Future uncertain for Stanford Art Spaces

Exhibition program in campus buildings to lose funding at end of fiscal year

Art installed in the workplace, whether it be a small startup or a giant corporation, is fairly commonplace today. But in 1985, when an electrical engineering professor proposed a program of temporary art installations in the engineering buildings at Stanford University, it was a radical idea.

Fast forward 31 years, and it would appear that Stanford Art Spaces, which installs art in multiple campus venues, is in sync with the university's current emphasis on integrating the humanities and sciences. Yet in March, it was announced that, due to administrative and budget changes, the program would no longer receive funding from System X Alliance (formerly the Center for Integrated Systems), leaving its future in jeopardy.

For Curator DeWitt Cheng, who has worked for the program since 2001, it is both a disappointment and a call to action.

"The program does have its allies," he explained, "and I am hopeful that it will continue, in some form, past the Aug. 31 deadline."

Cheng was first employed by Stanford Art Spaces as an installation assistant, but his interests and background in the visual arts are wide ranging and deep rooted. He attended Stanford, graduating in 1971 with a degree in art history. While he did not set out to study art, the opportunity to travel abroad as an undergraduate resulted in a transformation.

"I was visiting (Madrid's) Prado Museum and looking at all of these master artists, and it just changed my thinking entirely," he said.

Not content to just study art, Cheng also decided to try his hand at painting and drawing. He earned a master's degree from San Francisco State in the mid-1980s and took a position teaching art for UC Berkeley Extension. All the while, he paid the bills by doing graphics for computer companies. It quickly became apparent that he enjoyed writing about art more than teaching about it, so he made the shift to freelance writing and art criticism. When the curator position for Stanford Art Spaces opened in 2013, he was a natural choice.

Cheng is a champion for local artists, whom he feels are often "underrepresented and underserved" by the gallery and museum establishment. Years of both displaying his own art and writing about other artists have resulted in a large network of friends and colleagues. This is the well that he taps into when curating exhibitions for Stanford Art Spaces.

"Stanford Art Spaces provides a much-needed venue for mid-career artists," Cheng said. "The Stanford connection is prestigious and gives a boost to their careers."

Overseeing such a large program (art is displayed in the Allen and Packard engineering buildings and six smaller satellite sites) requires organization and a true dedication to art and artists. Cheng becomes very animated when discussing the need for local artists to be recognized.

"I am really hoping that enthusiasm about the reopening of SFMOMA and the increased attention by East Coast galleries here in the west will trickle down to Bay Area artists," he said.

Cheng selects the artists, installs the exhibitions (he has a part-time assistant), publicizes the shows and offers tours of the various sites. Keeping track of all the art in all of the locations (art in the Allen and Packard sites is on display for two months, in the satellite spaces for six) might be full-time job itself, but Cheng manages to do it all in just 26 hours a week.

"I wish I could say that I am organized," he laughed, "but I do carry a lot around in my head. I have found Google Calendar to be very helpful."

And how do employees respond to art in their workplace? Cheng said, "Some really look at and appreciate the art and see it as an amenity and a perk. Most people appreciate that it makes their work environment more pleasant."

Cheng has to work within certain parameters. He is limited to mainly small-scale, two-dimensional artworks. There are constraints on subject matter also.

"No nudity and nothing political," he explained. What he selects for the individual spaces is often determined by the people who work in the buildings, whom he has gotten to know over the years.

"Sometimes I see myself as a sort of salon hostess from years past --> bringing two different parties together," he said with a smile.

The current exhibition in the Allen and Packard buildings features East Bay abstract artists working in the Cubist tradition of collage/assemblage. The trio of artists Judith Foosaner, Connie Goldman and Emily Lazarre share a common philosophy about the use of found objects and fragments to create a statement about change, impression and memory. Other exhibitions include depictions of local landmarks by mother-daughter artists Charlotte C. Cook-Fuller and Lynette Cook.

Artists appreciate his advocacy. Rinat Goren, whose collages are now on display at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, sang his praises.

"DeWitt seems to deeply care about the Stanford Art Spaces' existence as well as the well-being of the artists. I have a lot of respect for him and for his knowledge and experience," she said.

Cheng is meeting with representatives from several Stanford departments this week and said they are cautiously optimistic that the program can be rescued, perhaps even expanded in the future.

While the fate of Stanford Art Spaces remains unclear, Cheng will continue to write about art for a variety of publications and maintain a blog about the local art scene.

For more information about the current exhibitions or to arrange a tour, contact Cheng at dewittc@stanford.edu or visit SAS.

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Like this comment
Posted by Claudia Hess
a resident of another community
on Jun 23, 2016 at 5:48 pm

The artwork that is exhibited in this very scientific space has the power to bring creative problem solving to some of our nation's most intelligent scientists. While viewing a Tom Gardner show there, I spoke with several and they were genuinely enthusiastic to discuss the artwork. One engineer even asked ME what I thought the meaning of life was! Art can take you "out of your head" and into a creative space where problem solving is more attainable. Long live the arts! Long live science! Keep Stanford Art Spaces open!

Like this comment
Posted by Jim MacKenzie
a resident of another community
on Jun 23, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Having only recently become Facebook friends with DeWitt Cheng, based in a mutual interest in landscape photography, I had not been aware of the vital arts program he had been running at Stanford for so many years. In 2009, I retired from UC Santa Cruz, where I had served for over 30 years as a deigner, art director, and department head. While at UCSC, I witnessed the beginnings of the integration of the arts with engineering and the sciences with the establishment of a new Institute of Arts and Sciences, the stated mission of which is to "harness the combined power of the arts and sciences to explore the critical issues of our time" and "to present our knowledge, research, and vision to a broader audience" and through which "Interactive exhibitions, artist and scientist residency programs, collaborative research, and student-led projects provide rich material for visitors to encounter the creative expression and real-world solutions the university offers." This collaboration recognizes the value of visual art in not only communicating about science and engineering but also being an integral part of these disciplines now and in the future. I believe it may be very short-sighted to cut the funding of a program at Stanford that exposes scientists and engineers to the arts and artists to science and engineering. Please consider the critical value in maintaining and expanding upon this relationship before defunding Stanford Art Spaces.

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