Idaho Arts Quarterly » North Idaho

Vandal's Gallery

Moscow's bourgeoning artistic dialogues

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For decades, Moscow has been firmly established as one of the most vibrant and thriving artistic centers in Idaho. Through a highly supportive and talented community of teachers, students, artists and patrons, Moscow has been a creative locus, unmatched in the area. Painters, sculptors, illustrators and craftsmen have studied, worked and continue to live in the area.

Recently though, academic and economic setbacks have threatened Moscow's status as the "Heart of the Arts" of Idaho. Just last year, the Fine Arts program at the University of Idaho was threatened with major budget cuts, including the termination of its highly successful M.F.A. program. Moreover, the Prichard Gallery, for decades a mainstay of Moscow artistic life, was also faced with the potential loss of its lease at its longtime downtown location, as well as possible loss of financial and academic support from the University, specially after the demise of the College of Art and Architecture by the administration.

But in the past six months, an artistic renaissance of sorts has materialized in Moscow. The Art Department has resuscitated (perhaps stronger than ever); the Prichard Gallery has been given a new life with a renovation project and a new director; and most importantly, a profoundly progressive vision (in terms of theory and practice) has surfaced from the ashes of adversity: creative collaborations between art, design, and architecture; sophisticated evaluations and interest in photography, video, and new media have emerged; and there are renewed directions in research and pedagogy. The result is a burgeoning artistic community laboratory of experimentation and collaboration that could possibly spell a new chapter in Moscow's artistic history.

The rejuvenated Prichard Gallery is a key factor. In the throes of uncertainty over the future of the gallery, new owners for the Main Street location surfaced and not only provided the gallery with a long-term lease, but supported a vast renovation process that has given the gallery a new look. The new owners are committed to supporting the gallery and their commitment has given the Prichard the security to move forward.

Finding a new gallery director was key. Due to the well-known economic troubles of the university, the Prichard had been without a full-time director for more than two years. Last year, Roger Rowley was hired and his presence is shaping the new vision of the gallery. His background is important for understanding this vision. Rowley's graduate work was done at the innovative Visual Studies Workshop of SUNY Buffalo. Grounded in the experimental traditions of 1960s and '70s neo-avant-garde, the VSW is a unique interdisciplinary center, very much community-based, where tangible synergies between artistic training, theoretical work, exhibitions and community involvement are central to its mission. Rowley specialized in photography and artists' books. He worked at the workshop after his graduation, then at the Washington State Art Gallery, where he was curator of exhibitions and collections manager before coming to Moscow.

Rowley sees the possibilities of the Prichard as actually closer to the VSW model. As opposed to WSU, where the exhibition rationale centers on name-recognition, or to similar small town galleries, where an emphasis is invariably placed on "local artists," Rowley sees the Prichard as a vehicle for vibrant, experimental contemporary work from around the country. This is unique and should not be underestimated. Rowley's plan is to accommodate intersections between art and design, photography, video, architecture and new media. In terms of photography, Rowley is particularly interested in more critical depth of how images function in terms of both theory and practice. A manifestation of a broader synergy between art, design and architecture will be next fall's "Beyond Green" exhibition that will articulate a broad artistic commentary on sustainable design.

A related important dimension of Rowley's vision for the Prichard regarding the Moscow community centers on education, not simply as gallery programs for locals schools--something that is also being rejuvenated--but more importantly, through the notion of exposure to art and artists from outside the area. Rowley understands that Moscow forms a number of outlets for local art and artists. The 3rd Street Galley, Above the Rim and Retro Fit, for example, fill these locals needs. Thus the Prichard can concentrate on an extra-regional focus. Rowley wants to accommodate a greater scope of national exposure to new contemporary artists through a more balanced schedule of exhibitions rather than the emphasis on larger shows, which contrast WSU and the previous history of the Prichard.

Rowley also believes the Prichard's unique relationship with the working faculty at the university also benefits his new vision. As he sees it, faculty are in many ways the best critics, especially actively working faculty. Their continual involvement in the gallery will facilitate the type of critical nuance that Rowley wishes to foster in the coming years.

In general, Rowley echoes the common optimism in Moscow's art community. With new ownership, renovations and revived faculty involvement, a sense of permanence, which the Prichard has always manifested but that has been lately compromised, is now a reality. Its downtown location, which Rowley recognizes as crucially optimal, adds to a sense of revived community involvement in what is tangible forward-looking project.

The current atmosphere in the university's faculty and student artistic population exemplifies Rowley's understanding of the key role the university community should play in Moscow's artistic future. The key is in collaboration between disciplines. Although the university has been paying lip service to the notion of inter and crossdisciplinary programs, the project has yet to fully surface.

One place where it is beginning to develop is in the art and architecture disciplines, especially through the work of young faculty. Roman Montoto is a good example, and his approach exemplifies the new collaborative spirit that is emerging in Moscow. Trained in architecture in Chicago, where he worked professionally before coming to Moscow, Montoto specializes in crossdisciplinary experimentation. Specifically, his work involves the study and development of various design, artistic and new media processes toward application of theory and practice in architectural contexts.

What is interesting, and typical of the disciplinary imbrications being fostered in Moscow today, is that Montoto's work develops from his research, is articulated in the classroom and studio, and is displayed in artistic contexts. The crossdisciplinary nature of his work incorporates not just the intersections between art, design and architecture, but (and here his work is in line with the Prichard gallery's trajectory) incorporates a progressive and aesthetically sensitive use of new media technologies. Recently, Montoto worked on a series of crossdisciplinary experiments in new media toward the development of an animation video articulating variations of time-based and two-dimensional models. The time-based and spatial iterations are designed to produce physical and cultural situations that can then be developed in terms of theory and practice. Central to Montoto's work is a privileging of design as a creative and technical process that can both inform and be informed by technology.

Rowley and Montoto are but two examples of a changing artistic outlook in Moscow today. Both progressive and sophisticated, this vision is in line with some of the most rigorous attempts at collaborations between disciplines in art today. It is telling that Rowley and Montoto both came here precisely because they appreciated the close relationship between art, design, and architecture that has been the case in Moscow, especially through the College of Art and Architecture, which is the process of re-establishment. The accordance between Rowley's and Montoto's visions and Moscow's artistic renaissance will liekly depend on continuing crossdisciplinary collaborations, such that involve developments in the classroom, studio, research endeavors and galleries. The equation points toward a viable artistic future.

Ivan Castaneda, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Art History and Visual Culture and of Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory at the University of Idaho.