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20 Minutes with Peter Morrin

February 10th, 2009


Peter Morrin coordinates the new Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative.

Peter Morrin, longtime director of the Speed Art Museum, came to the University of Louisville last year to head the new Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative. The initiative is designed to bring together arts, history and cultural institutions to enhance community life. Participating organizations will share knowledge, expertise and programs and work together to create a vibrant artist and cultural environment. Morrin shares the details in this interview.

What is the Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative?

The Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative is an effort to create partnerships between the University of Louisville and arts and culture attractions in the greater Louisville area. It begins with a vision of (President) Jim Ramsey and (Provost) Shirley Willihnganz to make UofL a real model in terms of outreach. Just recently, as you know, The Carnegie Foundation has affirmed that UofL is an extraordinary model in terms of outreach. So the Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative is a narrow segment of this much larger sphere that includes the Signature Partnership in West Louisville and the medical outreach that the university does and all the outreach internships programs that happen in the Business School, the Speed School, communication department and so on.

How does it differ from the other community partnerships that UofL has?

I’m not intimately familiar with the others. Under the leadership of Blaine Hudson, we are signing memoranda of understanding with our arts and culture partners that speak to a variety of issues ranging from possible fundraising for joint positions, to concerts and theatrical presentations in our partner institutions, to internships and research projects.

Louisville is extraordinary in terms of the range and quality of its institutions — performing arts, the museums, other arts organizations. Outstanding historic homes like Farmington, Locust Grove and Riverside, The Farnsley-Moremen Landing are very evocative places in their ability to convey a sense of history and a sense of place. All of these institutions tie in with so many different aspects of how we would like to be able to educate University of Louisville students. The African American Heritage Center is going to be an extraordinary resource for understanding the experience of African Americans in this region. And we have a close relationship with Crane House, the Asia Institute.

So it’s a case of stronger synergies with some of these institutions. In simplest terms, it’s “How can UofL be more useful to the arts and culture institutions?” and “How can the arts and cultural institutions be more useful to UofL and its educational mission?”

Do you have any examples of partnerships so far?

One of the first really wonderful examples of what this kind of partnership can accomplish was something that we did this fall: a Day of the Dead celebration of the Mexican and wider Hispanic tradition of welcoming the departed souls of one’s family or ancestors back on Nov. 2. We arranged with the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and the 21c Museum Hotel to have UofL students do installations in both places. That involved four professors directly and about 60 students. The virtues were many. First of all, it got UofL active in the broader community. For example, professor Rhonda Buchanan, head of Latin American and Latino Studies, did an altar at the Kentucky Center of Art and Craft to commemorate Cesar Ivan Cano, the little boy who was murdered. His mother lent us some of his toys. She came and was very clearly moved by the altar and brought her family. Christopher 2X became involved. He helped create a toy donation for families that had been victimized. Then Father David Sanchez from St. Joseph Church came and blessed that altar and the altars at 21c.

Professor Manuel Medina was responsible for putting up altars on campus at Ekstrom Library and also did a competition for altars at Mexican restaurants in town.

So here is a range of activities that the university is sponsoring in the broader community that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

The university, in effect, becomes a convener. It brings together the Hispanic community, the academic community and these not-for-profit cultural institutions. Now all of these participants know each other as partners and collaborators and know each other as resources that they can draw upon. That’s very important. Now, in a small way, the Hispanic community sees these institutions and also the university as an ally engaged in outreach.

What else besides special events will the partnership do?

One of the other things that makes the Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative important is that it’s reinforcing two academic programs, the master’s degree in curatorial studies in the fine arts department and the forthcoming public history M.A. in the history department.

The partnerships will provide excellent practicums for our students with these institutions.

Owsley Brown Frazier has decided that the Frazier Museum will start a conservation program. The Frazier is one of our strongest partners. The conservation program is really important on all kinds of fronts. First of all, there is no fully instrumented, fully equipped conservation laboratory that I know of in Kentucky. This is a real problem. In the case of natural disaster — flood, tornado, fire at one of our institutions — the closest trained conservators with fully equipped laboratories are at Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Nashville. And if we’re suffering from a natural disaster, chances are they are. This will be a really important community resource from that respect.

We’re in the early stages of trying to craft a certificate program in conservation that would take advantage of this laboratory. Not only does the Frazier anticipate having a trained conservator on staff, it also anticipates having visiting conservators. The Frazier has a very strong relationship with the British Royal Armouries and is hoping that experts in metal conservation or in other areas would come for a month. We’re also looking at the opportunity for students who might be working on a certificate in conservation to have internships not only at the Frazier but also in England. Later in the spring, the University of Huddersfield will be sending a representative and we’ll be trying to create a memorandum of agreement with Huddersfield which has a program supervising internships at British Royal Armouries. So there’s bit of a triangulation there.

This is really exciting. We think that somebody with a master’s degree in public history or curatorial studies who also has a certificate in conservation will be much more employable. We’re not training them to be conservators. That’s a different level of specialized training. But we are hoping to train people in preventive techniques so that if they go to work in historic homes, historical societies, museums or archives they’ll have a sense of what not to do — that’s very important — where to go for help and what some of the first-aid measures are for endangered artifacts or works of art.

A third initiative is related to the historic homes. We now have Farmington; Locust Grove; Portland Museum; Riverside, the Farnsley-Moremen Landing; and the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany among our partners.

One of the things we did was to talk to their administrators and say, “What do you need to know? What can the university provide you in terms of information? What’s crucial?” They said that the relationship to the river is crucial, particularly Portland, Locust Grove and Farnsley-Moremen. They said an understanding of early agriculture was crucial. They said that the lives of enslaved African Americans was crucial. The historic homes also wanted to know about kitchen ways and women’s lives.

So we will do a conference in late spring that should directly respond to this need for information based on new research. This will have a direct impact on historic interpretation at these sites.

Another factor: There are wonderful internships that take place already. Curatorial studies has an ongoing internship at the Speed Art Museum. There’s also a long tradition of internships at the Filson Historical Society and a joint position shared with the History Department.

That’s a mature relationship and there’s a special place for UofL students every year. We’re also trying to model best practices in internships. So we’ve got an experimental program this year in which students will get three credit hours for their internships. We’re also providing incentives for the faculty who are supervising these interns and for the onsite supervisors. We’ll see what we learn from that. What we are doing may help Ideas to Action’s work on a “Culminating Experience” for graduating seniors.

So the partnerships include opportunities for A&S students to get real-world experience and for institutions to better collaborate. Are there other aspects?

There are all kinds of ways in which these partnerships are playing out. The Speed is going to transfer 20,000 art history books to the University of Louisville. That’s major.

This Arts and Culture Partnerships Initiative is trying to unlock community resources for students and for others. If the university is a co-sponsor for talks and events at some of these remote locations, it can benefit students, help create interest in the organizations and ultimately generate loyalty to the university among diverse audiences.

We’re in our infancy, so there’s a long way to go, but the initiative could be a very strong instrument for broadening engagement at UofL.

When it’s mature, what do you want it to look like?

When it’s mature, I want it to be a national model for a metropolitan university’s interaction with the cultural institutions in its community. There are other national models. You’ll see at some of those institutions mathematicians, chemists, and language instructors teaching a major portion of their courses in the university museums. It’s not just the art historians and the historians and the humanities people that can take advantage of this. I think there are opportunities across the spectrum. One of the business students in Marketing recently did a marketing study for the cafĂ© at the Speed Art Museum. That’s a good example.

Speaking of the Speed, how did your experience as director of the Speed…

Oh, my experience as director of the Speed has everything to do with this! There are far more ties between the Speed and the university than most people realize or understand and they take place in all kinds of levels. The Speed, I think, has been a resource for the university and I think the Speed sees that as part of its mission. But you know, it never crystallized. It was always elusive. Contrariwise, although for 21 years I had a front-row seat on the university, I did not have any idea of how vibrant and how exciting the academic, cultural and artistic life of the university is. I thought I was pretty well-informed. I was not.

This is something I have a real passion about because it was something I was frustrated about for a very, very long time. I couldn’t make it work the way I wanted it to. Again, we’re in the infancy of the program, but I think it’s very, very promising. I can’t say enough about my colleagues who are working with me on this. Certainly Blaine Hudson, whose vision has been a day-to-day, week-to-week driver. And then I’m working with Janna Tajibaeva and Linda Wilson, who also bring to the equation their own particular passion for this and for enhancing learning experiences and for doing all they can to improve the lives of students.

I’m revved!

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