Arnold Tunstall: Movin’ On Up
Arnold Tunstall recently accepted the position of Director of the University Galleries at the University of Akron. His appointment comes and the end of a 25-year career at the Akron Art Museum where he served in multiple roles, most recently as Collections Manager since 2008.
Lauren Hansgen: So you’ve been at the Akron Art Museum for your entire career…
Arnold Tunstall: Yes, most of my career. I escaped for graduate school and worked in a couple of commercial galleries between working part-time at the Akron Art Museum and getting a full-time job there. But I also worked at a university gallery when I was a grad student. And when I was in undergraduate school my work-study job was at the University of Akron at this gallery. I got the bug way back then and this is very much a homecoming.
What made you ready for a career change?
The position came available at a time when I was thinking about what my next act was going to be. I will always love the Akron Art Museum, but I was ready for a new challenge. I began to join boards and expand into teaching and I’ve been teaching here at the University for the past three years. Teaching an arts administration class and mentoring those students for the last couple of years has been incredibly gratifying. I taught photography at the School of Art for over 10 years and loved it, but stopped when the Museum began its major renovation. That project required almost of decade of full-time attention. It was great because it kept me engaged at the Museum longer than say, a position that stays the same all the time. But when that project was completed, when everything was settled, I felt that I could leave it in new hands. The University of Akron position came available after it had been empty for a number of years and we at the Museum were really concerned that the position was empty, as we’d partnered with the School of Art—our neighbors—quite a bit in the past. Not only was it open, but it’s a position I knew I could do something with, and I wanted to take advantage of both the challenge and the opportunity.
You’ve had so many roles in the field: preparator, registrar, collections manager, educator, as well as being an artist yourself—what approach do you bring to this position?
I have art history in my background but I was never coming from the art historical/academic perspective. That’s what I trained under at the Museum—I worked with several amazing art history professionals which served as an “unofficial masterclass.” But this was never where I was coming from personally. I always was coming from the object or the point of view of the artist. That’s one of the things that has been interesting to me these past couple of years at the Museum with the new Director [Mark Masuoka]. He has background as an artist himself and always stressed the role of the artist as primary. Now here at the University, I see myself as the artist as curator, as opposed to art historian or academic as curator. I’m thinking about how and why an object was made and who made it and always keeping that as my focus. We are celebrating students and faculty or visiting artists, and “who made this and why did they make it” is key to our decisions. One of the reasons I wanted to come back here is I am an artist and I’ve not had the time to devote to this in recent years. I’m going to be working with colleagues who are making and showing art all the time, and I’m excited that this will push me to do more of my own work.
How do you make considerations for your greater community—the non-art students, art history students? How can the galleries foster future arts patrons as well as future arts professionals? Are you going to focus on drawing those people in?
Yes, absolutely. We want to get a broader voice on campus for everything we do and that’s regardless of whether we’re showing the work of students and faculty or outside artists. Exhibitions should be something interesting to look at for anyone on campus not just here at the School of Art. This goes beyond campus, bringing the public in as well and re-engaging alumni. There may be exhibitions that speak really strongly to students and less so to the public, but we’ll try and vary the program enough so that we reach everybody.
How do your multiple galleries here at the School of Art function and work together?
Emily Davis Gallery is the main space that’s for major exhibitions of works curated in house or brought in from outside. It also has a few regular exhibitions every year—a graphic design show, a juried student show, etc. There are two or three spaces in the atrium just outside Emily Davis Gallery that get used by classes. Faculty will sign up for space for their students and it’s often juniors and seniors that will set up work in these areas, trying experimental work. Additionally, we have a smaller gallery called the Projects Gallery that is designed for students to experiment. It’s a no-rules space—students can basically take the whole thing over and do installations or things that are outside their normal practice.
Is there an overarching mission or these to the way these spaces are programmed?
I actually hope the voice of the gallery changes as we go. I think it will naturally, because when you’re working with so many young artists, they’re bringing what’s important to them and that influences the faculty and in turn impacts the kind of shows we’re going to do because these should be of interest to the students. I want them to see what’s happening out there in the world. I’d eventually like to work far enough in advance that there could be exhibitions here that are related to a concurrent exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, something we’ve done in the past.
What do you see as the biggest challenge you face going forward?
It’s so different from what I’ve done in the past. I have a lot of autonomy, but limitations with budget and staffing. This is also something I was ready for—and excited about. Artists are trained to be creative. I teach arts administration and with most nonprofits you’re always strapped in some way. How do you make it work? How do you meet these challenges? The public has high expectations and high demands. Being able to “pull the rabbit out of the hat” and make things looks fantastic is the scary part and the exciting part.