Sheila Bergman is the Executive Director of UCR ARTS. Bergman oversees the California Museum of Photography and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts with over 750,000 objects in its holdings. Since Bergman became director in 2017, she has been credited with re-energizing the institution making it a hub of activity for the Inland Southern California arts community. Bergman has over 30 years of experience in the arts, education and non-profit management. Prior to UCR ARTS, she held various positions within the UC system including the director of the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and assistant dean of external affairs for the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.
We spoke on March 7.
Paula: How long have you been in your role at the museum?
Sheila: A little over two years. I was hired to expand the programming here, both at the CMP and The Culver as well as to bring the collections out of the basement and into the community. In addition to expanding programming here, we've launched a traveling exhibition program focusing on community colleges for very low cost. These include shows highlighting contemporary Mexican photography; photography from the Mexican Revolution, and an exhibition called “Around the World in 40 Pictures.”
The Contemporary Mexican photography exhibition opened at a gallery at Delta Community College in San Joaquin Valley in November of 2018 and was really well received. We got great feedback from the gallery director about the classes that attended and the discussions that took place. The college’s photography program really engaged with that particular exhibition and has encouraged the gallery to exhibit more photography. We’ve applied for some funding we hope to receive this year, so that we'll be able to launch that program throughout California. After all, we are the California Museum of Photography, so it makes perfect sense. That's going to be our first goal on that front.
Paula: Can you say something about the collection? What's in your collection here?
Sheila: We have 750,000 objects. Pretty amazing. We have a very large Keystone-Mast stereocard collection, but we also have a lot of historical and contemporary photography, and imaging apparatus. There’s a very broad range within our collection. One of the things that we're looking at as part of our growth plan is how we want to expand the collection. What are the gaps within our collection? But also, if we think ahead to the future, what do we want our legacy to be? And what impact do we want to have?
We’re not only looking at our collection, but also at the incredible collections throughout the entire University of California system. The public may not be aware that there are other photography collections at other UCs. We’re considering a project where we'll pull together a collection catalog that will not only show our collection, but all of those in the extensive and impression collection within our system. That's the beginning of a project for me. I predict that if we’re able to look at these collections together, it will be an ‘aha’ moment in terms of the UC collections and its role in photography internationally.
Paula: There are a number of institutions in California with photography collections. What is your role or niche in the whole picture?
Sheila: We're currently having that conversation both internally, and with knowledgeable collectors of photography. We're introducing them to our collection and getting their feedback about what we should be considering moving forward. We're not there yet, but we will probably have our new revised collection policy ready to go in the next year.
Paula: Was your collection built on donations mostly?
Sheila: Mostly donations. I can't speak for the earlier days, but I believe that there were some acquisitions with the support of generous donors.
Paula: You’ve mentioned that you want to engage not only locally, but also nationally and internationally. Can you say more about that?
Sheila: With the California Museum of Photography in particular, we represent a region of four million people. That’s bigger than many states. We have a lot of people in the region, but we're also interested in working with internationally based curators and scholars and artists, and we have a history of these types of collaborations. We're really saying, "Hey, there are no limits here. Let's look at the exhibitions and the curators and the artists that work internationally, and see what they're doing— see what’s compelling to us."
Previously, we had more limitations in terms of resources, so we're building up the resources to be able to do greater things. We recently brought in David Campany's exhibition A Handful of Dust. That was really exciting. We had a wonderful audience for the show, and it was also great to have David here working with us and talking about his research, not only with us internally here at UCR ARTS, but also with the UCR faculty and the students. The great thing, about a university art museum, is that it's not only about visitors that come in the door, but we also have over 23,000 students that we can then engage with and influence. We can introduce them to our art and photography collections, what photography is historically and what it represents, while also teaching them about contemporary photography and art. To them, photography is a cell phone. We're able to take them through a bit of history, as well as what artists are doing now.
Paula: You have a lot to balance, it seems, with this international vision and also a very local vision for your student population, your metropolitan population, and then the greater Southern California population. It’s a lot to think about.
Sheila: It is a lot to think about. Originally we were only able to focus on our students and local region due to resources, but that isn't what the museum is doing these days. Our focus is not only inward with our academic community, but also outward to the region and beyond. I feel it's a natural next step for us to do more to engage our international community. When our faculty goes on sabbatical, whether it's art history faculty or dance or social sciences or engineering, they're not staying local. They're going international, so why shouldn't we? It’s not that much different for us. In fact, it's probably a much-needed catch up for us to think more globally. We've changed a lot in our thinking. Our Director of Collections, Leigh Gleason, is an aficionado and scholar of our stereocard collection and other historical collections in our holdings. It’s great to have that kind of passion and expertise in-house. It’s also great to have her as a partner for exploring new relationships with international scholars as well. I’m excited about it.
Our next exhibition after “In The Sunshine of Neglect” is called “Stratum”, an artist project with artist John Divola. He's bringing to us his own collection of banquet photos and doing an artist project here. The photographs are really interesting.
Paula: Banquet photos - like people at long tables?
Sheila: People at multiple, multiple tables, sitting closely together, looking at a single focus. It’s great. That's going to be in the main gallery, and we also have some of his own work exhibited as well. So that's another program we're launching - artist projects.
Another major thing that we're tackling now is exhibition design. Typically, with an exhibition, you come up with an approach, a design. You include the name of the title of the exhibition, the didactics, and give people some background. But what we're doing now is attempting to create a way of engaging the visitor in a more meaningful way - helping them to understand who is the artist, what is an artist’s project, and why this exhibition. We hope the visitor will get a glimpse into the creative mind of the artist, their approach for doing something specific for this space, along with how it relates to their own body of work. Plus, John Divola is a faculty member at UCR. It allows the entire community to see another side of him, beyond his teaching and well-known bodies of work like “Vandalism”,” Zuma”, “George Air Force Base”, etc.
After that, we have the Robert Cumming show formerly at The George Eastman Museum. That’s really exciting for us also, because the curator did her doctoral research at UCR. In the future, if we have the scholars at UCR developing exhibitions, we're going to develop them here. We want to put the resources towards these types of efforts.
After Cumming we have Charlotte Cotton curating a new exhibition of Brandon Lattu’s work that will open up at the CMP and will continue as a traveling exhibition. There will be a catalog as well. Then she's bringing “Public, Private, Secrets” to us, which was at the ICP in New York. Part of the exhibition is also going to have new content from our region.
Paula: You've got a lot to do. How exciting to be able to create a vision and pursue it.
Sheila: Yes. Yes.
Paula: Do you think there’s a lot of awareness out there about this museum?
Sheila: Before I came here, of course I was aware of the California Museum of Photography, and would come see exhibitions when I could, but when we started going out and meeting different collectors in Los Angeles people would say they weren’t aware of us. Even locally, people didn't know about us. So, I thought, "Oh, big problem. Better tackle that first.” Historically, we didn't put very many resources into marketing and communications. So now, we're working with campus marketing and communications and actually getting the word out. We have a commitment to placing ads, writing press releases, and really working with whoever we need to work with to keep people informed about our exhibitions and what we're doing and what we’re thinking of next. We also want to hear from the community about how we’re doing.
One goal that has emerged is an effort to present photographers who are not as well-known as others. The trend has been that a photographer or artist will get a show, and then that triggers a lot of other shows for this artist over the course of many years. There are many artists out there doing significant work, but they're just not getting the exposure they deserve. We are open to suggestions and recommendations by people in our network. They will say "You know, I saw such and such’s work, and they've been doing work for 30 years. You should take a look at their work.” That's something we're interested in doing, because we’re also an incubator of new ideas, right? We're want to get the word out about what we're doing, but we also want to create a launching pad for artists that might not be adequate exposure.
Paula: That’s a great role to play, to create a platform for someone who needs one.
Sheila: That's right. Isn't that what a university art museum is supposed to do?