Above: UCSC students installing one of Ashley Hunt’s Degrees of Visibility prints in the Institute of the Arts & Sciences gallery (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

For art lovers near and far, the Santa Cruz landscape can be a tricky location to find a museum-level art gallery. Of course, there’s the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), the Tannery Arts Center, and various galleries throughout the county. But to find a curation that is climate-controlled, and therefore able to provide an environment that can protect timeless and priceless artifacts, has long required a drive over the hill.

Now, that is no longer be the case—something UC Santa Cruz staff, community members, and art lovers alike have been waiting for since the late 1990s.

The location of the new UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) gallery (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

In February, UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) opened a new climate-controlled gallery at 100 Panetta Avenue, part of the new development along Delaware Avenue. The space features three professional galleries and a screening room, all enclosed in 4,500 square feet. It is the first dedicated space for the IAS program, and acts as a bridge between the university’s arts community and the greater Santa Cruz arts scene.

The space will be overseen by Rachel Nelson, who has worked with the institute since 2015 as a senior curator for its visual arts center. In 2021, she was named director and chief curator of the institute. She received her M.A. (2013) and Ph.D. (2016) in visual studies from the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at UC Santa Cruz.


First professional climate-controlled gallery

In October while exploring the new space—which is still under construction—Nelson pointed out the importance of this location and the steps taken to make this gallery possible. 

“This will be the first professional climate-controlled gallery for UC Santa Cruz,” she said. “We currently have three lovely small galleries [the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery, and the Eduardo Carrillo Senior Gallery], which don’t have the infrastructure for climate control.”

Instead, Nelson said, IAS has used those galleries—each about 800 square feet—for art displays and exhibitions, classes, and academic services. But that has also limited the public’s ability to enjoy the works. 

The climate-control designation allows the IAS to borrow and exhibit works from major museums and collections:

“It really has been part of the dream and the vision of the Arts Division for decades,” Nelson said.

Nearly all of the other UC campuses have a high-quality museum or gallery, except for Santa Cruz and UC Merced. Now, UCSC will have a chance to share major collections and artistic offerings with students, staff, and the surrounding community.


Decades-long pursuit

Jennifer González (Ph.D. ’96, history of consciousness), professor of history of art and visual culture

Jennifer González (Ph.D. ’96, history of consciousness), professor of history of art and visual culture, was part of the original team to establish an exhibition and museum space on campus starting in the late 1990s, with full support from Dean of the Arts Edward Houghton. Alongside other faculty—including Professors Elisabeth Cameron and Carolyn Dean of the History of Art and Visual Culture Department, and Associate Professor Melissa Gwyn and Lecturer Shelby Graham of the Art Department—González worked diligently to ensure the university was able to have such a space for its students and local residents.

“We had the support of every chancellor, beginning with [M.R.C.] Greenwood,” González said, referring to UCSC’s chancellor from 1996–2004. “But it was not made a campus priority until recently, thanks to the development of external funding.”

That desire still burned, and continued into 2012, when González and Graham sat on the hiring committee for John Weber. Weber joined the university officially in December 2012 as founding director for the newly conceived IAS program. Under the new director and the new program, González said, the institute was able to reach out to a broader campus community.

“Many people were interested in the exhibitions, internships, and graduate student research opportunities that IAS developed during that time,” she said.

When Weber left UC Santa Cruz in 2019, Nelson—one of González’s graduate students—was promoted to interim director, with González serving as a codirector. From there, the pair worked together on fundraising, curating high-profile exhibitions (including, recently, Strange Weather at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History), organizing Leonardo Art & Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) talks, and bringing staff and student interns on board for the gallery. González stepped back to a faculty adviser and consulting-fellow role in the fall of 2021, acknowledging her former student is “incredibly productive and visionary on her own.”


A bridge between the university and the region

Rachel Nelson (M.A. ’13, visual studies; Ph.D. ’16), director and chief curator of the UC Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences Galleries (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Nelson was dealt a difficult hand in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most campus activities and planning. Yet, she didn’t give up on this decades-long dream for the gallery and powered through the remote work with a newfound focus.

“These last couple years, when it has been more difficult to experience art and music in person, my belief in the vital importance of culture for communities has only grown stronger,” she said. “Art, music, and other creative practices bring people together. Our goal is that the new galleries will be a bridge between the university and the region.”

With this aim, Nelson was committed to drawing the IAS footprint there: in town. The new space, on Panetta and Delaware, is near the UC Santa Cruz Coastal Campus on the Westside of Santa Cruz. The globally recognized Genomics Institute is also just two blocks away. She further notes the importance of the location’s accessibility, with a Santa Cruz Metro Transit stop adjacent to the building.

“The galleries will help us highlight the art and culture the university brings to the community. We are also eager to learn how we can better serve the region through this space,” she said. “We’re going to be free, and have ample, free parking. This will allow us to share what happens on campus with our neighbors.”


Where art meets social justice

To launch this space in a way that aligns with IAS missions, Nelson emphasized the importance of art intersecting with social justice. The first exhibitions will include work by 2022 MacArthur Fellow Sky Hopinka, a Native American filmmaker; and artist, writer, and activist Ashley Hunt. Future exhibits will include work by Sadie Barnette, Carolina Caycedo, and David de Rozas (these are part of the Mellon Foundation–funded Visualizing Abolition initiative, collaboratively organized with Feminist Studies Associate Professor Gina Dent). Nelson said the space has a “full and amazing” calendar for the next two years. 

“These are definitely some of the most exciting contemporary artists of our time,” she said.

Artist Maria Gaspar, who will present her work as part of the Visualizing Abolition project, said she’s excited by the ongoing conversations with the IAS team to ensure the work is given its place. 

“As an artist and person deeply invested in the process of abolition, I am looking forward to placing this new body of work at the gallery, which will be enriched and cared for by way of all the wonderful work that has already taken place,” she said.

Nelson and González, along with the rest of the IAS team, believe it’s important to use this gallery space to show diversity within the arts and the expansive nature of art today.

Ashley Hunt is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, where he is a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts. His Degrees of Visibility examines the landscapes that surround prisons, jails, and detention centers throughout the United States and its territories. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

“We know that the arts, like many other spheres in the public, do not represent the diversity of our communities,” Nelson said. “We’re intent on addressing that problem.… We want students and the public to see that the arts can encompass a myriad of perspectives and experiences. This is one of our key missions at the IAS, and in the Arts Division at UC Santa Cruz more broadly, spearheaded by Arts Dean Celine Parreñas Shimizu.” 

The new galleries will provide a physical expression for these perspectives. 

“In the way scientists need a laboratory and actors need a theater, the visual arts need an exhibition space,” González said. 

That has also led the pair to hire many students for the gallery, encouraging more hands-on experiences with the artists themselves and showing the UC Santa Cruz vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts, with pathways to careers in the field.

In addition, the gallery will partner with other local museums, encouraging more visitors to come directly to Santa Cruz. Nelson—who has previously collaborated on exhibitions and programming with the San José Museum of Art—says the museum will work with the IAS team on multisited exhibitions. IAS will also work with the MAH in Santa Cruz.


Transformational space

While the new space may seem off the beaten path for some Santa Cruzans, the gallery location is just one of the forthcoming additions to this part of the city’s Westside. Visitors can pair their gallery visit with a trip to the nearby Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen for drinks and dinner, or walk a bit further to the renovated Swift Street Courtyard for coffee, dinner, or cocktails. For family-friendly activities, visitors can also head toward Sergeant Derby Park or Natural Bridges State Beach, before sightseeing along West Cliff Drive.

For González, the new gallery is “a watershed moment.” 

“A university art gallery is part of the university profile, a public face for the university in the community,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the local community to interface with high-level art in a context where there’s both the resources and the knowledge.” 

According to Nelson, all of the aspects that make this new gallery a focal point in town will give it the opportunity to become a vibrant part of the greater fabric of Santa Cruz.

“A space to bring our students and our community together to experience nationally and internationally significant art and culture in Santa Cruz is something many of us have been dreaming of for years,” Nelson said. “It’s going to be transformational.” 


Grace Stetson is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz.

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