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New Face of the BU Art Gallery

Director Kate McNamara a risk-taker

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Kate McNamara sees possibilities everywhere, even in a closet crammed with stacks of musty exhibition catalogues, decaying pedestals, and antiquated slide projectors. Not long after she took the reins of the Boston University Art Gallery last spring, McNamara decided to transform the storage unit into an exhibition space. She and assistant director Joshua Buckno (GRS’05, GSM’14) weeded through all the old gallery detritus, junking most of it except for the pedestals, which they stacked in their office.

“I got here and thought, how I can make this more stressful?” she jokes, looking at the head-high mound of pedestals now taking up nearly a quarter of the office.

The closet-cum-gallery is just the first signal of the changes McNamara has in store for the gallery, which is tucked away in the College of Fine Arts. Another is the new show opening tonight, Hungry for Death: Destroy All Monsters. The exhibition explores the work of Destroy All Monsters, the influential art-music collective that boiled up in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1970s, and reflects McNamara’s broad approach to contemporary art.

The Destroy All Monsters collective spawned various iterations of a band known for its protopunk rock din, which used guitars as well as a vacuum cleaner and a coffee can. The collective also produced films, hand-painted banners, photographs, and a steady stream of zines, which now blanket the gallery’s walls. There is also a pile of tattered instruments McNamara rounded up from local musicians, which will be played at tonight’s opening in an improvised performance by Cary Loren, one of the collective’s founders, and some local musicians. McNamara says the jam on worn guitars and the like will express the spirit of the collective.

Colorful zine pages, such as this one by Cary Loren, are included in the BU Art’s Gallery new show Hungry for Death. Photo by Cary Loren

Colorful zine pages, such as this one by Cary Loren, are included in the BU Art’s Gallery new show Hungry for Death. Photo by Cary Loren

“I’m willing to take risks,” McNamara says. “You can do that in a university gallery.”

This is the first BU Art Gallery show to bear McNamara’s curatorial imprint, and it’s a strong indicator of what the director has in mind for the future. She expresses a preference for art that encompasses music, film, and performance. She also sees the gallery as not just a place to hang art, but to make art come alive, with film screenings, readings, and performances.

That will be a change for a gallery that had operated rather quietly and in some isolation in recent years under an interim director. The hiring committee was charged with finding a director who would raise the gallery’s profile on campus and across the city, says committee member Dana Clancy, a School of Visual Arts assistant professor. McNamara had worked at MoMA PS1, one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit institutions devoted to contemporary art, and had the experience and drive to do that, she says.

“Kate’s not only wonderful on paper, but she’s got a wonderful, infectious energy that fills a room,” says Clancy. “We’re interested in connecting the gallery to the university more, and Kate has proven she knows how to make connections.”

“She’s a breath of fresh air,” says Patricia Hills, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of art history. According to her, recent previous directors were practicing artists and tended to present exhibitions in their mediums. McNamara has far more interests aesthetically. “She’s a good fit,” Hills says.

McNamara cuts a striking presence. Tall, her dark blonde hair piled atop her head, she favors chunky silver bracelets that clatter on her wrist. One wrist, though, is currently encased in plaster. McNamara tripped and broke it several weeks ago while walking her puppy, Isadora, in her Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Having room for a dog is just one reason she doesn’t miss New York, McNamara says. Another is that Boston is her old stomping ground. She grew up in Brookline and attended Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, where she began painting abstractly and occasionally got sent home for the wild colors she dyed her hair.

She continued painting at Hampshire College until the theory behind art lured her away from the studio. She went on to earn a master’s in curatorial studies at Bard College, where she focused on contemporary feminist painting, and then joined MoMA PS1, in Queens, as an associate curator in 2007. There she helped organize 100 Years of Performance Art, a show she’ll bring to the BU Art Gallery this January. She’ll also teach a class on performance art at CAS this spring.

While McNamara organized shows in a formal museum setting at PS1, in her off hours she experimented with curating. She and three other female curators started an alternative exhibition space called Cleopatra’s in a small Brooklyn storefront. With a flexible exhibition schedule, the curators can hang a show at a moment’s notice.

That urge to experiment is partially what drove McNamara to remake that closet into what is now officially called the BUAG Annex. The space, with its tiled floors and mottled walls, lacks the polish of the gallery, and thus invites a more relaxed approach to art, she says. During the Hungry for Death show, she intends to screen films there.

McNamara has other plans for the BUAG. She wants to publish catalogues for each show the gallery presents, something that hasn’t been done recently. She also hopes to transform a fire exit that opens onto Commonwealth Avenue into a street entrance, making the gallery much more visible. And, she says, she wants to start a membership program.

“I want this gallery to be noticeable, to be part of the city’s and the campus’ cultural scenes,” McNamara says. “To do that, I plan to shake it up a little.”

Hungry for Death: Destroy All Monsters will be on view at the Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through December 22. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The opening reception is tonight, November 17, from 6 to 8 p.m.

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Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

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