By Sabrina Hornung
High Plains Reader had the opportunity to chat with Erin Shapiro, the new Executive Director at the Plains Art Museum. A native of upstate New York, Shapiro has worked at a number of museums throughout the Midwest and even Honolulu, Hawaii, at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. In addition to her museum experience, she has a background in sculpture and a strong passion for “art for everyone.”
High Plains Reader: In my research I came across an article that mentioned you were part of the Smithsonian Affiliate program that focused on digitizing collections. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Erin Shapiro: That was a few years ago now, So I was the curator at the Springfield Museum of Art for four years. I was in southern Ohio, which is the Smithsonian affiliated institution. So I participated as a two week fellowship, where you stayed in D.C. and worked with the Smithsonian Affiliate office and other institutions throughout the Smithsonian network, to learn about advancing digitization of collections, programmatic usage of collection materials, and just thinking about different ways to engage the public with art – whether through apps or touchscreens and the different sort of interactive elements that are now becoming more and more a part of exhibitions and online exhibitions.
HPR: I saw that one of the things that you were really drawn to about the Plains Art Museum was their level of inclusivity and arts accessibility. Was that something that you were always really interested in, or did that kind of kickstart a passion for art accessibility?
ES: I was just really interested in making art accessible to everybody, in a very generalized sense. I'm actually a trained artist myself, so I was in sort of the studio sphere for quite a while and people will often say, “You know, art's not for me,” or “I don't understand art” or, “I'm intimidated to go into the museum space. They’re so quiet and people are so formal.”
So for me, I think there's so much more energy and enthusiasm that comes with art and I want to convey that to people and make them feel like they have a place in the museum sphere to learn, to engage, to enjoy. So a lot of my work sort of circles around this idea of inclusivity and accessibility and thinking of different intriguing strategies for engagement.
During my time at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, Virginia, I was the Deputy Director of Community Engagement. The department received a grant from IMLS Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand accessible programming for groups that are often underserved by the museum sphere – those who are deaf or hard of hearing, low vision or individuals who are on the autism spectrum, who are neurodivergent, living with intellectual or physical disabilities. It was a three year grant that we received to go ahead and start to really pilot these different types of programs.
We're working with art therapists – people from the medical community as well – to create programming that would engage these groups. And it was really intended to serve ultimately as a model for other United States institutions. So that work that I was doing there is also informing the work that I'm doing here at Plains – so not only thinking about collections, outreach strategies, and things of that nature, but also thinking about bringing in groups who may not feel as welcomed in the museum community to participate, to be engaged and hopefully make them lifelong museum-goers.
HPR: Can you tell me a little bit about your own work as well? You're a sculptor, is that correct?
ES: I’m a trained sculptor. I got my MFA in sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art, which is outside of Detroit in Michigan. That was doing large scale installation and performance work during that time period. I was taking a lot of inspiration from the natural world from gender roles, thinking about usage of materials – so it was immersive work.
I really enjoyed it and kept up a full time studio practice for quite a while. When I was a student at Cranbrook getting my master's, I also worked at Cranbrook Art Museum – which is a really phenomenal institution – and they were actually doing a renovation of their collections space.
So they were renovating how they stored their permanent collection to make it more accessible to visitors. So you can actually go down into the basement and see some of the collection areas. The works are, of course, behind climate control glass, but you can actually see them, which is huge because most museums only show 1-5 percent of their permanent collection at any given time. Otherwise it’s stored in the vault and there's no public access.
That, to me, was really an interesting job. I was the assistant to the Preparer, so I was working on installing shows, on cataloging artworks, and it was my first real sort of taste and museum work in that capacity.
After grad school, I continued to work as a full time studio artist, but I also got some side gigs at museums. I was at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for a period of time. And that kind of led to my position as curator at Springfield Museum of Art. And that's when I switched full time into museum work from being a working Studio Artist. So, you never know where you're going to end up. Basically, it's been an interesting progression!
HPR: What solidified your interest in museum studies? Was there an exhibit that hit you – like, “Yes! This is what I want to do?’
ES: I've always loved museums. I grew up in upstate New York, and I used to take Amtrak from Albany, where I grew up, into Manhattan. And as a young teen, I would go to the Met, and I would go to the Museum of Modern Art, and I would just spend the day there by myself, then take the train back home. I think those were sort of early experiences that really made me want to be involved with the arts in some capacity. I didn't know what it was going to look like, but I knew early on that I wanted to work within that sphere.
I was just so excited by the history, from Renaissance artwork to contemporary artwork. I mean, I just found all of it fascinating. I went to undergrad. I studied art and English. And, once again, didn't know how it would manifest.
I really enjoyed making my own art, learning about art history, so it's been a very organic sort of progression throughout the course of my career. But it's always been related to this idea of wanting to get other people excited about the arts, get them interested and engaged and be able to enjoy it the way I feel like I've been able to enjoy it.
And I really think that's a gift you can give somebody, because there's so much to learn, so much to take in and so much to enjoy with art. And I want people to have those types of experiences as well.
HPR: What's your first course of action as Executive Director at the Plains?
ES: A lot of new things are actually coming together that I'm excited about. So we're in the midst of hiring a new Chief Curator. The museum has been without a dedicated curator for a period of time and we're going to be bringing on an individual who's going to help lead the exhibition programming into the next year. And really, I think, start to bring in dynamic traveling exhibitions of national renown, as well as have more opportunities to feature regional and Native American artists. So I'm very excited about the direction that curatorial is going in.
At the same time, we're also in more of the quiet phase of a major capital campaign, so that's one of my big projects. We actually had the largest single donation from an individual in the history of the museum, this past summer. Brian Hayer pledged $3 million during this capital campaign, so that's huge.
The campaign is to actually physically connect the two spaces. There's the museum proper and then we have The Katherine Kilbourne Center for Creativity, which right now is attached to the skybridge. A that's where the majority of our studio classes are held. We have our ceramic studio and kilns there, so it's a very much-utilized space. But it's a bit separate from the building.
So this proposed renovation will physically connect to the two spaces. It will create a new welcome center and that will give us more exhibition space. We're going to have a dedicated Native American creativity center which will allow us to engage more in that area as well. It's going to give us greater visibility from downtown also, and just continue to push Plains into this spot as a really nationally acclaimed institution. So I'm very excited about the progress that we're making on that front.
And like I said, we're in the middle of getting all of our materials together and starting to work towards a more public announcement right now. We're still in that quiet phase, but things are heating up quickly. So everybody will be hearing more on that front, relatively soon.
HPR: Well, that's really exciting. It's super exciting!
ES: I think it's an exciting time to be here at the Plains! There's a lot of good things happening and coming and I think there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the future.
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