Thoroughly Modern Marcelle

July 24, 2012
14 mins read

Since she arrived in Northeast Florida, Marcelle Polednik has been eagerly defying ideas about the local arts community. After starting her position as director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in February 2011, Polednik wasted no time presenting exhibitions and events that have made the once-floundering venue a viable spot for contemporary artists. Her example challenges local creative talents to match her drive and passion. Polednik’s immediate actions in introducing events such as film screenings, performances and workshops to MOCA were deliberate gestures to take art “off the walls,” while those same programs broadened the experience for the informed art lover and curious visitor alike. And while her role as director keeps her on the sidelines, away from the inner world of the artists she celebrates, her zeal and tenacity as a team player places her in the center of the only life she has ever known, the world of fine arts.

Former Folio Weekly Editor Anne Schindler talked to Polednik earlier this year. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Folio Weekly: You’ve been here a year now. What do you think is now different about this institution than two years or three years ago, from what you know?

Marcelle Polednik: We really had to make some tough decisions about how do we best use and focus the resources that we have. What is the goal? What is the ambition for this institution? The staff had been under so much pressure to work on a multiplicity of projects that were really setting them up for, I don’t want to say failure, but weren’t setting them up for success. They were spread so thin, there was so much to do all the time. I think, because I came here with a clear mandate, that I felt that the board and I really shared, and that was to really make an indelible impact on this institution to make it a destination for Jacksonville and for the community outside Jacksonville. To make it … this jewel that people will travel to see, and as a result take part in what this community has to offer.

F.W.: What decisions were you making about what not to do?

M.P.: One of them, for example, was that the museum had offered a lot of studio classes at one point, and they were not very well attended. There had been one- or two-people classes that would be cancelled all the time, which means that the instructors were put out, there was a lot of work for staff organizationally to keep working on these when they weren’t well attended. And so we said, look, for the next few years, we’re going to take this off our plate, and we’ll revisit this again.

One of the things that we’ve seen very clearly is that as our exhibition strategy has shifted and is becoming a little more cutting-edge and more innovative, the community has responded to that. So there is this need that existed that the museum really wasn’t filling. I think that in the past, and most staff would agree with this, the museum has really played things safe, and even one of the greatest works in our collection, “The Tulsa Series” [by Larry Clark, September 2011], had not been displayed in its entirety because everyone was concerned about how the community would receive it.

F.W.: I had no idea that that was part of the permanent collection.

M.P.: Yeah, it had not been displayed.

F.W.: It had never been shown?

M.P.: There have been several prints from the series that have been shown over the years, but last year was the first time that we showed it in its entirety since its acquisition. So that, together with the Project Atrium Series that we started, was, I think, a kind of a signal to the community that we’re moving in a different direction. And that what we hope to do is not necessarily to avoid the tough subjects that we all deal with as a society or that artists deal with themselves, but to really highlight the way that they are interpreted, the way that they are elevated and promoted in a way to our consciousness by the artists that are part of the contemporary scene.

F.W.: Did you get any heat for doing that show?

M.P.: I have to tell you, I’m very fortunate, the board is wonderful, and everybody was very supportive and said this is something that we need to be doing. If we are the contemporary art museum, that means that we have to raise some eyebrows periodically. That’s our role.

Part of what surrounded that decision was the knowledge that together with displaying these works, we were going to present a lot of educational material and educational outreach to the community, that we would also market it in such a way that would let families with children know in advance that there’s difficult subject matter here. And as a result of that we didn’t receive a single complaint about the work, and it became a very popular series.

These are works of art that we feel are significant … to the history of contemporary art. We want you to engage with them, because a true meaning of contemporary art means having to confront issues that are challenging for all of us. I think the public really responded to that.

F.W.: There is bound to be some learning curve because, as you say, traditionally, this museum hasn’t pushed those boundaries — until recently.

M.P.: I think my goal coming in was to say, let’s create a vision for this institution that’s sustainable and that doesn’t just belong to one director, that doesn’t just belong to one administration, but that the museum can really feel good about and that can continue for the foreseeable future.

F.W.: How do you manage the relationship with UNF?

M.P.: The members of the UNF community that are part of our board are extremely supportive of the museum and are locked in step with what we’re doing right now to build this institution.

My goal is really to expand the impact of the museum on the university, to be a resource for the organization that provides something new that the university has not had before.

When the partnership was formed, it was formed in sort of an unbalanced way. The museum really needed a lot of help, and the university very generously offered to help the museum.

What I was looking for when I arrived is how do we become an equal partner in this relationship, rather than being a drain on the university’s resources? How do we show the university that the investment that they’re making on an annual basis is something that really benefits the students and the faculty of that organization?

We’re working, of course, very closely with Art & Design [Department], which is a natural fit, but we’re starting to work with the School of Education. We’ve had the honors students at the museum several times. There’s a freshman studies program called Adventure Studies that’s been really deeply involved in the 1960s exhibition and planning that effort. I’m trying to really make that web of associations much deeper and much richer so that the students really begin to see that having a museum affiliated with a university is part of a richer campus life and richer experience.

Now, that said, we’re not on campus, and we’re not the university art museum. We are affiliated with the university, but we also serve a broader public. We have a number of different constituencies and communities that we work with. The university is an important one, but so is Jacksonville as a whole.

F.W.: When you’re scheduling something like “The Lebowski Cycle” [by Joe Forkan, February 2012], are you thinking that it’s going to play well on campus because they know The Dude [from “The Big Lebowski”]?

M.P.: Yeah, absolutely. And that of course is taking place in the UNF Gallery, which is something that the UNF Art & Design faculty curate.

This is still a fairly young union, and we’re trying to understand what all of the possibilities really are.

F.W.: Is there anything that resembles this set-up that you have?

M.P.: It’s fairly unique, but based on our research, I think that the closest approximation that we have is the Hammer Museum in L.A. and UCLA.

F.W.: When you go to other places and you’re kind of evangelizing for the museum or trying to do fundraising, what is it that you tell people about what you’re accomplishing here?

M.P.: We’ve identified two areas of focus that are exciting for us. One is the Project Atrium Series, of course, which certainly has models. Other museums do very similar types of projects. I think that the kind of space that we have to offer, and the fact that we’re creating site-specific work for the space almost every time is unique. There aren’t many institutions that are taking that approach.

The second thing is … we have the opportunity to make a kind of niche of excellence that allows us to explore an area in depth and to really commit our resources to being a center for contemporary photography. And that’s something that many museums around the country have not emphasized.

The third aspect that we’re looking at, too, is [that] there aren’t many contemporary art museums that take an active role in sifting through the history of contemporary art and resurrecting artists who, while important in their time, have not gotten the limelight that other contemporaries have. We have a couple of projects on our schedule that give major retrospectives to artists who, we feel, deserve to be in the canon of contemporary art. We’re working on an exhibition of Michael Goldberg’s work, and that will open at the museum in the fall of 2013.

F.W.: So that would be an exhibit that you all sort of curate and then travel to other museums?

M.P.: Exactly.

F.W.: You did that with the chair exhibit [“The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design,” January 2011]?

M.P.: Yes, exactly.

F.W.: Was that the first time that the museum had done that?

M.P.: The chair was the first one.

All of those efforts are really important because they take our name outside of the boundaries of the community.

F.W.: Is that a revenue source for the museum?

M.P.: Absolutely, because for every exhibition that you travel, there’s a participation fee that each museum pays, and that helps the bottom line, there’s no doubt. I think both of those things are equally important, to be perfectly honest, but the revenue stream is great. What’s more elusive and harder to find is the sort of augmentation of the reputation of that institution, and the fact that they go hand-in-hand, of course, is very nice.

F.W.: What is your opinion of something like a Marilyn Monroe show [“Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe,” January 2010]?

M.P.: You know, I think that at the time for the museum, it probably made sense, I mean it certainly made sense to my predecessor.

What we do now and the kind of programming that we’re trying to promote is a little bit edgier, a little bit more provocative and also has more of an educational quality about it. I want people to come, which means sometimes you have to encourage them through whatever mechanism you have at your disposal, but I want them to really learn something while they’re here, too. I want them to experience something that they didn’t know before and to have a kind of eye-opening experience.

With the ’60s exhibition [“ReFocus: Art of the 1960s,” January 2012], for example, we focused in our marketing campaign on well-known artists from the ’60s — Warhol, Lichtenstein — but once the audience arrived, you would find all sorts of other artists and movements and works of art that were really inspiring, too, but they may not have been the ones who brought people in droves to the museum.

In terms of how we choose the artist, I think that really is just a question of art historical knowledge and just knowing that there are certain figures that have really fallen through the cracks. Mike Goldberg came to my attention several years ago, and I have been following his work for some time.

F.W.: Tell us a little bit about him.

M.P.: He’s a second-generation abstract expressionist painter and he lived in New York. He had an extremely long career, over 50 years, and throughout that career, he maintained a steadfast devotion to abstraction, yet that abstraction changed and transformed itself incredibly over the course of those 50 years.

I realized that we have a unique opportunity not only to show the first major retrospective of the artist’s work, because there has been none to date, but at the same time to really look at the way abstraction evolved in the 50 years after the School of New York [Abstract Expressionism] really came to be. And that was a very compelling narrative that we previously had not explored at the museum.

F.W.: How do you find all the material that goes into producing an exhibition?

M.P.: Ben Thompson [MOCA curator] and I work on things together. Since I arrived at the museum, I’ve had a hand in the curatorial projects, but Ben has really done an outstanding job of taking … an idea and running with it.

Because I know Goldberg’s work pretty well, I started working with his widow on trying to get all of this information together. His works are owned by museums all around the country and private collectors all around the country, so we’re right now in the midst of completing the checklist for the show: looking at loans, making sure that all of the periods of his career are represented at the exhibition, that we have the best possible works that we can.

Irving Sandler [art critic] has agreed to write for the catalog, which is really exciting. So there’s a great deal of energy about that publication.

I think from this point forward, anytime that anyone thinks about him [Goldberg], the MOCA Jacksonville publication is going to be the one that they turn to for research and for information.

If you think about exhibitions as really being very fleeting enterprises, because they’re here for three months and then they’re gone, the publications are the afterlife of all that research and all that scholarship. They are what persist.

F.W.: Considering museum directors you’ve admired or ones you think have done a great job, what do you think the best bring to the job?

M.P.: I look at Adam Wineburg at the Whitney [New York], whom I had the pleasure to work with when I was there. Andrew Walker at Amon Carter [Fort Worth, Texas]. I really think about directors who always make you feel like there’s nothing more important that they could be doing than having this conversation with you, even though you know that there are about 30 other things that are vying for their attention at that moment in time.

F.W.: When does your work day usually begin? How does it take shape?

M.P.: I usually start around 7 in the morning, and the first part of my day I spend at home. I try to focus it on more substantive things because there are no interruptions at that point.

Usually I get to the office around 10, because I know once I step foot in this door, all of those things that I wanted to do are going to be negotiated immediately.

I can be out of the office, meeting with donors for most of the day, and then back in the office for something.

There are several other civic obligations that I’m involved with, too.

F.W.: Such as?

M.P.: The Jacksonville Airport Art Commission, for example. The Cultural Roundtable. When I’m in town, I always attend those. I just served on the JCCI Race Relations Progress Report Committee. I went with the Chamber to Houston this year. One of the things that I’m passionate about is making sure that MOCA is represented in some of the larger issues that face the city — that we have a voice in downtown revitalization, that we’re represented in the meetings of the Chamber of Commerce.

F.W.: Are you becoming involved in all the discussions about Hemming Plaza?

M.P.: Yes, obviously, it’s our front door. We’ve done several things at the museum in this last year that I think have really shown the tremendous potential that Hemming Plaza has. We had a program shortly after I arrived that was done in conjunction with the UNF Art & Design Department. It was a performance that was a marriage between sculpture and printmaking. There were all these wonderful students who made the costumes, and it was this incredible performance. At the end of the performance, we went and circumnavigated the park, and it was magical. There were 300 people out there at 9 in the evening, and we just all thought to ourselves, “This is what should be happening.”

I think the space hasn’t really been activated in a way that allows it to take on other uses. And that would be my goal, seeing if there’s a way that the museum can help bring that to fruition, whether it’s showing movies there in the summer or having Café Nola put together some sort of a food truck to go outside to the park.

F.W.: How does this museum attempt to differentiate itself from the Cummer?

M.P.: There’s one way in which to identify the difference, and that is to look at the chronological span of what each museum covers. The Cummer kind of stops around 1945; we deal with 1960 and onward. The Cummer does periodically do contemporary projects, though, so it’s not as clear-cut as that line would indicate.

The Cummer has been doing an extraordinary job of reaching out far and wide in their educational efforts. Whereas MOCA, now under my direction, is very curatorially driven, so the focus is on exhibitions. And our educational programs all relate back to what we show in the galleries.

Of course, we don’t have lovely gardens either. Maybe one day.

It’s wonderful that the Cummer is here. It allows us the freedom to be able to do what we do, and I think vice-versa.

F.W.: What about this city surprised you? And what were you expecting when you moved here?

M.P.: I don’t think that I had specific expectations when I arrived. I think both my husband and I were really open. We wanted to see what was here, and we wanted to really get to know the city because neither of us had spent any time here.

F.W.: Did you have any friends you talked to who maybe had been here, had traveled here?

M.P.: There was a funny connection. Our landlady in Monterey grew up in Orange Park.

One of the things that I felt strongly about in the next challenge, the next position that I wanted to take, is that I was looking for a very specific type of environment — someplace that was between the two extremes of where I’d lived, New York and Monterey [Calif.]. A city that was both large enough that it had a lot of cultural amenities and a kind of critical mass of interested individuals, but small enough that you could still make a difference and you could make an impact both on your institution but also the city as a whole.

I’ve never lived in the South before. And when you’re in New York, you hear all sorts of lore about the South. One of the things that I always wondered is, “Is it a welcoming place?” Jacksonville has such a long history, and there are many families who have been here for generations, and there’s a sense of deep-seated pride of this community. I guess my one worry was how open was the community to outsiders, to people that were coming in who didn’t know all that history, who didn’t know quite enough about the community and had to learn all of this. And I’m still surprised by the graciousness and the incredible hospitality and generosity of everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know this past year. My husband and I both have felt so embraced by this community in a way that’s been really overwhelming. It’s been much more than we ever anticipated.

Anne Schind


Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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