Many people know the Schuylkill Center as a place to come for a hike, take a wounded bird, or enroll their child in Nature Preschool. But did you know the center also has the country’s premiere environmental art program?
Founded in 2000 as an opportunity for artists and audiences to explore and interpret the natural world and current ecological issues, our environmental art program has brought hundreds of artists to the Schuylkill Center to present contemporary art work in the gallery and on our trails. 2020 is the 20th anniversary of the art program, and our latest exhibition, Assemblage, acknowledges and celebrates the links of the past, present and future of environmental art in this land, and beyond.
In 1999, the Schuylkill Center had just completed its first 10-year master plan, with the recommendation that the center diversify its programming to bring in new audiences. With that goal in mind, renowned curator Mary Salvante approached the director at the time and proposed an art program as a strategy for attracting new visitors, rightly recognizing the rich potential of the Schuylkill Center site as inspiration for artists, and art as a pathway to support the organization’s mission. The program began on a small scale with exhibitions in the Visitor Center gallery (which at the time consisted of only two walls in the lobby), while putting together grant applications for funding of larger initiatives such as an artists-in-residence program and outdoor temporary art exhibitions.
Over time, the environmental art program has grown to be one of the Schuylkill Center’s four core program areas, and one of the most ambitious art programs based at a nature center nationally. The goals of the program have expanded to align not only with the Schuylkill Center’s educational goals, but its land stewardship goals. Recognizing the potential of art to actually help solve ecological challenges, the program started focusing more on active projects in the landscape, such as launching our LandLab residency, which tasks artists with collaborating with scientists and our staff to create installations that benefit the land, or prevent or remediate environmental damage. In 2012, we built a larger, more defined gallery space to allow for more ambitious indoor exhibitions. All told, more than 350 artists have participated in more than 70 exhibitions and projects since the program’s inception.
"Assemblage: 20 Years of Environmental Art" celebrates the art program’s history by inviting 20 previously exhibiting artists to revisit the work they did at the Schuylkill Center. Other past artists will show more recent works that relate to their projects at the Schuylkill Center, charting the evolution in their own practices connected to the environment. Partially a retrospective, Assemblage also displays artifacts, records, sketches and more from the Schuylkill Center archives to reveal aspects of the art program’s history and growth.
The list is long of exhibitions and artists and projects and staff and collaborating organizations that have been involved at the Schuylkill Center since the art program was founded here in 2000, but the connections between these individuals, artworks, projects, organizations, and the Schuylkill Center’s land is what has made the program possible. “Assemblage” is a term with uses in the fields of both art and ecology. In art, it refers to three-dimensional works of art made by intentionally grouping found or otherwise unrelated objects. In ecology, an assemblage of species is a group of organisms that co-occur in the same space and interact through various relationships. In assembling the items currently in this gallery, we seek to reflect the richness of the assemblage of artists and artworks in the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art program, and what it may generate that we can’t yet foresee.
After six years as director of Environmental Art, this will be my last exhibition opening. I have been blown away by the community of artists who are turning their attention to the most pressing ecological challenges of our time, developing creative solutions and finding ways to connect people with nature in empathetic and unconventional ways.
The Schuylkill Center is unmatched in the extent of its commitment to art as a core part of its mission, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have contributed to the amazing legacy of this program. The 20th anniversary is a perfect time for new leadership, and I hope you'll help us find our next director of Environmental Art.
I’m excited for one last celebration at the Schuylkill Center, opening Assemblage with a reception at the Schuylkill Center on Thursday, January 30 from 7-9 p.m. – hope you can join us to celebrate 20 years of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center, and launch our program into a bold, new era, in which this work is more important than ever.