Impromptu: Alex Ebstein ’07
Artist and gallery owner Alex Ebstein ’07 became Goucher’s director of exhibitions and curator in September 2018.
What do you do?
The majority of my job is organizing relevant contemporary exhibitions that tie into the programming and curriculum of the Art Program, but also looking for ways to partner with other programs or their concentrations.
I’ve reached out to the Communication and Media Studies Program, I’m working with the low-residency M.F.A. program, and I’m trying to figure out ways to give students a bigger sense of ownership and access to that space, try to make it more visible on campus.
A lot of the exhibitions I’m working on for the near future either bring back alums to create more connection to the campus community, or encourage students to see that space as theirs.
There’s an exhibition I’m going to be working on all summer—the second show of the fall semester—and it’s going to be an installation show, where there’s sculpture and murals, and it’s an environment where people can hang out, where there’ll be seating.
I’m trying to look at what we’ve already done here and see how we can make it grow.
Tell us about some of the shows you’ve put on.
The first exhibition that I organized was a faculty show. It was important to figure out ways in which the faculty and the work they make could be more visible to the students and create conversation around art and how it can form community.
I think that was pretty successful. We had a lot more faculty come through that show, because they wanted to see what their colleagues were doing, which was really nice.
The next was a show called Piece Work about how artists work in abstraction, either in repeated units that grow into larger forms, or through a small idea that grows by repetition, which is an important way for students to think about work. It makes a large-scale project less intimidating when you see it as a series of units.
Are you interacting with many students?
I have met with art history and studio art students who’ve asked questions about how to interview artists or how the gallery functions. I am looking forward to working with April Oettinger and Tina Sheller in the new visual and material cultures major. That major centers around the Goucher Art and Artifacts Collection and making it accessible in a teaching environment. I have given a few tours of the collection this year, and I’m excited to see students pursue lines of research into the ethics of collection and questions of authenticity. I also have three student workers who are amazing. I love them. They’re all active on campus. I am hoping they take a larger role in planning some programming in the gallery next semester.
Have you found pieces in the Art and Artifact Collection that you really love?
There are some glass flowers that Julia Rogers gave the school that are really beautiful.
What kind of grants do you apply for, and to cover what?
To cover all the expenses of putting together an exhibition. I think a lot of our main expenses are transporting work, printing costs; the receptions are not very much money. I try to keep that cost low.
What else do I spend money on? Supplies to make things happen. When artists are showing work, if they’re making something specific for a space, or they’re retrofitting a piece of theirs so that it works better in our space, I want to make sure that we have all this stuff for them to do that, so they’re not incurring costs to redesign a piece.
What do you look for in choosing an exhibition?
I like to keep expanding and changing what we’re doing in the gallery. I am thinking about the way the curriculum is changing; how can that work with the gallery to inform the way students see their learning affect their immediate surroundings, and then potentially the world?
There’s an exhibition I’m working on for next spring, where I’m trying to work with some of the data art classes. I’m trying to look at the idea of sustainability in a microcosm. Over the history of an institution’s changes, it has different policies, or different technologies, or different green buildings, and how does that affect things? Then, what can they advocate for in their larger community when they leave school?
That’s why I was excited about this job, to think in terms of education and partnering, how to make art more relevant to people who might not see it as an academic platform. That’s the constant mission of that space, to talk about art as an academic pursuit or an extended platform of research. That’s been the goal.
It’s definitely a different context than you’re used to planning shows in.
Right. There’s no part of my head that goes, “Ooh, what if we sell a painting?” That’s not how I approach these spaces, which is so much more fun. I can think a little more critically about the way people are engaging with the work, and the way it can become a part of larger discussions in different classes.
The artist Laylah Ali gave a talk on women in filmmaking, as someone who has utilized film for a project, and talked about her specific approach, and how someone who doesn’t make films can utilize this medium to talk about history and activism.
You’re an artist, and you’re a curator outside of Goucher. Can you tell me a little bit about your art life?
I graduated from here. I moved to New York. I quickly moved back, because I moved to New York in the recession, when it was obvious that a lot of the spaces I found when I got there were closing, or taking a different form, or on hiatus because they weren’t sure if they could afford the space.
Doors were slamming, opportunities were fewer and further between. I think it was the wrong time to move to New York, trying to break into the art community, because people were protective of their limited resources.
I moved back to Baltimore, where I knew I had friends. I knew I had access to some spaces that were interesting and weren’t having to close, where people had different arrangements with space and access to space. The economy was less hit because it was never as good.
It was easier to do something like start a gallery in my live-work warehouse with my partner.
That was Nudashank Gallery?
Yeah. We did that for five years, working other jobs. Having this low overhead endeavor made it really easy to sustain that project, and also grow my artist network, and make that available to people who, like me, probably thought that they had to move to New York in order to make New York connections.
I went back to grad school [at Towson University] toward the end of Nudashank, and was focusing on my work, and then I had my first solo show in Baltimore, which was awesome.
I never assumed I’d go back to school. I thought I knew all the answers. But I went to a program that was actually similar [to Goucher] in that you could do independent research, and you set your own goals and pace.
Where are you from?
What made you choose Goucher for undergrad?
My dad went to Hopkins, so he knew Goucher because that’s where all his girlfriends went. I visited Skidmore and Sarah Lawrence. Those were schools I really wanted to go to.
Then I applied to Goucher. I sat in on Laura Burns’ photo class and Bob Welch’s philosophy class. They both let me participate. Laura, I think, even argued with me. I felt like I could jump in and learn, even as someone who’s just visiting. I thought, “If this is what this environment’s going to be like, where it’s that welcoming, and if you want to participate in a conversation, you’ll be seen…” It changed my mind about what a school should be. Those ideas stuck with me all day, that I could structure my education like that, I could follow what I was interested in and make it into an education.
Is it important for Goucher to connect to the local art scene?
Yes, it is. Baltimore is a great place to be an artist and an arts administrator. We have so much around us that is accessible. Baltimore has all these interesting models for what professionalism looks like, and I think that Goucher should be participating in that conversation.
I was just talking about restructuring the undergraduate art showcase exhibition. I want to structure it so they’re creating the call for entries themselves, and evaluating work from other schools, and working with students who are making art in other programs to put together a regional exhibition.
What else would you like people to know about you?
I always wanted this job, which sounds crazy. When I was an undergrad, the gallery director was Jackie Milad. Seeing her connections to Baltimore and to artists she brought in really changed my life. She was the first affirmation that I was not only an art student but also an artist. It really inspired my confidence and professional pursuits within my field. I recognize the impact that this role can have for students and am grateful and excited to take it on.
As an artist, your job is to go with your work, and talk about it, and make it something that can be shared and understood. Milad really did more for my understanding of art as a professional—where you wear lots of hats and do all these different facets of a job—than any class did.
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