In 2005, when Anthony Hirschel was just starting his job as director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, the little academic institution was poised for a big expansion.
Smart—which opened in 1974 and is named for its original funders, Esquire magazine founders David and Alfred Smart—was looking at a $30 million construction project that would have increased its permanent exhibit space by 50 percent and quadrupled its special exhibition area.
That made it a logical fit for Hirschel, who’d most recently headed the encyclopedic Indianapolis Museum of Art, guiding it through a major construction project.
The expansion at Smart never happened, but Hirschel stayed for a decade. During that time, the collection doubled in size to 15,000 objects and programming included international exhibition tours. In October 2015, after the museum’s 40th anniversary celebration, he stepped down, looking to “recharge [his] batteries,” as he put it in a resignation announcement. For the next 15 months, while a search was conducted (and as the university underwent staff cutbacks), Logan Center director Bill Michel filled in as Smart’s interim head.
This week the university finally announced Hirschel’s successor: Alison Gass, currently chief curator and associate director for exhibitions and collections at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, will be the new Smart Museum director.
Gass is a Columbia University graduate, with a master’s degree in art history from New York University. Her resumé includes stints at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Jewish Museum in New York City. Profiled by the New York Times in 2010 as one of a “new generation of museum curators,” she’s a 2017 fellow at the Center for Curatorial Leadership. According to the Smart’s announcement, her primary focus has been contemporary art, but with an emphasis on context, including history.
Reached in New York, where the Curatorial Leadership program is under way, an enthusiastic Gass said that “the big challenge [for a university museum] is to figure out how do you serve an academic community and also be exciting and inviting for the broader public?”
“I think the most important thing is to not be perceived as an ivory tower,” Gass said. “Departments in a university can be inwardly focused, but a museum on a university campus is a public-facing institution—it has to be an open door to the community.”
Hirschel declined a request to discuss his tenure at Smart, saying attention should “now be directed to the future.” Since February he’s been director of exhibitions at the Alphawood Foundation, Chicago host for an exhibit that’s all about community involvement: the groundbreaking “Art AIDS America.”
Gass will start at the Smart May 1.