Staff Q&A with Robert Chaney

Robert Chaney

Peter Tobia

A little more than a dozen years ago, Robert Chaney had his heart set on moving to Philadelphia from Columbus, Ohio. His then-girlfriend (and now wife) had taken a job at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and Chaney wanted to follow her from the Midwest.

Call it serendipity, but the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) just happened to be hosting a small exhibition from Chaney’s employer at the time, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. Chaney was tapped to accompany the show from Ohio to Philadelphia, since it required a significant amount of work to assemble.

“I just decided I’m going to do this fantastic job [with the show], even better than normal, and impress them so much that maybe I can send my résumé at some point and get a job here,” he says.

His plan must have worked, since 12 years after starting at the ICA, Chaney has just been appointed its interim director. He assumed the post after Claudia Gould left in September to join the Jewish Museum in New York.

“As interim director, I am charged with staying the course, holding down the fort, making sure that our arc of excellence continues to move upward and forward,” Chaney says. “I just work with all of the staff to make sure that they’re feeling that they have what they need to do their jobs and giving them the freedom and confidence to do their jobs well. In many ways, it’s a supportive role.”

Having worked as the assistant registrar, the registrar, an exhibitions coordinator and most recently, director of curatorial affairs, Chaney knows the ICA inside and out. “It can be fast-paced [here], but it’s rarely stressful because we just love what we do and we know what we’re doing,” he says. “Being a part of a creative process like that, day in, day out is something that’s very rewarding.”

Q. What did you do as director of curatorial affairs?
A. There aren’t a lot of people with that title, even in the museum world.
I work with Ingrid [Schaffner], the senior curator, co-managing the curatorial department. Ingrid, I’m fond of saying, is the creative side and I am the numbers side, whether it’s scheduling or budgets. I also work very hard to make sure that the lines of communication between curatorial and the other departments here are maintained and nurtured. But that being said, both Ingrid and I work so closely [together] that when I’m in that role, there’s a creative side to what I’m doing and there’s certainly a numbers side to what Ingrid’s doing.

Q. Back when you were getting started, didn’t you also do fine art crate construction?
A. One of the ways that I got my foot in the door was working on the crew [at the Wexner Center], which was only a part-time job, and so I also connected to somebody who was in Columbus building crates. When I wasn’t working at the Wexner Center installing exhibitions, I was over in this shop designing and constructing fine art crates for all sorts of private lenders and other museums in the city. It was a great experience to work on the crew because you see the real inner workings of putting an exhibition together, and it helps you understand how much time and effort is involved.

Q. Universities are usually associated with intellectual freedom. How does that kind of mindset affect what the ICA does?
A. Contemporary art inherently deals with topical issues and, sometimes, controversial issues, so I think in general, compared to the other museums on campus, we may encounter some subjects that could potentially be objectionable. In general, I feel like the University has so much to offer ICA and we try and tap into the resources as much as possible. Being on a University campus, I think there is a sort of atmosphere of learning and a thirst for knowledge that encourages people to be very open-minded about any sort of idea or project or thesis.

Q. I understand that it varies from show to show and artist to artist, but on average, what’s the timeframe that it takes to think about a show, plan it, and actually launch it?
A. It varies widely. At ICA in particular, we try and leave some openings in the schedule so we can react very quickly to what we think is important. It’s not to say [we react to] the next big thing, but to artists we think deserve recognition at this very moment. A show can come up and it can become a finished exhibition with an opening within six months potentially, but there are large shows that require a lot of research. Bill Walton was an artist in the local community, a great minimal sculptor, and he passed away last year. Jane Irish, a professor here in the Fine Arts Department, knew Bill well and asked if we wanted to come see [his studio] and we were really overwhelmed by this unique environment for this craftsman. We just worked feverishly … all these people came together to faithfully recreate the studio and bring a multitude of objects over here.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a Jason Rhoades exhibition in the fall of 2013 and Ingrid has been working on [that show] probably for two years already. It’ll be a four-year, maybe even five-year project by the end. They’re very complicated installations. It’s a project that is going to be hugely important, not just to ICA, but I think to the contemporary art world. It’ll be the first American museum show of Jason Rhoades’ work and he was a very important artist. It varies a great deal, but it depends on whether we’re doing more of a historical show, an in-depth investigation of an artist’s entire work, or whether we’re doing something that’s more immediate.

Q. Is an exhibition usually very similar to what you first imagine, or do shows evolve as you plan them?
A. It’s very fluid and they always evolve, they always change, they’re never what you would expect them to be. Part of the reason that we’re all here and love contemporary art is the way there’s this real life to the exhibitions and to the process, whether you’re working with a single artist or even a thematic show. It can be a deep research project and you never know what it’s going to look like until the day before the opening.
With the Charline von Heyl [show], we had a fairly clear checklist six months, maybe a year, in advance, but until the work gets here you don’t know how it’s going to work in the space, how pieces are going to work together, they’ve never been together as this group before. The artist and the curator work very hard for several days, trying different combinations; some works we didn’t end up using, definitely not in the arrangement that was prescribed before we opened the crates. It’s a creative process from the very moment that we decide to do a show until the day we’re opening the door.

We always want our artists to leave here and feel satisfied that they had a very fruitful experience here."

Q. What’s the artist-curator relationship like?
A. This is, in many ways, a laboratory. … The relationship between the ICA and the artist is an advisory role, a supportive role, with the goal of allowing them to realize something they hadn’t before and having them leave [at] a better place in their career, to be very happy. We always want our artists to leave here and feel satisfied that they had a very fruitful experience here.

Q. You’re an artist, as well. What’s your work like?
A. I do collages from old LIFE magazines, almost exclusively images. The challenge with those is the printing was very poor quality and the dyes back then were very fugitive. So, I make these things, I love these things, but they’re mostly in a box because if I put them in my office, with all this glass, they would [fade] within a day. In some ways, it’s a little frustrating, but I love that era and I actually love the look of those dyes even though they’re very unstable.
I did a simple pencil sketch for a card for a group exhibition and I had a nice reaction to it. It wasn’t a show of pencil drawings; it was a show of collages. I decided to pursue [drawing] a bit and so I’ve been doing it for maybe eight years now. [They’re] highly refined pencil drawings—minimal, usually industrial, landscapes.
I also started a loose organization of artists whose work is informed by heavy metal and black metal music; I do these multimedia installations, as well. We called ourselves Scarab on a lark. That’s been a lot of fun because sometimes it can be a little like a book club where you get together and just talk about music, but other times, it can be more focused when we actually can line up an exhibition space and a project and we start talking about what we’re going to do for an exhibition.

Q. You studied photography as an undergrad. Do you still take pictures, too?
A. I did take photographs, but they were always Polaroids, SX 70s and it’s gone now. I’ve had a really difficult time finding something to replace that, so I haven’t been a photographer since they discontinued the film.
There’s a small company that makes reproductions of the film, but it’s a little expensive and it isn’t very stable. The pictures will fade like my collages. I don’t need two mediums like that, which fade away.

Originally published on December 15, 2011