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Tornado watch–Robert Blackson takes Temple Gallery by storm


Temple Gallery’s new director of exhibitions and public programs is a revolutionary. He doesn’t wear a beard or espouse tracts from the latest theory of the month, but Robert Blackson is on a mission — and the young artist-turned-gallery director is a whirlwind of ideas on how to fulfill it. He will democratize art; he will program for the general public; and he will turn the space into an incubator for dialog and action to make the world a better place.  And he will lose the gallery reception desk, which he calls “the iceberg,” a white desk that has a chin-high white wall attached to it that completely hides the reception staff.

Rob Blackson, director of exhibitions and public programs, Temple Gallery

There will be art in Blackson’s gallery, but you might have to ask where it is (it may be the new desk or couch; it might be the drip of calcium-chlorinated water falling from the ceiling; it might be the doorstops–projects on tap this fall.)

But the main focus is about the new and almost unheard-of level of programming — to bring people in who may never have set foot inside an art gallery but who are riled up about issues in the world today and will respond to the gallery’s programs about shale oil drilling; AIDS in Philadelphia; pollution in our soil or historic buildings like Eastern State Penitentiary as entertainments (think “Terror Behind the Walls, ESP’s Halloween program).  Blackson is planning two public programs a week, including a Monday morning coffee hour in the gallery to get the juices flowing and to get people thinking. Good free coffee, “seasonal breakfast bites” and speakers–it could be habit forming (especially if you live or work in that part of town and can get up there on a Monday morning)!

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Temple Gallery, from the outside looking in.

And did we say that Blackson sews his own clothes? When we met the Pennsylvania-born director at La Colombe on 19th Street., he was wearing a pair of loose creamsicle-orange cotton pants that he made. There were pocket patches in other fabric. And at the end of the interview when we were still in awe of his sewing skills, he pulled out the handmade shirt he had planned to wear when he met us but didn’t, because it was too hot — a shirt with a tiny repeat pattern of Three Little Pigs dancing. He taught himself to sew, by the way, when he was an exchange student in the winter of 1996 at the Edinburgh College of Art, and found himself freezing in the damp cold conditions, with little money to buy clothes. He bought fabric, used the sewing machines at school and has been sewing his clothes ever since. Blackson graduated from RISD with a BFA and went to Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, where he fell under the influence of Marcia Tucker, originator of the New Museum, who was teaching there. Tucker’s spirit of experimentation and social engagement rubbed off on Blackson.

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The large l-shaped gallery, with the sophisticated, heavy-duty lifting equipment for extra large or heavy works

Prior to arriving in Philadelphia, he worked as a curator in galleries and contemporary art centers in England. He told us about his previous job at Nottingham Contemporary, UK, where, as curator of public programs, he did ambitious and wide-ranging programming to bring people into the gallery for discussions, events, screenings and activities about current events. Sounds like what’s going to happen here!

Blackson (36) bikes to work from his home in South Philadelphia and loves living near the the fabric row shops on 4th Street. His fiance, the British artist Ruth Scott, is coming over in two weeks and they are getting married soon after. How he’s going to manage his ambitious program–which begins August 29  — along with a wedding and a houseful of relatives, well we can’t imagine really.

But then, this is not your typical institutional gallery director. For starters, he’s young. That he’s been accepted by the Temple and Tyler powers that be and given free rein to work with his advisory council and with his radical program is a sign that he’s a good salesman for his program and that the program is the right one for this time and place.

We madly took notes while Blackson told us what he had in mind for the gallery. His speaking style is express-train fast and we could hardly keep up with him.

Detail, Advisory Council white board of ideas for Temple Gallery programming

Working with a newly-convened 28-member Programming Advisory Council — which he polled for their thoughts on the really big issues — they came up with a long list of HUGE issues that “raise questions of contemporary urgency to Temple University and the Greater Philadelphia area,” he said. Some of the nine issues selected for programming include the growing AIDS crisis in Philadelphia; urban waste; the social/economic reintegration of our veterans; training of ex-cons; and our fractured relationship to Pennsylvania’s wealth of underground natural resources such as soil, natural gas, and water.

Pie chart showing issues raised by the Advisory Council

Responding to those issues are works by artists Jennifer Danos, Tyler Held, Corin Hewitt, Thomas Hirschhorn (video), Gordon Matta-Clark (video), Ana Mendieta, The Reanimation Library, and Emily Roysdon, whose works will be in the gallery this fall. (The videos will screen in the

In addition, you can look for programs like a foraging expedition in North Philly, leading up to a potluck, with stoves in the gallery; and eating white clay clay from middle Georgia. “I hear It’s delicious,” he said, explaining in a follow up email that “among the locals there it is considered a fine food and part of the culture.

More dirt stuff will include a mud-mask demonstration with Philly mud, and talks about soil. Corin Hewett, who did a seed-and-soil piece at the Whitney, will do something with a root cellar at Temple.

“The iceberg” is what Blackson calls the reception desk with the high wall on it. Staff sit behind the wall, hidden from the public when they walk in. He will replace it with something more friendly and welcoming.

Blackson will bring in Merle Ukeles, the New York Sanitation Department Artist in Residence, the queen of waste disposal art. And he will bring in work by local artist Tim Belknap, who will be an astronaut for his piece. Leanne Foster will auction off the remains of a marriage. Mark Gubb will create a woodcut on the desk in the gallery. Richard Rigg will do the drip piece–stalagmites formed over time.

There will be practical aspects to some of the programming, like the replacement of “the iceberg” reception desk with something more welcoming, and a partnership with Faith Industries and the architecture department to use the gallery as a construction laboratory for teaching ex-cons how to sheetrock and frame out walls. Shades of the ‘60s, there will be a Big Shale Teach-in. When we asked whether this event in particular would be slanted to the standard liberal anti-shale drilling point of view, he said not at all, that everything would be presented in the spirit of neutrality, creating a space for information and questioning all points of view. With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Blackson said he would be programming moments of silence in the gallery — gathered from audio recordings of past years’ moments of silence commemorating 9/11. And since those audios capture ambient noise and not really silence, Blackson’s “moments of silence” will fill the gallery with sounds like bird calls, airplane noises, and the clicking of cameras of people/press who snapped pictures on those days during the silences.



CoFREE Mondays, starting Sept. 12. Free coffee, snacks and speakers to start the week. We think they might serve the coffee in mugs.Blackson takes over a gallery that is perhaps the most technically sophisticated of all the galleries in town–a quintessential white box with tracks for lifting and moving enormous works of art–the sort of place any curator would die to fill. The space will never go dark he promised–the shows will overlap and percolate and interact with the other programing.

Blackson’s optimistic vision of how art can affect the future is big, bold and infectious. We can’t wait to see some of this unfold, and hope people can make up to North Philly to be entertained, engaged and touched.

We just got a list of some more of the juicy tidbits you can sample there — all free (and look for all this information on the gallery’s website soon, he said)

Urban Plant Foraging in North Philly with Nance Klehm and Brooke Sietinsons
Wednesday, September 21
We’ll begin with a foraging for key ingredients in the wild urban vegetation growing in North Philadelphia led by the horticultural consultant Nance Klehm. Foraged local edibles are the staples in this potluck meal prepared by Klehm and artist Brooke Sietinsons. Plants from this forage will be used in Sietinsons’ newly designed kaleidoscopic projection illuminating the meal. Visit our website for foraged plant recipes!

TRUE BLOOD MOBILE followed by Haunted Histories and Secret Cinema
Friday, October 28
Visit Temple Gallery’s collaboration with the Red Cross to donate blood during our vampire inspired blood drive.
Haunted Histories: Eastern State Penitentiary and Pennhurst State School and Hospital
Kelly George and Anne Parsons will speak about the use of abandoned institutions for material gain, especially through marketing efforts that depict those institutions as haunted. Complementing the talk will be rare photographs and testimonies from a range of such institutions. Secret Cinema will be presenting an all-night selection of haunted house classics.
This event is part of Temple Gallery’s Halloween Festivities; our partners are Laurel Hill Cemetery and Rosenbach Museum and Library.

The Big Shale Teach-In
Thursday and Friday, November 3, 4
Join scientists, geographers, artists, politicians and historians for a two-day teach-in exploring Pennsylvania and specifically Philadelphia’s place within the debate of drilling for natural gas. This event is organized in collaboration with the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection at Temple University.

-your most important meal of the week-
Starting September 12
Join us every Monday morning to learn about the current week’s programs and events over a well-brewed cup of joe. Guest lecturers and seasonal breakfast bites will accompany the gallery’s Monday morning ritual.