By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat October 11, 1996
Two years ago it was a dark time for the arts. Congress was threatening the funding of public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, and funding was growing scarce on the state level as well. On our campus, budget cuts shut down the Student Union Gallery and stripped the paintings off the walls of the Rotunda on the second floor. Gallery shows all over campus slowed to a trickle.
Just over a year since the hiring of Julie Sasse as curator of galleries for the Student Program Office the campus arts scene is approaching its own renaissance. Colorful, vibrant and sometimes controversial shows are active all over campus, from the three galleries Sasse oversees in the Memorial Student Union to the Student Gallery and Joseph Gross Gallery she runs near the Museum of Art. Sasse, a former teacher in metalsmithing and weaving at Eastern Washington University and Arizona State University, b rings many years of experience to her job, along with a deep love of the energy of student work.
Wildcat: Who created your position, and who funds you?
Julie Sasse: Melissa Vito (dean of students) and Saundra Taylor, (vice president of Student Affairs) got together with the Art Department in a joint effort. After the closing of the Union galleries there was such public outcry and such a show of support for the galleries that everyone felt a need to open them again. By combining forces between the Union and the Art Department, everyone could get what they wanted.
W.C.: What sort of experience did you bring to your position?
Sasse: I was director for 14 years at the Elaine Horwitch Gallery in Phoenix, and I often had to coordinate many shows at once. I also received a master's in art and art history with the intention of seeking a position like this.
W.C.: What's the Phoenix art scene like compared to Tucson?
Sasse: There's an energy (in Tucson) and a sense of survival that Phoenix would like to have. ... Tucson doesn't have a huge support system of galleries or wealthy buyers, so they've learned to deal with their art without the commercial aspects, while Phoenix seems to need that extra push of ready money.
W.C.: How much of that energy is due to the UA's influence?
Sasse: I think the campus is very important to the arts scene. The university has become a major player in the energy that happens down here, because it's not about money, whereas (in Phoenix) the money becomes the driving force. The UA is extremely open-minded in terms of the (arts) community, with so many public galleries and shows and concerts in so many mediums. . . There's a lot to be proud of down here.
W.C.: There has been a lot of arguing about the Student Union and its purpose, whether it will be useful or even needed in the future. Do you have any say in the Union's future? Will there be galleries if the Union is torn down and replaced?
Sasse: I was part of the meetings where (Union staff) met with the architects that were creating preliminary sketches of a possible replacement. The architects got way out of control and ended up designing me an entire museum. For my purposes I don't even think gradual repair would be enough, I think the building has to come down. . . but they can't just level the place and walk away. From what I understand it is not in question whether or not there will be a gallery. They consider an arts presence important because it offers something besides just food and a lounge area - it offers an entertainment aspect, an educational aspect, and it gives students and faculty a chance for creative outlet, a place to express themselves. If it's just about food, that would make for a rather boring Union.
W.C.: How important are public art spaces on campus to the arts students themselves?
Sasse: I firmly believe students need every opportunity to show their work, to prove to the grad schools that they are serious-minded. If they are grads, they need the opportunity to show before they get into the real world. Students should take the opportunity now to enter shows and gain that kind of experience. The faculty shows are important to give students an example of what their professors are able to produce.
W.C.: What kind of people visit the galleries in the Union? How is this different from the museums downtown?
Sasse: The people that are seeing these shows aren't those who would come automatically - they are people who would normally never set foot in a gallery. They're getting the chance to see something they would not normally have gone out of their way to see, and perhaps it will change them, maybe they will go out of their way next time.
W.C.: Because they are from all walks of life and not just espresso-slurping arts majors, what do you think these Union visitors bring to the shows?
Sasse: They are intrigued by technique, and curious about content - and they aren't afraid of giving an opinion. They bring a fresh eye. And I think any artist will appreciate being seen by someone other than their close friends and colleagues.
W.C.: Do you restrict potentially controversial or offensive work?
Sasse: I do a certain amount of "editing" to keep the work appropriate to the space. I don't want to hit people over the head with what some people might consider offensive work. . . I try to be a little conscious of the fact that the galleries aren't just a gallery, they are public space. The Gross gallery can handle a little more challenging work because of its location. I've been more attacked for warnings and disclaimers I've put up than for any work that I've shown.
W.C.: Will the Web and Internet online galleries ever make your job obsolete? Is there any threat there?
Sasse: Online, everything is reduced to a 4 by 6 image with limited colors and no tactile aspect, with canned information that one person has interpreted and edited. There's a lot of good stuff appearing online, but it's nothing like standing in front of a piece of art and letting it affect you. You can't do that without the actual piece. . . I can't believe that (artwork) or galleries will ever be replaced. What is the artist's motivation to play with paint and create if the final product is just going to be on somebody's monitor?
W.C.: The arts seem to have survived Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms, and even seem to be thriving. Do you see any source for this new interest and energy?
Sasse: I think it's just that those people who were interested (in art) have said, "We will not die. We will continue to look at art, we will continue to make it, and threatening our funding over a few controversial pieces will not shut us down."