A New Era for the Williamson Gallery

By Mаdeleine Nаkаmura
written for the fall 2023 issue of Scripps magazine

Erin M. Curtis

Erin M. Curtis, the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Director of Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery as of July 2023, has spent her career working toward change in the world of arts institutions—and aiming to drive broader change through the work of arts institutions.

As a curator and historian, Curtis has endeavored to amplify historically suppressed voices and foster greater inclusiveness in her research, writing, exhibitions, and other projects. “Narrative is a powerful driver of change because of its ability to reframe our viewpoint,” she explains. “Art, at its best, can be at the forefront of progress because it allows us to imagine things differently. If you can change how you think, you can change how you act.”

Curtis’ path toward history and curation was shaped by her undergraduate studies in English literature at Pomona College, where she became interested in literary and critical theory. She went on to earn her PhD in American Studies from Brown University. “I wanted to take a broader look at culture through the lens of cultural theory, which lead to my PhD program,” she recounts. By then, she knew that she wanted to work in museums: “Curating exhibitions has been a way to bring rigorous, timely research to a broad audience and to work directly with communities by centering them in the process.” As a curator at the Skirball Cultural Center, Curtis worked to connect visitors with Jewish history; at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, she curated exhibitions telling the story of how Latinx people have shaped—and continue to shape—Los Angeles.

Curtis has been involved in the Claremont community for decades. In addition to her undergraduate degree from Pomona and her position at Scripps, she has been a DJ at KSPC for 25 years. “These are fantastic times to be working in the arts in Claremont,” Curtis says. Her familiarity with Claremont’s art scene gives her insight into how Scripps’ location—between Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, with proximity to a vibrant local arts scene—positions it perfectly to act as “a nexus for bringing people in from all over.”

The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s vast, eclectic catalog exemplifies this potential; the gallery hosts more than 15,000 art objects from around the world, including the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection, a growing contemporary collection focusing on artists of color and women that honors the legacy of Professor Emerita of Art History Samella Lewis, Scripps’ first tenured Black professor and a celebrated pioneer in the arts and the field of art history. The collection, which was highlighted this fall in the gallery’s Gettin’ It Done: A Selection of Work by Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Betye Saar, Emma Amos, Alison Saar, Letitia Huckaby, LaToya Hobbs, and Kenturah Davis exhibition, was created in 2007 by former Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Director Mary MacNaughton ’70, who held the position for 36 years; Scripps alum and artist Alison Saar ’78; and Professor Emerita Susan Rankaitis.

Curtis and the other members of the gallery’s staff—Kirk Delman, collections manager and registrar; Margalit Monroe, Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Curator of Academic Programs and Collections; T. Robert Pacini, gallery installer; John Trendler, curator of visual resources; and Jan Blair, gallery guard—are always on the lookout for different ways to enrich both the curriculum and campus life at Scripps as well as to forge connections across The Claremont Colleges and throughout Southern California. Thanks to a generous recent donation of $300,000 from Clifford Temps, friend of the College, more exhibitions and broader programming will be possible going forward. The gift was made in memory of Temps’ wife Ruenell Foy Temps, an accomplished sculptor and ceramic artist, and includes a selection of her work to be added to the gallery’s collections. “Gifts like this open up amazing possibilities for bringing artists to campus and collaborating with other institutions,” Curtis says, further enabling Scripps to provide broader access to the arts—a goal that has been at the forefront of Curtis’ mind throughout her career. “I didn’t grow up going to museums, and despite the privileges I do have, I didn’t feel like I belonged in that kind of space,” she says. “I think a lot about the experiences of young students who may feel the same way.”

Just as art can act as a mirror, allowing us to clarify our sense of self, it can also expand our perceptions of the struggles and stories of others by reflecting their experiences. However, Curtis adds, “This potential should always be balanced with the art world’s entrenchment with systems of oppression.” Arts institutions have often contributed to injustice, and this constant tension mirrors the balancing act of historical research: without an inclusive mindset, research practices can widen the gulf between communities and those writing about them.

Through the gallery, Curtis aims to show that a background in art history is not the only viable way to connect with the arts. Scripps promotes interdisciplinary learning in all areas, and in that spirit, Curtis wants to offer students a variety of entry points. “Graphic design, social studies, even chemistry—the path should be open in all directions,” she says. For instance, in a course taught by the chemistry department this fall, students used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze art objects in the gallery’s catalog. By exploring one discipline through referencing another, these types of collaborations improve students’ engagement across multiple fields.

Above all, Curtis hopes that the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery will continue to serve as a welcoming environment that encourages Scripps students to think critically about art and arts institutions. “The future of the field is exciting,” she says. “We get to advance important discussions and help students become aware of key issues. Everyone should feel welcome, and that’s my goal for the gallery.”