Unearthing objects from the dead (think Indiana Jones) was Elyse Gonzales’ first love. Family trips to places like Abe Lincoln’s log cabin and natural history museums fueled the Texan’s love of objects and archaeology. But today Elyse Gonzales is enamored with the stuff of the living.
No longer just a spectator in a museum, Gonzales is now on the other side of the display, handling, touching and framing modern art for others to see as assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art. She played a key role in the ICA’s current exhibition, “Drawings by Amy Cutler,” and helped organize the museum’s inaugural Slide Slam, a sort of open mike event for emerging artists.
Q. What are some of your current projects?
A. There’s an exhibition that I curated. It’s devoted to drawings by Amy Cutler. ...I selected the works to be shown and, of course, since we work with living artists, their voices are sometimes present in exhibitions. I went through the drawings [I wanted], and I was actually very lucky in that she approved of all of them. There wasn’t any difficult back and forth about what should and shouldn’t be in the show.
Q .But sometimes you work with difficult artists. How has that been?
A. Sometime it’s the most frustrating thing—but the most rewarding—because the reason we work with the artists we do is because they’re so passionate and so committed to their work.
Q. The ICA just hosted its first Slide Slam. How did that come about?
A. The concept for Slide Slam merged out of two different sources. We have what’s called an Open Video Call that happens once every exhibition cycle, so three times a year. With that, we take the first 20 video artists [who show up] and we show three minutes of their pieces and that’s it. …
We paired this Open Video Call with an idea from the Asian Arts Initiative…where they invite artists to come and talk for 15 minutes or so about their work with slides. We heard about this idea and thought, wouldn’t it be great if we paired [these two ideas] together? And instead of stealing their idea, why don’t we come together [with the Asian Arts Initiative] and cosponsor this event.
The first 20 artists who signed up were given three minutes to discuss [and show] their work. They could show one slide or 80 slides depending on what they wanted to do.
What I think is very invigorating about Slide Slam in comparison to Open Video Call is that you have artists speaking about their work. In Open Video Call, they just do a brief introduction. We found out what people are doing in Philadelphia in the art community that maybe we would never run into.
We all took it as sort of this idea that we’d be giving artists some skills as well. Oftentimes when you do run into somebody like a curator or a gallery director, you don’t get 20 minutes to talk about your work. Here you get three minutes. What’s most important about your work? What do you want to say that is going to reach people, that might engage people?
Q. How is the ICA different from the other art venues on campus?
A. Right now we are committed to the work of living artists. That’s pretty rare. Maybe you just read about [these artists] in Art Forum or in The New York Times and now you’ll see them at the ICA. That’s not often the case even in many big cities, much less on a college campus. We’re pretty proud of that.
It’s really nice to be a part of the University. There’s so much intellectual fervor here and so much excitement about learning. It’s this think tank that sort of explodes.
Q. How would you describe the Philadelphia art community?
A. What I think is exciting about Philadelphia is there’s a can-do spirit in the city. I’ve only been here a year and five months but I’m struck by how warm everybody in the Philadelphia art community is and how inviting. If they feel they don’t have a voice in some of the museums, they say, OK, fine, we’ll just make our own space. I think that’s so exciting because…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just been walking home and have come across this new gallery or this new space. That definitely forms the foundation of a very active and lively art community.
Q. What are some of your favorite art spaces?
A. I always go to Vox Populi. Arcadia is fun too. I’ve been to Reset. It’s in an old bathhouse. The tile work is just so amazing. Of course, Specter Gallery at 5th and Bainbridge. I just recently went to the University [City] Arts League which is at 42nd and Spruce. It’s in some great old house that’s now an exhibition space. I think what’s also really great about Philly is that all of these spaces are in sort of quirky spaces—an old house, an old bathhouse, an old warehouse, a storefront.
There’s a new space that just opened at 40th and Walnut, Slought Networks. I think it’s going to be great for West Philly.
Originally published on October 31, 2002