Contemporary artwork in spotlight at Stanford's engineering, science buildings

Stanford Arts Spaces presents three San Francisco Bay Area artists: Steve Goldband, Ellen Konar and Henry Bowles.

L.A. Cicero DeWitt Cheng

DeWitt Cheng is the new curator of Stanford Arts Spaces, which mounts rotating shows of contemporary art in non-traditional spaces.

DeWitt Cheng, a 1971 Stanford alumnus, recently took over the Stanford Art Spaces program, which has been in existence nearly 30 years. He sat down with Stanford Report to talk about the history and future of the program and how he thinks about artwork in non-traditional exhibition spaces.

How did Stanford Art Spaces come to be?

Stanford Art Spaces is an exhibition program serving several venues on campus with rotating shows on contemporary art. SAS began in 1985, concurrent with the building of the Paul G. Allen Building, which houses the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility. The farsighted dean of engineering at that time, Jim Gibbons, felt that the arts and sciences were not mutually exclusive, and that they could enrich each other. He asked Priscilla Hexter, then curating shows at the Bechtel International Center, the School of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Education and the School of Earth Sciences, to run the program.

She served as SAS curator from 1985 to 1997, and was succeeded by Marilyn Grossman, who curated from 1997 until 2013. I became the third SAS curator last fall, having worked with Marilyn since 2001, and feel extremely fortunate to be associated with this program, continuously funded by the Center for Integrated Systems, that for almost 30 years has provided university buildings with high-quality contemporary art, much of it from local artists. James Torlakson, Jerry Ballaine, Carol Jessen, Steve McMillan, Donna McGinnis, Richard Bolingbroke, Anne Subercaseaux, Pat Wipf and Joe Draegert are only a few of the hundreds of SAS alumni.

SAS presents bimonthly shows of two or three artists in its core venues: the Center for Integrated Systems in the Paul G. Allen Building; the adjacent David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building; and, at the northwest corner of the Quad, the offices of the Department of Psychology. In addition, SAS mounts shows on a longer, six-month schedule at several other venues: The Center on Longevity, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences and, soon, the Faculty Development and Diversity Office. Two other venues may be coming, as well. We are interested in expanding the program, and are open to suggestions.


Tell us something about the two artists in the May-June rotation and why they work well together.

That's an easy question! Steve Goldband and Ellen Konar are a couple, and their friend, Henry Bowles, is one of the owners of PHOTO Gallery in Oakland, which I am familiar with through my art-reviewing stint at East Bay Express between 2008 and 2012. Goldband and Konar collaborate on large color photographs from their travels that are both elegant and minimalist. I am particularly smitten with a row of chairs next to a large window through which we see fog-shrouded trees, their branches touching the glass. Bowles is showing a series of digital collages involving books of wooden matches, burned and unburned, that have poetic connotations and interpretations. Text will be on display next to the apposite images, for those who like reading up on the art; for those who don't, Bowles' incendiary images will be striking enough.


Experiencing art in the work environment can be very different from visiting a museum. We spend so much time in the lobbies, conference rooms and hallways of our office buildings that they feel more like living spaces. Your arts spaces are certainly not white cubes. How do you think the environment affects the way we experience art?

When I was starting to learn the art of the preparator, I used to make snide remarks about what I called "stagecraft," by which I meant arrangement, lighting, didactic labels, etc. Fairly quickly, it dawned on me that these things matter a great deal. If you put two incompatible pictures together, or light the work badly, it shows, and detracts from the experience. At the very least such errors register subliminally. Even labels that are inconsistently placed can distract and oppress the viewer. Everything counts.

The science and engineering buildings in which I display art are not galleries or museums, and we have to respect the working functions of the buildings. We do the absolute best that we can, however, given the real-world limitations of couches, fire alarms, and such, and have to trust that a reasonable number of viewers will be able to see the work for itself. I am a big fan of the old-fashioned formal museum, the Greco-Roman temple of art, but I also trust art to be able to make its claims on our attention without undue amounts of theatrical assist.


You are the third curator of Stanford Arts Spaces. How has the program changed over the years and what could be on the horizon?

I am delighted to be here at Stanford in the arts field right now. There is a lot of excitement about the conjunction of art and science that delights this old art-history-major alumnus. The Stanford arts district, comprising Cantor Arts Center, Bing Concert Hall, the new McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History and the new Anderson Collection at Stanford University – see my article in art ltd. magazine – is a tremendously exciting development.

Bay Area artists have long felt that there was much more talent in the area than our art world reflected. I hope that the recent Silicon Valley Art Fair in San Jose will be a bellwether in the flowering and maturing of this art scene, and that local institutions will take the challenge and opportunity more seriously than they have in the past. If there has not been enough regional thinking about this, perhaps the prestige and creativity of Stanford can be a new and determining factor. Stanford Art Spaces will play whatever positive role it can in this metamorphosis; we look forward to collaborating with others of like mind. Hey, let's put on a show.