5 Questions with University Art Museum Associate Curator Robert R. Shane
By Bethany Bump
ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 22, 2023) — Robert R. Shane is an art scholar, writer, curator and educator with 20 years of teaching experience in higher education. On June 1, he was made the first full-time associate curator of the University Art Museum at UAlbany, after serving part time in the role since 2022.
In his expanded role, Shane will focus on planning and bringing to life exhibitions and other projects that reflect and engage the University’s diverse student body, as well as advancing interdisciplinary research and scholarship.
Throughout his extensive teaching career, which includes time at the College of Saint Rose, Stony Brook University and UAlbany, Shane taught courses on art history and philosophy that explored themes related to labor, class, ethics, ecology and the intersections between art and dance.
He is also a respected art writer who has written about artists both emerging and established — including Torkwase Dyson, Shelia Hicks, Candida Hofer, Karen Kilimnik, Deana Lawson, Harold Mendez, Gladys Nilsson and Edra Soto — for publications such as The Brooklyn Rail and Phaidon Press.
We recently caught up with Shane to learn more about his journey into art and his hopes going into this new role.
How did you first become interested in art and when did you know you would pursue it as a career?
In high school I had an amazing teacher, Susan Stuart, who is a renowned painter in the region — in fact we have some of her work in the University Art Museum’s collections. She brought us to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to see the biennial, an often provocative survey of contemporary art. It was my first time ever going to an art museum, and for this inaugural experience to be focused on contemporary art in particular made a huge impression on me, especially seeing how contemporary artists were responding to immediate social issues.
I went to college for painting and photography and then graduate school at Stony Brook University (SUNY) for my PhD in art history and criticism because I became increasingly interested in writing about art. But I really loved working first-hand with art objects and exploring the kinds of stories you can create for an audience when you put works of art in dialogue with each other within the same space, and that’s how I knew my heart was in exhibition making.
In your 20 years of teaching art, art history and criticism, what was your favorite class to teach?
My specialization is in contemporary art, so I always liked sharing with students the way contemporary artists approach the issues of our day, especially in courses like Images & Issues of Diversity in the Visual Arts or Latin American & Latinx Art, both of which I’ve taught here at UAlbany. But no matter what or where I was teaching, I always brought students to museums. There is an experience you have when encountering a physical work of art in a museum space with your entire body that is not like looking at pictures in a book or online. Elements like the scale of a work — whether it is small and intimate and draws you closer, or large and towering over you — the textures of objects…these are all important considerations when artists make work. The museum is such a great site for experiential learning because you can learn with your senses, read about art, and engage in critical thinking with other visitors all at once.
There was and is for me an exciting improvisatory quality about teaching with the museum. With classes or tour groups we’re always responding together to the artwork and each other in real time. Being up and moving around can give us a fresh perspective on topics we might be discussing in the classroom. We discover things that weren’t in the lesson plan.
What are some things you most look forward to in your new role as full-time associate curator?
One of the things that drew me to the UAM in the first place is its exceptional track record for realizing artist commissions. That means we don’t just show work from the past, as one might think when they hear the word “museum” but we, as a team, work with contemporary artists to help them realize new projects specific to our unique space. When you come to the UAM, you’re often viewing work that has never existed anywhere else in the world before!
To help viewers unpack what they are seeing and experiencing, part of my job is to generate a lot of the texts that you see on the walls and labels or in our publications. And this is where my background in education, research and art writing are helpful. We at the UAM want our texts to be accessible to someone having their first-ever encounter with contemporary art while also providing new information for specialists and scholars who rely on the museum’s exhibitions and publications to advance their research. As a writer, it’s a fun challenge to figure out strategies that will reach viewers on multiple registers simultaneously. I and our entire team want to make sure everyone feels welcome in the museum and that they can walk away having learned something new and meaningful.
Some people think of museums simply as spaces that house art. How does the University Art Museum encourage engagement with art outside of its own walls?
We strive to bring in many voices that can mirror our students or share with them perspectives that will be new to them. Our hope is that when viewers leave the museum, they’ll engage with their larger world differently. For example, in one of our current exhibitions Libros/Arte: Handmade Books from Latin America & the Caribbean we’re showing objects from the University Libraries’ M.E. Grenander Special Collections & Archives, and we’ve been collaborating with the University Libraries; the Department of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies; and the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Featured in the exhibition are a number of cartonera books, a practice of handmaking book covers with recycled cardboard which grew out of economic crisis in Argentina in the early 2000s and spread throughout the Latin America and the Caribbean. Looking at and holding these books, we as viewers become aware that cardboard, this humble material we see everywhere, is loaded with political and economic significance and carries with it a story about global trade, consumption, and waste. But it can also be repurposed into beautiful and political works of art.
What artist are you currently excited about?
I am super excited about Noel W Anderson. Anderson investigates how Black identity is formed and constructed in media images, often by having historic photos woven into mural-sized Jacquard tapestries, which he then picks away at thread by thread, and bathes in dyes and chemicals. As he alters the images, they begin to tell new stories in visceral, tactile, and emotional ways. But what I love most is that he is such an engaging thinker. I’ve interviewed him a number of times, including for The Brooklyn Rail, and I can’t even make a simple phone call to him without a notebook because he’s an endless source of bibliography and ideas.
We’re currently planning a solo exhibition of his work for 2025. (Museum exhibitions take years to plan. Research and studio visits with artists, arranging loans of artwork, fundraising — there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work.) Our exhibition with him will be part of a trilogy of exhibition projects he’s been developing on Black erasure, exhaustion and excellence, respectively, that began at KMAC in his hometown Louisville, continues in September with our friends at CUNY’s Shirley Fiterman Gallery, and will conclude with us. He brings such intellectual rigor and creative thinking to every project. I know the show will be a transformative experience for our students and audiences at large.