by Jeffrey Bussmann
“Turn around once and you’ve seen it,” joked Dr. Joseph Gregory. He was referring to the old space that housed Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. Tucked into the lobby of the unwelcoming Nesbitt Hall, the gallery was a veritable shoebox, incongruous with the growth and ambition that defined the presidency of Constantine Papadakis and which has continued under John Fry. The homely 1970s edifice housed Drexel’s College of Media Arts and Design (CoMAD) before it moved into the state-of-the-art URBN Center in late 2012.
The Leonard Pearlstein Gallery has a new home as well. The URBN Center Annex, a completely refurbished space that once served as a childcare facility, sits on Filbert Street just north of the URBN Center proper. The gallery has seen its square footage quintupled in a building that also contains a black box theater and a 100+ capacity screening room.
Dr. Gregory, Chair of Drexel’s Department of Art and Art History, has been involved with the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery since it was started in the late 1990s in honor of its late namesake, a university trustee and booster of CoMAD. Even though the gallery had no fixed home, it scored a major coup in 2002 with Threads of Majesty, a show of Chinese textiles. In spite of being on view for only two weeks, the New York Times put the show on the front page of its “Arts” section and the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. was present for the opening reception. Visitors flocked from all over the east coast to see rare silks being exhibited in the U.S. for the first time.
After the gallery had been allocated a home in Nesbitt Hall, Dr. Gregory began organizing exhibitions of ever increasing ambition, which culminated in the trifecta of Ink Not Ink (2009), Ni Una Más (2010), and Half The Sky (2011). The scale and number of works featured in each show meant they had to look beyond their tiny gallery space. The facility that now houses the URBN Center Annex, prior to its renovation, served as a pop-up gallery for the latter two of these three projects. The shows also set a high bar of achievement that displayed to the intramural community what a great exhibition can do. Drexel, historically best known for its engineering program, still had some catching up to do on nurturing broader valuation its fine arts.
With the full backing of CoMAD’s Dean Allen Sabinson, Leonard Pearlstein Gallery now has a space that befits its ambition. The next step is completion and implementation of a strategic plan that will enable more robust fundraising efforts. At present, the gallery is run by a part-time team of three, none of whom can devote their undivided attention to it. One of them is a graduate assistant drawn annually from Drexel’s Arts Administration program who, in addition to regular duties, is given the chance to curate a show during the summer. Dr. Gregory also sees opportunities to triangulate with other departments at CoMAD via the gallery, such as student and faculty exhibition exchanges being cultivated with fine arts universities in China. He has established a track record of staging exhibitions of international scope and he intends to build upon these global relationships.
The inaugural exhibition featuring artist Wangechi Mutu (on view through March 30) is one such example. Though she lives in New York, Mutu was born and grew up in Kenya, at that time still navigating the throes of post-colonialism. Mutu works in a variety of media: collages on display commingle clippings from adult magazines with antiquated medical diagrams depicting pathology of the female reproductive system; videos show her as a protagonist, in one laboring at the futile task of “cleaning” dirt and in another acting as a loony vagrant who hurls shoes at the viewer. The grandest piece is Suspended Playtime, comprising balled-up rubbish bags suspended from the ceiling. These spherical forms mimic the soccer balls that are fashioned by children living in slums, unable to afford proper sporting equipment but handy enough to improvise. The shape that is formed by the distribution of these suspended balls seems to demarcate the footprint of a small court at the varied moments in a game when the ball is passed through the air.
The gallery’s first opening reception in the new space was well-attended, a good sign for what Dr. Gregory hopes to achieve on campus. His attitude is the very opposite of the “leave us alone” isolationism that can sometimes infect professors or departments within a university. We can expect the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery to be a beacon at Drexel and to cement its prominence among the strong array of visual art forums in University City.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently completing his master’s thesis on Brazilian art and cultural organizations.