It's not hard to figure out why College administrators were pleased when Sharon Patton agreed to become director of Allen Memorial Art Museum.
Patton, who was chosen after a year-long national search, brings a wide range of experiences and expertise to Oberlin. Her résumé is impressive, including stints at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Montclair State University and, most recently, the University of Michigan.
At Michigan Patton worked as an associate professor of art history and director of its Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
While the position at Oberlin is a good fit for Patton's interests and experience, the move to small-town Ohio has been quite a change.
After three weeks on the job Patton is still in the midst of aquatinting herself with Oberlin. "It's quiet at night. It's dark at night," Patton said.
Although Oberlin is small, it has the necessities, said Patton: "A coffee spot, an excellent bookstore, a Chinese food take-out place, an organic food restaurant."
Patton is also happy to return to the landscape she remembers from her childhood. "I'm a midwesterner," she said. "I love the landscape. I love getting off the toll-pike and driving through the farmland."
Patton also likes being close to Lake Erie because it reminds her of her childhood in Chicago. Patton said that last weekend she drove to Edgewater Park in Lorain. "I could tell when I was getting close," she said. "I felt so happy when I encountered this little park. I just sat and smelled and watched the gulls and ducks. It was very soothing," Patton said.
But Patton's move to Oberlin is more than a choice of landscape. It's also a career move that compliments Patton's professional history.
When she started college at Roosevelt University in Chicago Patton took a traditionally diverse humanities curriculum, including an elective course in art.
"Seeing professionals teaching art I realized you could make art into a career," she said. After realizing that art was indeed an area she could work in for the rest of her life, Patton's mind was made up. She graduated with a major in studio art, and a focus in painting.
Patton's interests within both studio art and art history have evolved over the years. After writing her masters thesis on northern Italian renaissance painting, Patton's interests turned towards African art.
"It was the early 70s and the black power movement was influential," Patton said. "I began to read about African art on my own."
In 1973 Patton took a trip to Africa. "It was one of the better experiences of my life," she said. She went on to earn her Ph.D. through Northwestern University, an institution known at the time for its strong black studies and African art programs.
Patton became interested in African-American art during her first teaching appointment. "I didn't train in African-American art," she said. "There was no such thing as African-American art when I was a student."
Teaching in Mankato, Minn. Patton was introduced by a local artist to the book Modern Negro Art. Reading the book, Patton said she began to realize that what she had assumed to be an absence of important African-American artists was really a blindness to the work of African-Americans.
Patton began to incorporate African Americans into her American art classes, and eventually developed an entire course on the topic.
Since Patton began to research and teach in the area of African and African-American art the areas have become much more developed and intertwined.
"When I started there was seen to be no connection between African and African-American art," she said. "You wouldn't have heard the word diaspora."
Patton has several plans for the AMAM. She hopes to improve the coordination between faculty and the museum, especially faculty in non-classes in topics like history, sociology or Women's Studies will use the museum resources to study the expression of politics and culture through art.
Patton also hopes to strengthen the relationship between students and the AMAM. Patton thinks museum internship programs are a great way for students to gain experience in arts-related fields.
Patton wants to bring her dedication to cultural diversity to the museum. She hopes to improve the AMAM's permanent collection with an eye toward cultural diversity and also to coordinate shows that address culture and diversity.
"In an ideal world when we hear Twentieth Century art we wouldn't automatically think of Picasso and Mattise," she said. Patton thinks that through imaginative and thoughtful exhibits the true diversity of art itself can be put on display.
Patton also wants to put AMAM's name on the national art museum map by hosting nationally traveling exhibits, as well as putting together traveling shows using AMAM's permanent collection. "There are some magnificent pieces of art in the permanent collection," she said.
New face: Sharon Patton, the new director of the AMAM, poses in front of the museum. (photo by Stephen Menyhart)
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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