Staff Q&A with Andrea Gottschalk

In the past dozen years, Andrea Gottschalk has coordinated exhibitions for the Rare Book & Manuscript Library as wildly diverse as a historical perspective of the comic strip and a look at education in the age of Ben Franklin.

Andrea Gottschalk

Candace diCarlo

Gottschalk, in that time, has coordinated 75 shows—a remarkable number that reflects how she is a de facto one-woman show of her own.

As the Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s exhibition designer and coordinator, Gottschalk’s duties are many. For each show she works with an exhibition curator, advising where and how objects will fit into gallery spaces. She sets a schedule for the show, arranges for object loans and shipping, coordinates photography of the objects, and then color-corrects the images. If there’s a catalog to accompany the show, Gottschalk designs that, too.

Plus, she can ably design and build just about anything out of “board,” a material used to safely and securely display objects. 

“My job is in a weird spot because I’m not quite in a museum, I’m not quite a typical library staff person, my background is definitely design,” Gottschalk says. “I think part of what we’re trying to do with the exhibitions is promote our collections, help researchers find out that we have things here. Because we have so much, it’s impossible for the general person to know what we have, so we just try and highlight little bits and pieces here and there.”

A graduate of the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., Gottschalk was trained as a fine artist, but found herself working in archival jobs after graduation. “I’m very good at figuring out how things go together—or should go together,” she says.

The Current sat down with Gottschalk to talk about how she goes about coordinating an exhibition, how the renovations to the Van Pelt Library’s sixth floor, currently underway, will affect her job, and how Penn’s collection of rare materials never fails to surprise or inspire her.

Q How much time does it take to plan an exhibit?
A Typically, we know at least a year in advance. Curators then get a schedule and begin working on it and they have a set of deadlines to meet. … I know that we’re doing an exhibit in 2016 already. Typically [the planning depends on] how many events are going into it, how many publication pieces are tied in with it. If we’re shooting an exhibition catalog, if I have to photograph everything that’s going to be on display, that adds three months to the schedule.
The Wharton Esherick exhibit, we worked on it for three years. The same with our big Ben Franklin exhibit. The Esherick, we could’ve used a fourth year. We worked with the School of Design, we worked with the Architectural Archives, the Common Press, the Wharton Esherick Museum, the Hedgerow Theatre.

Q What are some of your most memorable shows?
A I have a few favorites. I would say, for me, the first time that we really did a show that I felt was up to our potential—and by this I mean we were given enough time to plan it, enough time to research it well, enough money to do really nice things—was our Ben Franklin anniversary exhibition, ‘Educating the Youth of Pennsylvania,’ in 2006. Then-director Michael Ryan approached us three years in advance [and said], ‘This is the exhibit to show us what you can do if you’re given the resources.’ …
Once that exhibition went up, we kind of changed how we did exhibits. We like these well-researched exhibitions, we like it when we bring in a wider community, a wider audience, we like tying in with other groups, and so this definitely fed into what we did with Esherick. Following the Ben Franklin exhibition, we did an exhibition that was called ‘Textual Spaces: An Architecture of Reading.’ We worked with an undergrad … who decided that she wanted to look at the spaces where people read and from that, decided to pull out books or materials that would be read in those types of spaces. This allowed me to build a mini-stage set for the books, so when she came to us with the idea, [we said], ‘If you can find images from our collection of those spaces you’re trying to illustrate, we will blow them up to fill the case and make them somewhat three-dimensional and add the objects to those spaces.’

Q What have you come across in Penn’s collection that’s really surprised or intrigued you?
A My background is fine art. We have the Carl Zigrosser Collection and within that are some amazing prints and books. We were doing a show on the different printmaking processes and there’s a book by José Guadalupe Posada [‘Monografia de 406 Grabados’], a Mexican artist who was friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and they got the book, they signed it, and they gave it to Carl Zigrosser and it’s amazing. The woodcuts that [Posada] was doing are kind of revolutionary.
We have one of [photographer] Eadweard Muybridge’s plates and we have the set of prints. He was doing that [iconic early photography] here at Penn. We have Ben Franklin’s letters. How do you pick? There’s such great stuff.

Q How will the sixth floor renovations change what you do with exhibitions?
A We have just begun the second phase of the renovation. This should be done by early 2013. With the completion of the second phase, we will reopen the sixth floor.
When the sixth floor reopens, I’ll have a dedicated gallery space. It’s about 850 or 900 square feet with a 500-square-foot vestibule area. This changes everything, to me. The nature of this space is to be a flexible exhibition space, so there aren’t any fixed cabinets in any one location. … I will have some type of mobile, flexible display cases that I can configure to suit the needs of the particular exhibition. I’m very excited. The first exhibition will be an exhibition of the Schoenberg manuscript collection.

Q How did you come to work here at Penn? You mentioned you have a fine arts background.
A I studied painting and drawing, and when I moved here right after college, I found myself working in archives. Turns out, I really like to organize things and organize space, and people found out I could build things, so I worked for a while for the Fairmount Park Commission and then the Fairmount Park Art Association, which is now the Association for Public Art. I worked for the Yellow Springs Institute, which is now defunct, and they were defunct when I was working for them. I was actually working on all of their archival material, processing it and getting ready to donate it to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I worked on the private archive of Ernesta Drinker Ballard before she passed away. I’m used to working with archival materials and handling that, and the computer design stuff is self-taught, but I love it.

Q Do you still paint and draw?
A I paint my house, which is definitely a fixer-upper. I occasionally do artwork and I tend to do prints. I tend to do linoleum block prints, because I can do them in a little space, in a fairly short amount of time, and have the satisfaction of being able to make multiples to give away.

Q What’s ahead, exhibition-wise?
A We received this big Gotham Book Mart collection. Eventually, we’ll have to do a display of that. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. Sometime in the next five, 10 years, I would guess. There’s amazing stuff in there that we haven’t displayed yet, and we will.
I had a colleague at the library [who wanted] to do an exhibition on Wessex—Thomas Hardy, Stonehenge. There are two library staff people working on that for the spring and they are finding amazing stuff. …
I’m just fascinated by the different things here at the library. That’s perhaps the best part of the job. I get to see all these incredible things and I get to touch them, and sometimes I get to meet the people who make them. It’s just amazing, the sheer amount and diversity of things that we have here. I think you could pull out just about any topic and we would have something to go along with that topic.
Every day is different. Every exhibition is different. I like the challenge of doing new things. I like the challenge of trying to top myself. I keep thinking, ‘Wharton Esherick was so big, how am I going to top that?’ And I’m going to have to top that.

Originally published on June 7, 2012