Photo of Matthew Bailey

Alumni Spotlight: Mathew Bailey

BFA 2001
Gallery Director and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art & Design
University of Arkansas Fort Smith

Original 2024 article from The Arkansas At Scene Blog

Interview with Matthew Bailey, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Gallery Director

Matthew Bailey, PhD earned his doctorate in art history from Washington University St. Louis in 2014. After teaching at the college level for a few years, he took the position as Gallery Director and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art & Design at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith in 2021. Matt brings to this position significant experience in museum management gained through numerous fellowships and internships including those at Smithsonian American Art Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.


AAS: Matt, what is your educational and professional background and how did you arrive at your position as Gallery Director at UA Fort Smith?

MB: I began my studies in art history as an undergrad at Kansas University, which has a fantastic art history program as well as a university art museum. Immediately, I knew I enjoyed both the museum and academic worlds. Little did I know that I’d eventually find the perfect position at the UA Fort Smith where I can work in both. It’s unusual, but I also knew early on as an undergrad that I wanted to study and work in art history. In fact, I transferred from Pittsburg State University in Kansas to KU to major in art history. It took me a while to understand what pursuing a career in art history meant. As an idealistic kid I had no idea what a career in that world would entail or that I’d be in grad school a quarter of my life. But I knew I enjoyed studying and visiting museums.

While at KU I had the tremendous opportunity to be an intern at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC for an entire summer. This was my first in-depth exposure to museum work. My daily job wasn’t all that exciting—I worked for the Registrar filling in artwork information on collection management museum software—but I learned valuable skills in that area and a tremendous amount about the art and artists I worked on. Most importantly, I learned about day-to-day operations of museums and the nature of different museum careers.

That experience really generated my excitement about museum work, but once I entered grad school and began teaching, I focused more on becoming a professor that could work with museums periodically. In grad school I was fortunate enough to work on several exhibitions, projects, and talks for the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, so I kept my feet in both worlds. Then, towards the end of grad school, I had my first introduction to Arkansas when I became one of the inaugural Tyson Scholars at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This was a dissertation fellowship with a residency on the grounds for nine months.I It was fantastic to work in the museum and experience the museum as it developed and grew in its early stages.

After I graduated and before I started this current position, I taught for a number of colleges in Saint Louis. In 2019, though, I was hired as a visiting professor of art history at UA Fort Smith for a semester. I really enjoyed my time here—I knew at least this was exactly the kind of department and college I wanted to work for. Once I found out that the department created the position of Gallery Director I jumped at the chance. Not only could I return permanently, but I could work in both the academic and museum worlds at once. It was the perfect fit.

AAS: Tell me about the UAFS Gallery of Art and Design?

MB: The university has been building a collection of art for quite some time. However, acquisitions really amplified in recent years thanks to the efforts of Don Lee, longtime art faculty and art department chair. Don spearheaded the project for our Windgate Art and Design Building, which opened in 2015. Before and since then he built a tremendous collection of contemporary art by regional, national, and international artists, which found a new home in our modern building and in various spaces across campus. I’m just taking up where Don left off. The UAFS Gallery of Art and Design is a new designation that formalizes a campus academic art museum, housed in Windgate Art and Design, that oversees our permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, acquisitions, and educational programming for the campus and community.

AAS: What are your responsibilities as gallery director?

MB: Every day is something different, which makes the work unique, stimulating, and challenging! If you think of all the different departments a museum like Crystal Bridges contains—curatorial, education, marketing, collections management, exhibition design, and so forth—this position is all those rolled into one. I jump from role to role as needed, with exhibition installation one day, collection documentation and registration the next, then planning and organization for forthcoming exhibits. I also create educational programming and activities for courses and work quite a bit with donors and potential donors as I work to expand the collection. Researching and reaching out to organizations and artists for exhibition or acquisitions is one of the more exciting aspects of my tasks, along with strategic planning for the future.

I also teach at least one course per academic year. This semester I’m conducting a unique course entitled “Museum Practice.” Roughly speaking it’s like a Museum Studies program folded into one semester. Right now, we are exploring very broadly the history, function, theory, and effect of museums. Next, we’ll learn about logistics and organizational structure, then we’ll explore the nature and practice of different professions, focusing primarily on curatorial and exhibition design then collections management. Much of this course is hands on. I involve the students in my daily practice as much as possible, and they’ll have a chance to work directly with art as well as plan an exhibit as part of their course project. Students in my course, along with those in the “History of Museums” course taught by my colleague Dr. Sophia Maxime Farmer, also have the fantastic opportunity to go to New York City this coming March and explore its various museums. It’s an amazing opportunity for those who can go and we’re looking forward to exposing them to new experiences and generating excitement about the museum world. Part of the reasoning for teaching “Museum Practice” is to develop interest in art handling. I, along with Professor Katie Waugh, our department head, will be developing a certificate in art preparation which will provide great professional experience for our studio art students especially.

AAS: I am thrilled to hear that you are offering Museum Practice as a part of student training. What are some of the other ways students in Studio Art and Graphic Design directly interact with the Gallery?

MB: One of the best features of the collection and exhibitions is that students pass by it daily—they are featured in the main lobby and hallways of the first floor. However, throughout the semester I host both Studio Art and Graphic Design students to explore the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, depending on course topics and interests. With most exhibitions the artist’s visit for the reception and deliver talks. Students are invited to meet with them to tap into their knowledge and expertise. I encourage this even when artists are present to install their work. Visiting artists are always stimulating for students, providing them with voices other than our own. The same can be said for our visiting artists who are a part of our new Artist-in-Residence program. These artists live near campus and can work in the Windgate building daily, where they often interact with students. They are also invited to meet with courses and conduct workshops for students. Having these visiting artists present for extended periods and to be a part of the daily lives of students’ education has been a profound source of stimulation as they move through their creative studies and coursework. As a faculty we can see how energized they’ve been since the program started last fall.

We also have the Don Lee Student Gallery located on the second floor of Windgate, which is devoted solely to student work. Throughout the course of the year, faculty exhibit work from select courses in the gallery, with our senior Graphic Design thesis projects and Studio Art Capstone projects exhibited at the end of the year as well.

AAS: What are your aims or ideals for the gallery?

MB: Thanks to the generosity of the Windgate Foundation, I can set my sights high. My aim is to expand the gallery in every way possible—collections and exhibitions, educational programming, and outreach. We have a tremendous opportunity to grow the gallery into not just a vital center of contemporary art in Fort Smith, but one of the more prominent collections of contemporary art in the state. In acquisitions for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions our focus is on emerging and professional artists whose work demonstrates new directions and practices. I want the work we collect and show to challenge expectations for art. I like to think of the gallery as a forum for critical thought and discussion that expands ideas about art, culture, society, nature, and identity. Much of the challenge essentially centers around marketing—rarely do members of the community know that we have an art museum, much less one that is open to the public daily. Academic art museums are a fantastic way to bridge the gaps between campuses and communities and I want to invite the community to visit our collection, exhibitions, and events. We are getting there, but there is much more room to expand. And, ultimately the professional goal for the museum would be accreditation. This is a complex process with a lot of steps and requirements, but it is a very long-term goal that we should aspire to follow best practices and ethical standards for museums.

AAS: Tell me about the museum’s permanent collection.

MB: Our permanent collection focuses on work created in the last fifty years or so. That said, we have three significant examples of American modernism—watercolors by Arthur Dove and John Marin—from the 1940s. However, most of the work was completed in the past few decades. Artistic media include painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, with a few examples of book arts, ceramics, and digital art. Stylistically it spans from realism to abstraction with a wide variety of subject matter, demonstrating a variety of contemporary trends and practices. This range in media and style also offers several educational opportunities with objects that speak to diverse perspectives, identities, and tastes.  Our aim is to expand our collection of book arts and ceramics as we anticipate our facilities and curriculum expansion. The artists represented in the collection are regional, national, and international in scope, some including former students and current and former faculty. Some of the more internationally known artists include Judy Pfaff, Jun Kaneko, Keith Morrison, Eva Mueller, Nelson Shanks, and Bratsa Bonifacho. We also have a mural by the Brazilian duo Bicicleta Sim Freio, who also executed a mural as part of the “Unexpected” downtown mural project, featured prominently in our lobby.

View of the permanent collection
View of the permanent collection

AAS: About how many shows per year do you hope to have and how is that determined?

MB: In the past we’ve done four shows a year, two per semester. However, I’m experimenting with three shows per academic year, one a full semester with two shows the other semester and an exhibit of the permanent collection shown in the gallery over the summer. Having a show the entire semester allows for a tremendous amount more interaction than the shorter exhibits allow. Word-of-mouth counts for a lot with these shows—with this lengthier duration several visitors I spoke to heard of it from friends and family, others from social media advertising. I was also able to spend time creating educational and docent programming for the exhibit, both of which were taken advantage of by professors from the department and across campus and by community visitors. All told, our visitor count for the exhibit was over 1200—due in part I think to the lengthier duration. Ultimately, however, the length of the exhibits is determined between me and the lender, whether they be artists, groups, or organizations. I try to work two years ahead,so as I plan for these exhibitions in the future, with this model of three loan exhibitions in mind, I aim for a balance of regional and national artists and a mixture of media, practices, and themes. We also have two regularly scheduled exhibitions every two years: our Art and Design department faculty exhibit, the next of which will take place in spring 2024, and the biennial Arkansas Women to Watch exhibit, which is taking place right now and generating a lot of excitement as the inaugural venue for this statewide traveling exhibit. With less than two weeks to go until it closes on March 3, our visitor count is up to roughly 580, with really enthusiastic responses in-person and online.

New Worlds: Arkansas Women to Watch 2023 exhibition

New Worlds: Arkansas Women to Watch 2023 exhibition

New Worlds: Arkansas Women to Watch 2023 exhibition

New Worlds: Arkansas Women to Watch 2023 exhibition

AAS: What are some the most notable shows so far?

MB: Two shows I’ve organized thus far that stick out for various reasons have been Jo Stealey: Extra/Ordinary from spring 2022 and Ron Jude: 12 Hz from the fall of 2022. Jo Stealey is a paper and book artist from Columbia, Missouri. Her mixed media installation encompassed the entire gallery, transforming it into this otherworldly wonderland of forms and objects evoking nature and domesticity. I’m a fan of any exhibit that transforms the temporary exhibit gallery in ways that create a unique experience from the last and morphs it into a new experiential space. Stealey’s installation was quite impactful aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually. Not to mention educationally—the main reason for exhibiting her work was to highlight our unique book arts program and papermaking facilities. Stealey graciously gave her time in guiding a papermaking workshop during her visits and, excitingly for students, allowed them to assist with installation – quite literally pulling in students who were part of the book arts courses or those who expressed interest by merely passing by!

Ron Jude: 12 Hz was another notable exhibit for its reception and transformative experience. This traveling exhibit is sponsored and organized by the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art and Environment based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose mission is to facilitate partnerships between artists, scientists, naturalists, and authors to nurture an ethical relationship with the environment through programs and exhibitions. The exhibit presented twenty large-scale, black and white photographs by Jude, a photographer from the American Northwest, accompanied by an audio installation by Canadian artist and filmmaker Joshua Bonnetta. Jude’s photographs focused on nature’s elemental forces, such as geological and glacial formations, while the audio installation consisted of manipulated seismic recordings that registered the movement of tectonic plates. When you entered the gallery, you were aurally confronted by a fluctuating, haunting rumbling that shook the floor. The visual imagery and sound installations together presented an overwhelming experience of nature’s incomprehensible forces that take place beneath our feet and regardless of human presence. The exhibit was a sublime reminder of the power of the natural world and of the irrevocable damage we’ve inflicted on it, despite our relative insignificance in relation to it..

Jo Stealey: Extra/Ordinary Exhibition

Jo Stealey: Extra/Ordinary exhibition

Ron Jude: 12 Hz exhibiton

Ron Jude: 12 Hz exhibiton

AAS: You mentioned that you teach classes in art history, and I know you earned a PhD in Art History from Washington University. How do your Studio Art and Graphic Design students feel about studying art history? So many of the artists I have interviewed mention how much they have learned through studying art history.

MB: Having taught art history for so many years, I can say it might be one of the most enjoyable subjects to teach, since any student—no matter their major—always finds something of interest in it. I’ll be honest—our art and design students have a love/hate relationship with it. Most detest the writing and research. But almost all enjoy learning about the various trends, styles, and cultural categories we teach and respond to them. There are always lively discussions to be had. I enjoy taking deep dives into works of art to help students understand the visual language a work is using and to better comprehend the cultural contexts that were created. These immersions also help cultivate visual literacy. It can be painfully slow—sometimes just one to two objects a day. But students really seem to engage and connect with these critical investigations, which provides them food for thought for their practice. I suppose my teaching philosophy would be less is more. Which is kind of my life philosophy.

AAS: What should we look forward to next at the gallery?

MB: We have a lot of great things happening I’m excited to share! First, our Windgate building and facilities will be expanding, and along with it our department curriculum, most notably with the creation of a community book arts, ceramics, and digital fabrication facilities. This expansion will also include the development of a collection study room for the gallery, which will also include space for art preparation and framing, along with expansion to our collection storage. Construction is slated to begin this coming fall.

Our collection is also about to grow quite a bit with forthcoming donations. The largest will be a donation of work by the New York-based artist Linda Stein, who is a feminist artist, activist, author, and educator. We will receive almost 60 prints as well as a sculpture with this donation. Her work aims to empower those disadvantaged by multiple sources of discrimination, with a particular focus on the LGBTQ community and freedoms of gender, sexuality, otherness, nonbinary identities, intersectionality, race, and class. Students in a “Sex and Gender” sociology course here will be developing wall texts for a select number of these prints, which will be showcased in a special teaching exhibit in the fall. The donation will also be a point of focus for a Fall 2024 exhibit on art and activism.

In addition, we are also receiving a large donation of paintings, drawings and ceramics from the daughter of Harold Keller, the first full-time art professor at our institution when it was Fort Smith Junior College in the late 1950s. Harold was born in Brooklyn and went to school at UA Fayetteville then taught high school in the area before joining the college. He moved back to New York in the early 1960s, where he continued teaching college courses. His fanciful, imaginative work is a mixture of the mythological and religious and the everyday. His work attests to the continuing tradition of figuration many artists clung to when Abstract Expressionism was at its height in the 1960s. The donation we are receiving represents a broad selection of his work from the late 1950s through the 2010s (he passed in 2016). I’m excited to announce that it will be the focus of the first retrospective of the artist’s work here at the UAFS this coming fall 2024, which will last the duration of the semester and I hope generate interest among the campus and community for the artist’s unique style and approach along with involvement with our gallery by the campus and community!