Who’s Who: Rachel Heisler
Assistant Curator of Education, Academic Programs, Snite Museum of Art
One month and three days past the official start of spring, it has finally sprung. South Quad teems with activity – from readers, sleepers, and tightrope walkers between trees to players of sports galore. To celebrate this great awakening, I went with Rachel Heisler, Assistant Curator of Education and Academic Programs for the Snite Museum of Art, in the open air of the Snite Courtyard. There I had the chance to ask her some questions about how South Bend became her home just over two months ago.
Heisler began with an explanation of what brought her to Notre Dame: “Ever since graduating from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a B.F.A. in K-12 Art Education, I worked at a large contemporary art institution in Massachusetts called MASS MoCA, picking up a club soccer team and a part-time job as a coffee-shop barista. I fell in love with museums out there and wanted to learn more about academic programming. So I transitioned to a smaller, academic setting at Williams College, which consists of about 2,000 students. I worked at Williams’ Museum of Art, where I progressed from events and programs coordinator, to student engagement manager, to manager of student and visitor engagement. Living and working in this environment allowed me the opportunity to explore and accept the position here at the Snite Museum of Art.”
When asked about her college experience, Heisler reflected, “I joke that I didn’t take advantage of it. I was always focused on teaching and working as a waitress, so I never went to a football or hockey game.” She clarified, “I love sports in addition to art, but was really focused on my teaching at that time.”
When asked to compare the two schools where she has worked so far, Heisler posited, “Williams College was really focused on studies like Notre Dame – it is one of the most elite liberal arts schools in the nation, consisting of extremely talented and dedicated students willing to go above and beyond in their respective fields, student groups, and dorm communities. Notre Dame is so much bigger. Campus itself is so beautiful. It’s like a little city.”
Heisler was also impressed by the diversity of majors, quantity of campus programming, and quality of lectures offered, along with the wide array of national and international student representation within the school.
She also posited other ideas she has for the Snite. “Being so close to the Duncan Student Center, and knowing that the community is so engaged in sharing sports and other activities, it would make sense for the Snite to pursue programming with RecSports. There is a definite energy between a really powerful workout and reading a particular form of art.” Heisler has already collaborated with the GRC and Wellness Center for quiet meditations, creating spaces for students to de-stress amidst works of art.
In her new position at the Snite, Heisler hopes to transcend the boundaries of what the museum’s space can be. “I want the normal notion of a museum to take on a loud, engaging, dynamic, and community-oriented light. A museum should not necessarily be a quiet, individual experience,” Heisler explained. “I love working at an academic institution, because we can have informed and engaged talks – allowing for other points of view to come into the picture – that actually transform into action.”
Programs are made possible by Snite staff and advisors, certainly, but are also spread by the professors who use the Snite to teach their students. “I’m amazed that professors bring their classes into the Snite all the time, using objects of art to teach their class.
Heisler let the Rover in on a secret: “We are breaking ground by the Sculpture Park for a new branch of the museum in 2020. By the time the building is complete, all 29,000 pieces of art will be up between the two locations. We’re also developing a new group called the Student Advisory Group made up of any student involved with us, which will become a sounding board for the Snite. The staff will meet monthly about the big questions, thoughts, and initiatives, and pose these to the group of students for help. Currently the programming committee is in charge of coming up with programming.” She is convinced that the students “will bring together such great perspective as to what art to show, how to show it, and how to be more welcoming to the community.”
Heisler hopes that this summer and fall will provide even more opportunities to make South Bend and Notre Dame her space. She is excited for the Snite’s Fall Series, called Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection. She elaborted, “The exhibition is traveling to a bunch of different museums of colleges and cities, so it’s big to have it here. It features black artists’ compositions from the 1940s to the present, exploring their identity shaped through struggle and collaboration and how it connects to the history of art.” She speculates, “It will be a really great opportunity to bring in young, contemporary black artists to talk about it, and the materiality of the art itself. For example, one piece is made of deconstructed baseball caps.”
As a relatively recent college graduate, Heisler graciously shared some advice with the Rover audience: “Any work that anyone does is service-based. You have to know who you’re working for, who you’re designing for. Even if you don’t work directly with your audience, make it a priority to be with them on the floor. I make it into my routine to be in the galleries as often as I can, because all the work I do is for the people. You really have to observe, listen to, and work with the people using your place.”
Heisler continues, “You’re not going to land your dream job right off the bat. Sometimes you have to take steps back to move forward. At least for me, I knew I needed to make that shift down to develop myself more. I knew nothing about museums, so I said, ‘Okay, Rachel, let’s take things a step down.’ I have used my work experience in programming and academic settings to get out as much as I’m putting in, even without a post-graduate degree. There are so many different paths to get where you want to be.”
Tierney Vrdolyak is a senior studying the Program of Liberal Studies and theology, with a minor in business economics. Contact her at email@example.com before her Notre Dame email expires next month.