A Career Curated
An exit interview with the Erie Art Museum's John Vanco
For almost half a century, John Vanco has been Erie's champion for the arts. In November of last year, he announced his plans for retirement. At age 72, he's been privy to countless exhibits, artists, and events that have taken place at the museum. Virtually everyone involved in Erie's art scene is familiar with him on some level. With his trademark beard and long grey hair, he gives off the aura of a wise wizard of the arts.
Growing up in Edinboro, Vanco went on to Allegheny College, traveling to Meadville before I-79 joined the two destinations. He interned at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a world-famous institution on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In 1968, he returned to Erie County and began working at the Erie Art Museum.
Long the centerpiece of Erie's cultural scene, the museum has grown tremendously over the decades. Through it all, Vanco has been at the helm, steering the ship as both the museum's director and lead curator.
Vanco will be honored at this year's ARTrageous event, taking place at the Erie Art Museum on Saturday, July 10 *(see sidebar for more information).* He'll stay on through the Blues and Jazz Festival, which he will continue to oversee after his retirement. With no formal last day set at this time, Vanco insists he'll "work through the end of August" unless they find a new director prior to that. With the amount of work built up after 49 years, he's sure to have plenty to do.
To get a small glimpse at those decades of work, I sat down with him for what seemed like a strange sort of "exit interview." We met up at Jekyll & Hyde's for a casual discussion. People drifted in and out saying hello as Vanco munched on popcorn, slowly sipping a craft beer. We talked about the museum's history and future, waxed abstractly about the nature of art, and joked about a mummified cat.
Nick Warren: You must have seen countless iterations of the art scene. Styles fading, faces changing, How has Erie's art scene evolved since the early days?
John Vanco: Well, there are just more arts activities across the board, I would say. Despite the ravaging of the arts in schools, the level of professionalism has certainly increased. Looking at the arts organizations, there have been tremendous changes, just enormous. To think about where the [Erie] Art Center was when I started, just a little house that didn't even do exhibits all year round, that's been a tremendous change. The Playhouse. When I started, the Playhouse was at the Penn Theatre in Wesleyville and that didn't last for long, they were homeless for a while.
NW: And they just had their one hundred year anniversary.
JV: Right. And the Art Club is even older, that dates back to 1898. The organization has been around that whole time but it was still a volunteer organization. So, just the professionalization of the arts organizations, with the Philharmonic always being the exception, with the fact that they had a professional music director. Now they also have an executive director and a full staff.
NW: Similar to the Erie Art Museum as well, starting from a volunteer organization, growing into a fully-staffed, 16,000 square foot modern building. Not to mention places like Erie Arts and Culture, the ExpERIEnce Children's museum, and so forth.
JV: That's right, there was no Children's Museum, no Maritime Museum. The historical society was a volunteer organization. The Erie Public Museum was kind of a marginal operation. All those things have changed dramatically. It's incredible actually since our population hasn't grown.
NW: Right, three years ago we were over 100,000.
JV: Well, yes the city population has dropped, and even the county population has hardly grown over that period. It's essentially the same as when I started.
NW: So the Erie Art Museum started as the Erie Art Club, which begat the Erie Art Center, correct?
JV: The Art Club was first in the library at Perry Square and then in 1941 they moved with the public museum over to the Curtze Mansion. In 1956, the Art Club bought the building next door, the Wood-Morrison House, and that became known as the Art Center. They were calling it the Art Center of Erie, and when I started I said, let's call it Erie Art Center [laughs], got rid of the "of". So then in 1983, when we moved over to State Street we called it the Erie Art Museum.
NW: How did feel to walk into the Art Center in 1968? How could someone in 2017 visualize that?
JV: Well, it definitely was not a professional operation at that point [laughs], though they did have some good shows. They were presenting some traveling exhibitions. There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm and a core of hardworking volunteers. But there a was a relatively narrow perception of what "art" is, I think.
NW: Was it more so the "fine art" mentality?
JV: Yes. It was painting and sculpture.
NW: And obviously the museum has embraced things like folk art and textiles so much. You don't think that was as appreciated then?
JV: No, and from the very beginning, work in craft media wasn't regarded at the same level as say, a painting. There's that traditional hierarchy which I've always just denied. That's really not the way to look at things, you know? I can be really taken by a painting, or I can be really really taken by a wood carving, a piece of pottery, or a textile. It's all legitimate to me. It's all expressions of the same thing.
NW: Regardless of form, necessarily.
JV: Yeah, and popular arts, like comic art, that, again, wasn't in the canon. It wasn't something that museums were presenting. That idea was just starting to happen.
NW: And film, too, to a certain degree.
JV: Well, film has been recognized as an art form by people who love film. To me, I think film is the great art of the 20th century. There's no question about it, that's where it all comes together.
NW: It combines pretty much every element you can think of, if you do it right.
JV: Like opera in the 18th century, it's something that brings together all these different aspects of the arts and presents it in a new way.
NW: With people working as a team, too.
JV: Yes, undermining the idea of the "solo" artist. Which is true, and is a component of it, but so much of art is collaborative. Of course it's always been that way with music. You can have a solo performer but you also have to have bands and choruses.
NW: Yeah, you can only say so much on your own sometimes. I feel like some of the older, canonical stuff was based on "the artist" as an individual creating works. With painting and sculpture you can say that *this specific person created *this.
JV: Right, and that's a very western concept too. Looking at art from the rest of the world and looking at it in a way that's not just a formal analysis, the way that we tend to look at western art, you have to embrace the zeitgeist in which the art was created, trying to understand the function that the art has in the society in which it was created. We can look at something as art, but to people in that society, they don't think of it that way. It's a part of their belief system, it's religious or meditative. It's got other functions.
NW: Were there any specific exhibits you wish you could go back and see again, or any artist that stands out immediately?
JV: There have been ton of them [laughs]
NW: Kind of like a teacher that sees thousands of students.
JV: Well, I did a series of exhibits in the '80s and '90s where I was looking to get national attention. And it did. We got reviews in the *New York Times, and exhibitions shown in New York and Chicago and so forth that we created here. I had made a conscious decision in 1990 to focus on building a proper museum, creating a facility that would house a whole museum operation. Then we had to detour with Discovery Square [now Box of Light Studios], which wasn't lost at all. We put a lot of money into the historic buildings there, creating the Children's Museum in 1995, which would not have happened otherwise. It wasn't going to happen on its own. People had been talking about it for years and nobody was doing anything, so we made that happen.
NW: And I feel like it's very tangibly clear how much the museum has grown since the mid-'90s. Obviously physically in 2010, and it's continued to be one of the biggest linchpins of Erie's culture. How do you feel being so closely related with that, almost as a symbol of the Erie Art Museum, if you will?
JV: It's very gratifying. I've been blessed, I feel. It's been wonderful to watch the growth of the arts, to have been able to work with so many different artists, visual artists, musical artists, and other kinds of artists. To be able to shape the institution, that's been really gratifying. Personally, I've been able to pick who I work with. That's really important. How many people have jobs where they go there every day and — I don't know what the percentage is — 49 out of 50 days look forward to it? Not a lot of people can say that; I've just been really lucky that way.
NW: What kind of qualities do you see in your successor?
JV: I don't know [laughs], until we have one. But I would hope that they have the same broad-based appreciation for art, an understanding of how art and community relate and intersect and how art can help build community. Those are things that I'm hoping my successor brings to the table, and I'm hopeful.
NW: So, aside from this most recent one, what was your favorite decade to work at the museum?
JV: [thinking a moment] The decade of the '80s I guess. Because that was the other major period of expansion, we moved and developed ClaySpace in the ArtWorks building [now PACA], we moved into the custom house and bought the annex, and then I was able to focus on programming toward the end of that decade. We did the basket exhibition in '86 (THE Tactile Vessel: New Basket Forms), and the [Frederick Hurten] Rhead exhibition in '86 (An English Potter in America), the Teco exhibition in '89 (Art Pottery of the Prarie School), and the [George] Ohr exhibition in '91 (A Peculiar Vision). That was heavy stuff. I wanted my exhibitions to travel to major venues and to be reviewed in major newspapers, and we made it happen.
NW: I'm sure that you've had your share of work stories. Are there any that immediately come to mind, where when you get around a group of people you say "get a load of this?"
JV: I'm sure I have a lot of them. [thinking a moment] I told this at the spring donor luncheon. At one of the Spring Shows, we had a series of residencies with a new music ensemble from Philadelphia called Relâche; they were great, a lot of energy. So they did a performance in the main gallery, when the main gallery was in the customs house. Peter Schjeldahl was the juror that year; he's the art critic for the New Yorker. He picked this one work, just to be provocative I think. It was kitchen chair, with a plastic-covered seat with a chrome tube frame, a stack of magazines on it, and then this *dead cat* on top of it. This cat crawled into a space under a porch and died and had become desiccated. It was flattened and all dried out, like a mummy.
NW: An actual dead cat?
JV: [laughs] Yes, it was the actual dead cat. Of course it was very controversial. People challenged "why is this art?" Schjeldahl said "well it's art because it's in this exhibition" [laughs]. There were letters to the editor, you would've thought we killed the cat. But no this was just a dead cat that somebody found. People are funny when it comes to pets.
NW: Essentially it's just a found object piece.
JV: Exactly, that's what it was, with fur on it. So there was this performance, and during the intermission, we're all hanging around having a drink, there's a couple of college students there, and one of them *grabbed the cat*. We didn't notice it until somebody said "hey the cat's gone," and that caused a minor flurry of activity. Of course the band was kind of into it. So by the end of the performance, one of the college students showed up with the cat. He was embarrassed because his friend took it.
NW: The cat came back, the very same day! [laughs] Do you remember who made the artwork?
JV: No, it was a person who never responded to our calls to come and pick it up. Eventually it started to smell bad and we pitched it.
NW: So, after retirement, you're still planning on being involved with the Blues and Jazz Fest. What do you think continues to draw you to that event in particular?
JV: Mostly, it's that I couldn't figure out a way to keep it going within the museum, because we're already looking for a director who has museum experience and management experience, an art background, to run a green institution, and to appreciate and understand the historic preservation — because we have five historic buildings — so the idea that we could also get them to run a music festival seemed a little bit of a stretch.
NW: Especially with two specific genres like that. Being a big music fan, and having an extensive record collection like you do, you end up selecting the bands, essentially curating the music festival as well.
JV: Correct. So the goal with the festival is to keep the part that everyone loves and expand it to other things such as poetry, performance, theatre, and other kinds of music. To become a true community arts festival, but anchored by the Blues and Jazz event, which everybody loves. So my challenge is how to institutionalize something like that. What's particularly hard is the curatorial process. But it can be done. When Celebrate Erie was new, when Rick Filippi rejiggered We Love Erie Days, it was an arts festival. And Tammy Roche ran it and she got a group of people together that made curatorial decisions.
NW: With 25 years [of the Blues and Jazz Festival], there's a definitely a huge precedent to draw from. Just following that example can be the key.
JV: I hope so. I have a couple of basic philosophical positions that I've articulated running the festival. One is that it's about quality and not about celebrity. In addition to that, I always look for authenticity. Where does this music come from? Because there are two things that are totally valid, one is coming straight from a tradition, and another is coming straight out of creativity, and being totally unique. Both of those are valid. You can't assess one performer or ensemble based on just one or the other. You have to look at both of those things. Where's the creativity and where's the tradition?
NW: Because you can be a trained Berklee musician, or an outsider from Georgia, and make better art, or not. It's all about when you actually hear it or see it; it doesn't matter where you come from.
JV: The fact that someone is a qualified, trained musician doesn't mean they're great. They're probably competent, but you want somebody who's also inspired. A lot of my favorite music is created by people who have never read music, and can't read music, but it comes out of them, full blown. If you live in a western society with the benefits thereof, you're probably trained to understand how the music you're making is structured and how you can place it within that context. And there are certainly artists in that tradition who create from that perspective. There's a lot more people out there who are creating just because they're humans and we make music!
NW: You can deconstruct how the actual notes are played, or put on the canvas, but the goal is to essentially make something new, or to make someone feel a certain way, and it doesn't matter how you get from point A to point B.
JV: Doesn't matter to me. I present both kinds of artists. I would tend to favor those from that more intuitive side of the spectrum, whereas classical performers are on the other side.
NW: You have the iconoclastic, honest artists versus the trained draftsmen, and there's room for both. And just because you're an excellent draftsman doesn't mean you're lacking honesty, and vice versa.
JV: Absolutely. I can appreciate draftsmanship, but I can also appreciate an ignorance to it. It's about what ends up on the paper, and not how it got there.
NW: Well, what would be your final thoughts about the future of the museum?
JV: There's an opportunity for other younger people to really build on what we've created to date. I really hope that some of those core philosophies are appreciated and adopted, and continue to direct the programming and content of the museum, that we'll continue to have a diverse collection that represents different cultures and periods and so forth.
NW: Because for some people, this might be the only art museum that they go to.
JV: Exactly. A lot of regional museums will take a specific focus, such as only collecting American art. That's fine, but there's a whole world out there. We embrace that, and I hope that continues, to not be parochial or provincial about it, or try to artificially focus on something. We're a small community in the Rust Belt; we can be proud of what we have, but we're never going to compete with the big institutions. That's just not the way it works. What we can do is do really good programming and relate to our community. I'm hoping that that's going to continue.
Nick Warren can be reached at Nick@eriereader.com