"Making Art Accessible"

Making Art Accessible

Jennifer Zwilling ’99, a history major, stepped into the art history field and never looked back, well, unless it had to do with art history.

As a curator at The Clay Studio, Philadelphia, she makes art accessible. She suggests that surrounding yourself with objects you love enhances your life.

You were a history major at Ursinus and you earned a master’s degree in art history from the Tyler School of Art. Did you always want to be a curator?

I was born at Ursinus as a history major and progressed into the art world. I did a semester abroad in Seville, Spain, when I was at Ursinus. I took an art history class there and fell in love with the field. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors asked me if I wanted to be an art history professor: I realized then I didn’t want to preach to the choir. I wanted to make an impact on the general public. As a curator, I reach regular people and hope to show them how their everyday lives can be enriched by the arts.

Tell us about The Clay Studio.

The Clay Studio showcases ceramic art. My job is to curate and oversee the three galleries. I also oversee the shop, the resident artists, and the guest artist in residence program. We have 12 resident artists—they are usually post-graduate ceramic artists starting their professional life in the arts. I’m not teaching them in a traditional sense, but I feel lucky to help mentor them as they progress in their artistic careers.

What are some of the different shows you’ve curated?

Since I started here in December of 2014, I’ve curated about 30 shows. One of my favorite exhibitions was Transference—it examined transferware in contemporary ceramics. Transferware is applying a printed image onto a ceramic object. When it is fired in the kiln the image becomes indelibly part of the ceramic. This exhibition was the first time I was able to showcase historical objects that weren’t for sale. I felt I was being the most true to my background in historic decorative arts.

Before joining The Clay Studio, you were an assistant curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What was it like working there?

I worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 13 years and loved it. But because The Clay Studio is so much smaller, I have a lot more agency and authority over what we are doing and what work we are showing. I like being a big fish in a small pond, which is why I thrived at Ursinus. I can really make a difference here.

As a curator, what is your most important skill?

I think it is making art accessible to all people. When you visit some museums, you have to navigate a building, sometimes stand in a line and pay an entrance fee. There can be barriers even before you get to the art viewing. The Clay Studio has a much easier access point. It is a storefront with a shop and then a gallery next to it. The gallery is free. A person can easily walk in and have an artistic experience. I am here to guide them.

As a general rule, how much time should people spend on each piece of art they are viewing?

Studies have shown that people spend on average about 15 seconds looking at each object—which is very short. I would love people to look longer. But you have to arrange any gallery in a way that makes it possible for them to do this.

How do you do that?

Never overcrowd a space. If you put too many things in the gallery, people will spend less time looking at each piece.

What is your favorite time of day in the gallery?

The afternoon. We have the best light coming in and we also have the most visitors. I also have some downtime so I can check in with people to see if they have questions, leading to some great conversations. In the evening, when we are open for special events, the gallery is lit with spotlights. It brings everything to life in a different way.

Do you use some of the skills you learned as a curator to design your own home?

My job as a curator is to teach people that surrounding themselves with objects they love enhances their lives. We did that in our own home—since starting at The Clay Studio our cabinets are much more filled with handmade ceramics than they used to be. My husband (Christopher Storb) is a furniture conservator at the Philadelphia Art Museum. He makes furniture, so we have a lot of his handmade things like our sofa and our bed frame. We also have a collection of 19th century wooden picture frames that we have bought over the years. They are filled with family photos and drawings by our son Harrison, making us love them even more.