The Cooley Gallery

The Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, nestled inside the library, has been a fixture of the Reed campus for decades now. The gallery was established in 1988 by a gift from Sue and Edward Cooley and John and Betty Gray, and hosted its first exhibition in 1990. The gallery aims to underscore Reed's rich academic program, particularly in the studio art and art history fields, by offering a variety of exhibitions, lectures, conferences, and presentations. Recently, there have been fascinating discussions concerning whether or not the Cooley Gallery will remain in the same location and about what work is being done to build a new space for it.

I spoke to Stephanie Snyder, the curator and director of the Cooley Gallery, to learn more about the Gallery and its plans for the future. Stephanie graduated from Reed as an art major in 1991. After moving to Athens, Greece, for two years on a Watson fellowship and attending graduate school for art history and art education at Columbia, Stephanie came back to work at the Cooley, where she had worked as a student when it very first opened.

“I loved working in the space and being in such direct and intimate contact with artists and works of art,” Stephanie explained. The college announced a search for a new director and curator in 2003, and a faculty member reached out to Stephanie and encouraged her to apply. “I thought that there was no other curatorial position that would be more meaningful to me because of my history with the institution, and because of the nature of a Reed education,” Stephanie elucidated. “Everything in the Cooley is integrated into the larger atmosphere of Reed, where I find there’s often little separation between academic and social life. That was a kind of positive integration that I knew I wouldn’t find elsewhere.”

While the Cooley Gallery is an established program that functions according to the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, it is not an entity that is at all separated from the college. For Stephanie, being a part of the Reed atmosphere is a very rewarding experience. “This community is always changing,” she discussed, “and being here in such direct contact with the community itself forces me to continually learn and think about how the Cooley should change along with it.”

Stephanie’s diverse day-to-day work consists of publishing jobs, working directly with students and faculty, and much more. “I feel like the staff and I have the support of the faculty and the administration to keep doing what we do better, which is remarkable,” she told me. “We’re always challenging ourselves and one another to expand our knowledge and the way we work.”

For Stephanie, the richest experiences of her job come from engaging and interacting with Reed students. “We learn together,” she affirms. “When an exhibition is created, it has one kind of life, and then another kind of life once it's open—people visit it, discuss it, and engage with it, and everything changes such that being inside of the museum is not the same on a day-to-day basis, even after it’s already opened. Being a part of that is very important and special to me.” Lex Ladge, a student who works at the Cooley Gallery, echoed similar sentiments. “It’s really fun working here because you really get to know all of the works and artists really well,” Lex told me. “You get to meet a lot of interesting people and ask them what they thought of the exhibition afterwards, and they usually have really interesting things to say.” The Cooley Gallery offers an invigorating and colorful learning and working space for everyone involved.

As far as the future of the Cooley Gallery, Stephanie informed me that the Reed administration is actively working on plans to build a teaching museum, which is an academic museum model that integrates exhibition spaces, seminar spaces, and classroom spaces. Such a museum would work to include different parts of the community and foster different kinds of work in order to create a place where the wider community can interpret, engage with, and study the exhibitions. As it stands now, Stephanie explained to me, the space that the Cooley Gallery currently occupies does not really have the capacity to display the gallery’s collection in the way that she feels it deserves.

The teaching museum would ostensibly have two large classrooms and would house the collection next to a large study room. This would facilitate easier student and faculty access to the art, and make it more possible to engage with and examine the art on a more intimate and rigorous level. Plans for the implementation of this building are still largely in development. It is necessary, as Stephanie related to me, to make sure that the stakeholders who are invested in the Cooley Gallery are pleased with the decisions of the administration.

This project will take time, but the school has already come a long way in making the teaching museum a reality. In fact, Stephanie has been working on the plans for this project for more than five years. In 2014, she was a fellow at the Getty Foundation’s Museum Leadership Institute and learned a great deal about how to develop and complete the process of planning the museum in a way that is both communal and collaborative. “I believe that Reed deserves a teaching museum in the same way that it deserved a performing arts building,” she pointed out. The area that currently houses the Cooley Gallery is a very secure, climate-controlled space that has been undergoing renovative processes for the past five years or so, and Stephanie hopes and trusts that after the Cooley Gallery is moved the college will utilize the space for a related activity that will take advantage of its special qualities.

The Gallery is very involved with the larger community outside of Reed as well. For example, the Cooley is the home of the Calligraphy Initiative and Open Gallery Program, both headed by Gregory MacNaughton. “On campus we have what we call the Scriptorium where students, staff, faculty and alumni come together to learn about the history and development of the Latin alphabet and to practice writing in several historical styles,” Greg informed me. The Cooley has made a huge impact in the surrounding school system, and in the Portland art scene in general. The Open Gallery Program organizes gallery visits and brings art education to public school classrooms all over the city. Many of the interns who have worked at the Cooley Gallery have gone on to find success in the museum field; there are Cooley veterans working in the Whitney Museum, the New York MOMA, the New Museum in New York, and more. The Cooley has a vibrant life that extends beyond Reed, and that offers support to the students who work with the Gallery long after they graduate.

Many students are wondering what the Cooley Gallery move could mean for student artists. I spoke to Jessie Wilson, a Reed sophomore, about her recent experience curating an exhibition of student artwork. After first inquiring about the potentiality of using the Cooley Gallery as a space for her exhibition and learning that it was not available, Jessie contacted Kristen Holmberg, the director of the Student Activities office. The two worked together to book a room in the Gray Campus Center for Jessie’s exhibition, and she was able to assemble the exhibit in GGC-D with Stephanie’s help. Jessie pointed out that not many people know where GCC-D is, and while she liked that it was central to campus, she would love for there to be a space that is more well-known and designated specifically for student artworks and projects. Fortunately, as Stephanie revealed to me, the plans for the teaching museum envision just that. “When it’s built,” she described, “the new teaching museum will definitely have spaces for student artists to exhibit their work and curate projects with Cooley staff and Reed faculty, hold events, and organize readings and other performance-based activities.” Additionally, the museum will host the art department’s annual studio art thesis exhibitions.

The Cooley Gallery provides a valuable space for students to learn, grow, and further their careers in the art and art history fields. With the move of the Cooley Gallery and the establishment of the projected teaching museum, the work that the Cooley has been doing for the past twenty-five years will continue to enrich and promote Reed's art departments in an even greater way.