MacKenzie Stevens was appointed director of the Visual Arts Center (VAC) in October 2018. As director of an experiential, public-facing curatorial laboratory, Stevens is responsible for providing vision and programmatic leadership in her new role. She joins the VAC from the Hammer Museum at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she was part of the curatorial team for four years.
What attracted you to the Visual Arts Center?
A number of things were attractive about the VAC—that it’s part of such a phenomenal research university and embedded within a college of fine arts, its reputation, and that it’s located in Austin. I’ve always loved visiting Austin, and it felt like such a gift to be able to move here and become a part of the art community in this city.
Being connected to Studio Art, Art Education and Art History is really special and offers an incredible opportunity to collaborate with students, faculty and staff. I want faculty and students to benefit from our exhibitions and to use the VAC as a teaching space that can illuminate the ideas forwarded in their courses.
I was also really impressed with the VAC’s artist-in-residence program, which gives emerging artists the opportunity to realize a new and site-responsive work in our largest gallery, which is HUGE, with 27-foot ceilings. The artists are in Austin for two to four weeks, and during that time they make new work, give a lecture and meet with students. It’s quite an opportunity for students to see an artist’s process firsthand (it’s like a little peek into an artist’s studio) and for the VAC to have the opportunity to premiere new work in our galleries. I really see it as mutually beneficial for students and the visiting artist.
What is the VAC’s current role, and how do you see that evolving in the future?
We wear many hats. We are a space for the campus community to engage with contemporary art—to think critically about art and visual culture, to hone students’ visual literacy skills and also to have conversations and dialogues around important topics that are being addressed in the work of many contemporary artists: the role of art in society, the role of the artist in a democracy, how art can challenge our notions of who we are, how we relate to one another, our shared histories and so forth. I think we’ve done an amazing job connecting with UT students, faculty and staff, but I want to expand our audiences to include the communities of greater Austin. College campuses can be difficult spaces to penetrate. Where do you park? How do you navigate the campus? I want the VAC to be a place that feels accessible and welcoming to all, so increasing our visibility in greater Austin is a top priority.
As a university gallery, you have multiple audiences: students, staff and faculty members, the local community and a broader art-seeking public. How do you engage these different groups?
We engage these groups in myriad ways: We have an array of programming, including exhibitions, artist lectures, panels, conversations between artists, performances and discussions led by curators, artists and the VAC fellows, who are graduate students from Art History, Art Education and Studio Art. And, I think the artists we are showing are expressing ideas that resonate with many people, such as: how we represent ourselves and construct notions of self, how we engage with the world around us and consider our impact on the Earth, how we understand history and culture, what makes us who we are.
Contemporary art is often, in my opinion, misconstrued as exclusive and difficult, but I think oftentimes it just takes a little more time to unpack. And, the very act of prolonged and critical looking, of spending time with something, is an important skill, and one that is worth cultivating. I would love it if someone came to the VAC skeptical of contemporary art and left a convert.