Amy Gilman Leads the Chazen Forward

By Heather Owens | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun

Amy Gilman didn’t originally plan on a career in the museum field, but her studies eventually took her there. After earning a bachelor’s degree in performance studies, she began working on a master’s degree in photography and interning at a museum. The experience stuck with her, and she decided right then to become a museum director.

“All of my choices had been leading me closer to the right mix in the arts, in a museum space and working with artists,” she says. Gilman pursued her Ph.D. in art history and worked as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. She soon joined the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, first as a curator, then as deputy director. Her goal was finally realized when she became the director of the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison in September 2017.

Gilman and her staff have been strategizing about how to bring the Chazen into its next chapter as it turns 50 in the fall of 2020 by honoring the museum’s past, along with moving it into the future. Later this year, a café will open in the lobby. Next year, UW arts faculty will exhibit work inspired by the collection and the spaces, along with an exhibition from UW alumni collections paying homage to the museum’s first exhibit.

Besides the anniversary preparations, the museum continues to have numerous activities throughout the year including the family-friendly series “Art Spin” once a month during the school year and then as “Summer Spin” held weekly on Thursday nights. Gilman encourages those with children to wander the museum and see artwork at their eye level. Her son’s favorite piece “…is the yellow bridge. He runs up to the bridge and asks me if I can see his footprints,” she says of the translucent walkway on the museum’s second floor.

For artwork unique to the Chazen, she recommends visitors seek out John Steuart Curry’s works, the world-class Terese and Alvin (alum) Lane collection that allows people to see and understand the artistic process, and Russian artwork donated by UW graduate Joseph E. Davies, former ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. No matter your age, give yourself time to experience the second largest art museum, after the Milwaukee Art Museum, in the state.

Gilman says any profession can thrive in museums and advises the next generation of museum-goers and leaders to “listen more than you talk.” She is interested in developing and supporting her staff, including paid interns, to be leaders at all levels. Gilman likes to see people expand their horizons, such as her men- tee, Adam Levine, who became director and CEO of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. Levine says of Gilman, “Part of what differentiates her from others is that she mentors people into leadership in addition to management. She strives to help people become their authentic selves and activate their potential.”

When asked about her own current creative practice, Gilman says, “My creative practice is the museum. I curate finances, resources, relationships with the university, objects from the collections, etc.” You can see her curated exhibition “In the Studio” through Aug. 11.

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