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An Artful Milestone

Happy 25th anniversary to Swarthmore’s List Gallery

In September 1981, when I took my swim test at Swarthmore, the pool was located in nearly the same place as the List Gallery is today, near the entrance to the Lang Performing Arts Center. I would’ve laughed to think that I would eventually devote more than 20 years to the same length of space, working with some of the most interesting artists of our time.

In the early 1980s, Kohlberg Hall, Ware Pool, the Matchbox, the Science Center, and numerous other buildings did not exist. The Florence Wilcox Gallery, as our exhibition space was known then, consisted of a hallway in Pearson Hall. By the time I graduated, it had moved to a converted second-floor classroom in Beardsley Hall. The faculty brought in strong artists, including woodworker George Nakashima, but security was provisional, the gallery lacked visibility, and gems in the College’s permanent collection, such as Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, languished in storage. Students were allowed to take only five courses for credit in studio art, dance, music, or theater, lest so much creativity dilute the “rigor” of one’s Swarthmore education. 

I pursued postbaccalaureate and graduate art studies after Swarthmore, but when I returned to direct the List Gallery in 1996, the Lang Performing Arts Center was 5 years old and students could finally truly major in the arts. 

The gallery’s proximity to the Theater, Dance, and English departments inspired numerous collaborations, including one of my first curatorial projects, an exhibition of Polish theater posters selected from the collection of Professor Allen Kuharski.  Another interdisciplinary exhibit, History, Memory, and Representation: Responses to Genocide, presented exemplary paintings, sculptures,and photographs while also informing a course on the Holocaust taught by Professors Robert Weinberg and Marion Faber. Similarly, an exhibition of art by Carmen Lomas Garza was integral to a course on Chicano culture, and I trained students to lead gallery tours and papel picado workshops for more than 400 visiting schoolchildren. 

A survey of works by Robert Turner ’36, one of the most important American ceramic artists and teachers of the 20th century, also earned regional attention. Turner, a lifelong Quaker and a conscientious objector during World War II, modeled the way art connects us to our humanity, expresses global concerns, and sparks innovation. 

Turner and other artists who have exhibited at Swarthmore do not share a particular style, but instead demonstrate high standards of conceptual integrity, craft, and social engagement. Whether we look at Buzz Spector’s artist books documenting peaceful protests, Alison Saar’s critiques of racial stereotypes, Daniel Heyman’s humanizing portraits of victims of torture, or the painterly abstractions of Ying Li, a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, we study rigorous peacemaking.

I have also been honored to assist studio majors who spend their senior year developing a coherent body of work, learning how to professionally install and light a solo exhibition in the gallery, and crafting their first artist’s statement. Most art programs only offer group shows, but Swarthmore’s Senior Thesis Exhibition Series raises the bar. Memorable thesis exhibits have included the first “collection” presented by renowned fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra ’05, and an installation of drawings and paintings by Njideka Akunyili-Crosby ’04, who has earned prestigious international prizes and museum exhibitions.

The next time you’re near the List Gallery, I invite you to dive into this ever-changing space. It may carry you out of your depth, challenge habits of seeing, or offer renewed buoyancy.

ANDREA PACKARD ’85 is director of the List Gallery.