I recently connected with Judie Gilmore, Executive Director at the Opalka Gallery on the Russell Sage Campus in Albany. We met while working on the Breathing Lights Project, a massive, three-city public art exhibition that captivated the region in 2016. Not surprisingly, Judie continues to make things happen in a big way and has interesting thoughts to share on galleries, events and more.
How did you find your way to the Opalka Gallery and what it is you do there?
My background is in public and community-based art. When the job at Opalka came open in 2017, I was hesitant at first. The idea of working within this stuffy white box seemed limiting to what I love to do — shape public space, collaborate with diverse artists, create community. But, happily, we can do this within the gallery walls. Opalka doesn’t look like other academic galleries. Luckily, Russell Sage liked my vision, and hired me as Director and Curator. With our partnership at Albany Public Library, the public art we have brought there and to our campus, to showcasing guest curators and diverse artists, creating the Pop-up Beer Garden – I am doing what I love.
How has COVID affected the gallery’s operations on a daily basis?
Yes and no. We were one of the only academic galleries in the region open to the public last year. Our daily operations remained the same. But we also wanted to offer engagement opportunities for people not comfortable visiting in-person. We produced exhibitions IRL, and also curated a whole new virtual space, with exhibition websites, 3D tours, virtual events and other online engagement. It was a lot more work that came with a steep learning curve.
How have you adapted to the changing pandemic requirements? Any suggestions or best practices for other gallerists?
Yes, we’ve definitely adapted and continue to do so. I was hugely grateful for the leadership at Russell Sage. They interpreted mountains of health regulations and then balanced student and staff health with a plan that allowed us to remain open. Their willingness to figure this out underscored that what we are doing is important and valued. It helped me find perspective – our community needs us. Art feeds people’s hearts and souls. It strengthens community ties. It helps people make sense of the world, to find empathy. These are not trivial things. My advice to other galleries – find a way to keep doing what you do. It is valued and important.
What are your thoughts regarding online programming as a substitute for in person programming?
I see both sides of this. I am as tired of Zoom events as the next person. But, last year our virtual lecture series saw an audience that was four (four!) times larger than before. But in terms of the community we are actively creating, nothing is a substitute for in-person programming. One of our last pre-pandemic events was a community dinner with two artists. Forty individuals, mostly strangers, gathered around a table and enjoyed a meal together. This kind of connection just can’t be replicated online.
What’s coming up at the Opalka Gallery this fall?
Currently, we are a proud co-host of the 85th annual Mohawk Hudson Regional exhibition, along with Albany International Airport Gallery and the Albany Center Gallery. This year we saw a record breaking number of applications from visual artists and worked with three outstanding jurors. The show is a testament to the incredible talent in this region. And we are thrilled to kick off our Pop-up Beer Garden again, which features live music, local breweries and food trucks. It’s this dreamy combo of art, music, food and beer, neighbors and local community. Have we ever needed it more?
Editor’s Note: The 2021 POP UP Beer Garden and Neighborhood Block Party series is being held on three Fridays in September. This week’s event will feature Rare Form Brewing and Nine Pin Cider. For band and food partner info, check the Opalka Gallery website.