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Art museum: an agent of change

November 05, 2010

If things had gone according to standard plan, Gordon Knox most likely would be a professor of anthropology today.

But, wanting “a more direct engagement with the world,” as he told a reporter, he suspended his doctoral work at the University of Chicago to see “what else was out there.”

Thus began an extremely circuitous route that led him from anthropology to art – and to the ASU Art Museum as its full-time director on July 1, 2010.

After leaving Chicago, Knox ran a sheep farm in upstate New York and later directed an upscale painting and construction company in New York City, where he met his wife, an Italian journalist.

But it was when he settled in Italy with his wife that he finally found his true calling: bringing together experts in the arts, humanities and sciences and engaging them in on-the-ground efforts to effect social change.

There, Knox got to know Ursula Corning, an American who was renting a 15th century castle that had been in her family since the beginning. Corning had entertained guests and artists, and wanted to establish a permanent program at the castle.

“We started the Civitella Ranieri Foundation for Ursula. In fact she was depressed because no one knew what to do with her beloved Civitella and we (my wife and I) proposed an international artist residency program, she went for it and we built it, from the ground-up,” Knox said.

After 12 years at Civitella Ranieri, Knox, who has been described as “restless at heart and forever on the move,” relocated to Saratoga, Calif., where he was appointed artistic director of the Montalvo Arts Center. Immediately prior to ASU, he was at the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, where he worked with Silicon Valley corporations and on social projects as far afield as Tajikistan, Brazil, Croatia and Denmark.

Knox’s wanderlust got an early start. He was born in Vienna and grew up in England and Pakistan, where his father, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, was assigned, and spent summers in Europe.

He went to Bennington College for two years, transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, then went on to England, where he earned his master’s at Cambridge.

But even before he went to Bennington, Knox had already been to Venzuela, Surinam and Panama, and before he switched to UCSC he traveled down the west side of South America to Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

The ASU Art Museum is Knox’s first tenure as a museum administrator, but he sees the art museum as an extension of his calling.

For him, a visit to an art museum is more than “standing behind a line looking at pictures.”

“An art museum is an active location for the articulation of ideas and a safe location for contemplative exploration,” he said.

“My career has been built on developing opportunities to allow creative thinkers in the arts to do what they do best.”

Why the arts? “The arts provide society with the ability to adapt,” Knox explained. “The arts question assumptions and break down barriers. The arts provide society with a means to change.

“With increased world population, and the digital age, we’re going to need to adapt and change. It will be the arts that constitute access to the new.”

The wall-sized bulletin board in Knox’s Nelson Fine Arts Center office gives a hint of how he thinks, and what is in store for the ASU Art Museum.

Knox calls this wall a “Think Cloud” and says it is contemplating “What we’re doing, why and how.”

At the top of the wall are headings printed on green paper:

Community, Sustainability, Rethinking the Museum, Diversity of Knowledge.

Under each piece of green paper, numerous color-coded sticky notes are plastered with ideas and current initiatives for each category, such as university and student oriented store, national and international exchanges with desert areas, courses taught in the museum and through the museum, gardens project and Iraqi pavilion in Venice.

Knox sees each of the “green-paper” headings as a path to bring the community to the museum to initiate conversations about what is important to society and what needs to change.

His goals include broadening the museum’s engagement with students and faculty, and forging new links with university research units.

He’s been looking into opening a coffee shop at the museum to provide an inviting setting for contemplation, and there are changes afoot at the Museum Store.

“In a museum there’s an openness, a safeness to be surprised, a reward for curiosity,” Knox said.

Why the ASU Art Museum now?

“It was an opportunity too good to pass up,” he said.

“What Michael Crow is doing with ASU is an audacious and brilliant gesture forward, by providing an entire generation of students who might not have the opportunity for education. President Crow is advancing research in a broad way, and there is a deep advocacy of shared knowledge.”

The ASU Art Museum will play a vital role in creating that shared knowledge, Knox said.

“The ASU Art Museum is a little gem of a museum with highly regarded curators and staff. Because of the absolutely brilliant support of Dean Kwang-Wu Kim and the out of the box thinking, I really couldn’t say no.”

More about Gordon Knox:

Prior to coming to ASU, Knox was a core collaborator for the Stanford Humanities Lab (SHL) at Stanford University, where his work explored the transformative role of the arts in society and was recognized by Forbes Magazine for his work on collaborative projects at the SHL that brought together experts in the arts, humanities and sciences and engaged them in on-the-ground efforts to effect social change.

At the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, Calif., Knox developed ambitious projects such as Edge of Desire, the only West Coast exhibition of a comprehensive collection of recent art from India, and FUSE, a new media collaboration with the CADRE laboratory at San Jose State University. Knox also was the founding director of the Lucas Artists Program, a residency program at Montalvo that identifies exceptional international artists and supports them as they develop new work while in residence in eleven newly designed live/work studios.

Before joining the Montalvo Arts Center, Knox was executive director of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. At its centers in Umbertide and New York City, he successfully developed the foundation's missions, goals and fellowship program.

There, Knox envisioned a center for the arts designed to advance and widen the discourse of contemporary cultural practice by engaging the voices and thinking of practitioners from all parts of the world and providing them with excellent conditions to advance their work. Civitella quickly became a new model for international, multidisciplinary residency programs.