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The Art of the Gallery Space

The Art of the Gallery Space

Srimoyee Mitra’s intrigue with art as an experience began early on during visits to her grandparents’ theatre and film production company in India. “I grew up in Mumbai and we would take trips to see my grandparents in Kolkata when I was a young girl,” said Srimoyee. “I would sit at the theatre sets of their production company for hours and watch rehearsals. There were so many things to look at and play with.”

That intrigue continued well into Srimoyee’s teen years, when, at age 16, she began a two-year, pre-university program at the Mahindra United World College in Pune, Maharashtra, India. “I had read about the program in the newspaper and decided to apply,” she said. “Being a part of the school, which brings together students from diverse cultures and experiences, really changed my life. It was a formative time for me.”

At 19, Srimoyee left Mumbai and headed for Toronto, Canada, to study acting, playwriting, and directing at Glendon College, York University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Drama Studies and International Studies in 2004. “I learned a lot about space with working in theatre - whether it was the relationship between my body and the space, other bodies in the room with me, or to things that are in the space. And, about how we animate and activate that space,” said Srimoyee. “Theatre played an important role in helping me learn about these intersections.”

After a brief stint as an arts writer for Time Out Mumbai and The Indian Express, Srimoyee returned to York University, School of the Arts, Media Performance and Design, to pursue Art History and earned a master’s degree in the discipline in 2008. “Arts writing introduced me to the work of visualizing,” she said. “So I decided to go back to school to study the history of art. With theatre and space, I couldn’t be as experimental as I wanted to be.”

Soon, Srimoyee began to curate exhibitions at the South Asian Visual Arts Centre in Toronto, Canada, and at Ek Aur Level Chalte Chalte: A Festival of Theatre for Change in Mumbai, India, which brought together emerging photo-based artists from universities in Mumbai. “It was at this point I realized that being a curator was the thing for me,” said Srimoyee. “I didn’t really choose the profession; it chose me.”

Such point of entry into the profession led to Srimoyee’s next role as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 2011, where she created exhibitions and public programs for the next five years. While at the gallery, Srimoyee launched a series of exhibitions titled Border Cultures: Part One, Two, and Three, which took place over a period of three years with large group exhibitions bringing together artists from Windsor, Detroit, and across the world. Not surprisingly, the work garnered the accolade of “Exhibition of the Year” in 2013 and Art Publication Award in 2015 by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. “The idea was to launch this exhibition as a site of research - to try to understand what it means to be a border city in the 20th Century,” she said. “At the time, there was no tangible dialogue to make sense of the cross-border experience, although it was very much a part of everyone’s life there.”

This year, with official status taking root on April 3, Srimoyee will assume the role of inaugural director of the new U-M Stamps Gallery, where she will head the 8,000-square-foot space situated on the first floor of McKinley Towne Centre in downtown Ann Arbor. “It is an honor and a privilege to lead the Stamps Gallery, to be the inaugural director. This is an important opportunity for all of us — faculty, staff, students, and the community — to make this gallery our own,” said Srimoyee. “I envision the Stamps Gallery as a lively, collaborative space that is constantly changing; not static. It can be a place for displaying artwork, performance art, or a workspace where the artwork itself is transforming through the course of the exhibition or the project. I’m really interested in thinking about how gallery spaces can function as labs or incubator spaces where folks can try out ideas.”

The downtown location will replace the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design’s existing gallery spaces on and off campus, including Work Gallery and Slusser Gallery, while providing 2,500 additional square feet for exhibitions. “Since the gallery is new and there is no established culture, I see this as an opportunity to develop a framework that is solid, robust, inclusive, and deep enough that we can keep mining,” she said.

“There is a sense of lightness, risk, and possibility that we can create with this new space that is really meaningful, not just for students, staff, and faculty, but for the wider community — locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.”

Plainly put, the focus of Srimoyee’s curatorial practice has always centered largely around cultural and social research. Her new role with the Stamps Gallery calls to mind a similar focus. “The Stamps School places a strong emphasis on research as part of the curriculum,” said Srimoyee. “They are training students to go out into the world with the tools to address social change through art and design, and how that can be leveraged. It’s a really progressive and inspiring viewpoint, and a great fit for my work which is very much invested in questions of social justice.”

Of late, Srimoyee has turned her investigations to the role that art and design can play in understanding some of the things that people take for granted in their everyday lives. “Art and design have a role in bringing forth these lesser-known narratives into the society; hopefully providing alternate models to some of the accepted norms. In broad strokes, these things are much larger than the human experience,” she said.

Prominent in Srimoyee’s vision for the Stamps Gallery is the component of public engagement, which she maintains is at the crux of what a public gallery is all about. “On a fundamental level, public engagement is about how the work at the gallery communicates with the larger, broader, and more diverse audience. But along with that, I think it’s the way in which the work in the gallery is animated to the larger public, and who gets to animate these works,” said Srimoyee. “The aspect of who gets to animate the work becomes really important because there is a question of power in that. Everything we do through art and design in the gallery is part of a contribution to the culture of the community. We are writing its history, so it’s really important to be respectful of who is being represented. I don’t believe the folks at the gallery are the only ones who should speak.”

Today, Srimoyee continues to draw inspiration from her rich family history. “I’m really amazed to think about my grandparents and what their lives must have been like. And, I can’t really think tangibly about what my great grandparents’ lives were like under colonial rule in Kolkata,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for how they survived and how they thrived. This continues to inspire me and to shape my interest in learning about history, culture, and different experiences and ways of living in the world.”

Story by Barbara Wylan Sefton.

The Stamps Gallery will host its public open-house reception on Friday, March 10, 2017, at the Grad Thesis Exhibition reception from 5 – 8 pm.