was the right and necessary thing to do. It was necessary to shift our Annual Art and Design and Visual Communication Design Exhibits into the virtual realm. Our student shows are important to our students and faculty, and a favorite for Parkland College in general. I worked with the faculty quickly, and we were able to come up with the idea of a “Spring Showcase 2020.” Instead of having a juried exhibition, we felt that a celebration of student artwork was a more appropriate response to the situation.

I’ve been working with faculty and administration to ensure that the gallery remains a vital resource to our students during this challenging time. Now, more than ever, it is important to stay engaged and nothing can replace a gallery tour or visit, but finding the resources and using the technology available, we can still make a significant impact.

The silver lining is that we are growing our social media presence and that has always been a goal of mine. We will be able to reach a larger audience and our following continues to expand. I look forward to when we are back on campus and can invite all these newbies to our events!

SP: Is there anything you can tell us about the re-opening plan for the gallery?

Costello: Transitioning from the “Spring Showcase 2020” we have begun our “Highlights: Student Artwork from the Permanent Collection” while the doors of Giertz Gallery are temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic. Many people don’t know this but since 1969 we have been actively collecting student artwork through purchase awards. The Collection is used as a teaching resource by faculty and is on display throughout campus for everyone to enjoy and study. In 2016, the work was professionally photographed thanks to a generous donation by Donna and Fred Giertz, Having the collection digitally archived allows us to share this resource with our community through social media.

While the Giertz Gallery will remain in a digital format through December 2020, we will have online exhibitions, resources, and programming. We continue to connect with people through Instagram, Facebook, and email. Links to sign up for our email and social media platforms can be found on the Giertz Gallery page on Parkland College’s website. I’m working on firming up our future programming, and when I have that done, I’ll definitely keep Smile Politely in the loop about our online events and programming and when we can safely reopen our doors.

Top image: Photo of Lisa Costello at Giertz Gallery. Photo by Sarah Powers. 

Arts Editor

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