Mara Baldwin

The first show of the fall season at Ithaca College’s Handwerker Gallery is the “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project,” which, because of its socio-political importance, is sure to attract the attention of a portion of the public not given to gallery visits. The show includes the work of six photographers—Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Brian Cohen, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson, and Martha Rial—who have all used different approaches to record the effects of recent natural gas exploration on the communities, rural and urban, of Pennsylvania.

“Brian Cohen used to be an adjunct instructor at IC,” said Mara Baldwin, the director of the gallery. “He got in touch with Cheryl Kramer; she was the director before I got here.” Baldwin was the acting director for a year after Kramer stepped down and was appointed to the position permanently last month.

“They were all on their own missions,” Baldwin said of the photographers, “using different strategies. One of them has made these large out-of-context portraits. One of them has concentrated on what has happened to one family. Another has focused on landscape, and you have some photographs that are more like photo-journalism; they are capturing events as they are happening.” Each artist is given their own portion of the alcoved and L-shaped gallery in the Gannett Center.

The collaboration (www.the-msdp.us) was organized by Cohen and Laura Domencic, the director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It first opened at Pittsburgh Filmakers in October 2012 and has since traveled to Philadelphia to hang at the Open Lens Gallery and the University of the Arts. It will remain at the Handwerker until October.

“It’s a different kind of show,” said Baldwin, “in that it is not just an art show. Our job is to contextualize the issue.” To that end she has reached out to regional activist organizations and invited IC environmental studies class to visit. She has not, however, invited any geologists to speak or sought out the perspective of the natural gas industry.

Baldwin grew up in Ithaca and left to attend Wesleyan University, where she majored in art history. All Wesleyan seniors are required to write a thesis paper and Baldwin focused on studio art, drawing in particular, for hers. Like a lot of young people, she moved to Portland, Ore. after graduating and fell into a life that might easily have landed her with a role in Portlandia: she worked on a farm, for Powell’s Books, and in a gallery. Through her employment at the gallery she met the director of graduate programs at the California College of Art in San Francisco.

This led her to enroll at “Cal Art,” where she received her MFA. “It is traditionally a craft school,” said Baldwin, “and my concentration was on drawing and textiles. For a while after that I supported myself by working as an artist; I had my own studio.” In 2011 she applied for and was given a month-long summer residency at the Saltonstall Foundation out on Ellis Hollow Creek Road, which brought her back to the east coast. After spending a brief interval in Northampton, Mass., she came back to her hometown to become acting director of the Handwerker in 2012.

The college decided to re-work the director’s position at the gallery. For the first time in the Handwerker’s history, the new hire would not be faculty. With the support of the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences Leslie Lewis the gallery will go forward under a new model, which includes the recent creation of an advisory board, at present composed of faculty from five different departments at the college.

Baldwin credits her predecessor with opening up the space to the work of local and regional artists. In her turn Baldwin will also bring in artists from beyond the Ithaca College and central New York communities. She will also introduce exhibitions that show not just finished work, but also at least part of the process that leads up to it.

“A future show will focus on following the artists’ directions for making one of their pieces,” she said. “This includes people like Yoko Ono, Sol LeWitt—who makes wall drawings— and [film maker] David Lynch. We will make the gallery into a working space, a lab, and encourage community participation. After fall break we will be exhibiting what has been made. It messes with the idea of who is the author of the work.”

Baldwin would like the Handwerker Gallery to help address the questions “How is visual culture more a part of daily life?” and “What does it mean to have a gallery on a liberal arts campus?”

“I would like to get non-arts students in here,” she said of the gallery. “We will be inviting in writers inspired by art. It’s pretty exciting and all part of the new push associated with making this a staff position.”

She will continue to support local artists, although not necessarily with exhibitions in the gallery. “We would like to finance student visits to artists’ studios,” she said. “In the studio they can see the mistakes and the failures that come before what they see in galleries and museums.” She looks forward to having students in her own work space. “I love to talk to people about what I’m doing in the studio.”

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