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‘Taking Care’: Lenore Penfield at Penn College

July 8, 2012
By BRIAN BUSH , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Many people might assume that the curators profiled in this series have similar professional backgrounds. Some might think that curators and gallery directors have a resume that reads something like this: an undergraduate degree in art history followed by a postgraduate degree in museum studies followed by a job at a big-city art gallery.

Although fairly common, this trajectory is not a hard-and-fast rule. In reality, many curators have professional credentials which, although unconventional, have proven essential to the success of their careers. This week's curator is no exception.

Lenore Penfield, director of the Gallery at Penn College, started her career on a very different track. Penfield first came to Pennsylvania College of Technology as an instructor in dental hygiene. After 10 years in teaching, Penfield decided it was time for a career change. "I got kind of burned out in that field and wanted to start branching out into other administrative positions here at the college," she said.

Penfield went on to become the director of the college's first Tech Prep Consortium. Later, she worked as the director of the Penn College Foundation for five years. The experience Penfield gained from both of these managerial positions would come in handy later on. In fact, it's what eventually landed her the job of gallery director.

"Dr. [Davie Jane] Gilmour, approached me in 2005 and asked me to run the gallery, which had just been built in the Madigan Library," Penfield explained. "She was looking for someone not so much with an art background, but someone with management experience. Because of my background with Penn College, knowing a lot about our students and the population we serve, Dr. Gilmour thought I would be a good fit to bring in artists and exhibits that would appeal to all of our students and the local community."

Aside from her managerial experience, Penfield also has studied interior design, which has made her an all-around gallery director, ready to handle all aspects of the job. "Although my background is more in the management aspect of being a gallery director, my interest in interior design has given me an eye, if you will, for being able to display the works in the gallery," Penfield said.

In terms of her day-to-day responsibilities as gallery director, Penfield said she spends much of her time doing "gallery oversight." "I'm in charge of anything to do with budgeting, expenditure, legal issues, contracts, communication with artists and public relations," she said.

Of course, as with other gallery directors, a significant amount of Penfield's time is also spent deciding which artist or artwork will be turned into an exhibition. This responsibility, according to Penfield, is a collaborative effort. The Gallery at Penn College has a seven-member advisory committee that meets each September to evaluate artist submissions and select exhibitions for the upcoming year.

"Our selection process is primarily committee-based," Penfield explained. "Three of our committee members are full-time Penn College employees who do not work in any kind of art-related fields. We have two members that are part-time Penn College instructors in art programs who also happen to be full-time art teachers in school districts in the area. Then we have two full-time artists on the committee.

"We have people with art backgrounds, people without art backgrounds who just love art, people who know the college and our students and people who know the community," Penfield said. "We really want the selection process to be well-rounded because that's really our focus: to bring students from all of our programs into the gallery."

Unlike other colleges with art galleries, Penn College does not have a traditional fine-arts curriculum and so the gallery cannot cater to a small group of art students specializing in a particular field. Instead, Penfield and her fellow committee-members must pick art that will be appealing to all students, especially those with little exposure to or interest in art.

"We have a graphic design program and an advertising art program, so while we do have some art-related programs, the majority of our students have never even been exposed to art," Penfield said. "My job is to find exhibits that would appeal to automotive students, for example, or welding students. That's what's kind of fun about the selection process."

In addition to broad-based student appeal, Penfield said the advisory committee looks for art with technical excellence. "Because we have artists on the committee, the first thing they do is look at the technical aspect of the art that's submitted to determine whether it is quality work," she said. "The work is reviewed from all different aspects: from the technical aspect to the aesthetic appeal, to how it might fit in with some of the majors here on campus."

Penfield said it's not just the students she has in mind when she's putting together an exhibition. It's also members of the community who she hopes will be inspired to visit the gallery. "That's a big part of what I'm in charge of doing," Penfield said. "This gallery isn't just for students and faculty of Penn College. It's a community resource. So, trying to bring in exhibits that the public would enjoy is very important to us."

Open since 2005, the Gallery at Penn College is relatively new. And, at nearly 3,000 square feet, it is remarkably spacious compared to local galleries and even larger, metropolitan ones. With its modern, professional and spacious interior, the gallery often makes a big impression on first-time visitors and regulars alike.

"We are really fortunate to have this space," Penfield said. "We've had artists from New York come in and say 'this is better than any New York gallery we've exhibited in.' Typically, New York galleries don't have a great deal of space, so they come into our gallery and are just blown away."

Penfield said the gallery's impressive interior has brought visitors from all over the area and from out of state. "Obviously the word gets around somehow that we have a good, quality space," she said.

According to Penfield, another important factor in attracting visitors is the flourishing art scene that has grown up in Williamsport over the past few years.

"Obviously, we're thrilled that we're seeing this explosion of the popularity of the art scene in Williamsport because it only helps to strengthen our gallery as more and more people become aware of what's available in Williamsport in terms of being able to view and make art."

Penfield was quick to point out that it isn't a one-sided relationship in which only her gallery reaps the benefits.

"When we have people come to the gallery for the first time, we always tell them to make sure they check out the Pajama Factory and the other galleries downtown. I think it's a collaborative effort and we kind of feed off each other. What's good for one can only be good for the others."

Most people would be hard-pressed to think of another industry in which more of the same type of establishment didn't equal more competition and less revenue. The gallery scene is a notable exception. Local gallery directors like Penfield are all working toward the same goal: to bring people into their spaces and establish a culture of artists and art-lovers.

For more information about the Gallery at Penn College and for a list of upcoming exhibitions, visit gallery.



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