The walls are bare. And even for the expected quiet of an art space, the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College is hushed to the point of the sacrosanct. The biggest activity occurring on this Friday afternoon is museum director Julie Dickover cleaning out her desk. And the only items on display are a couple of boxes placed along the wall. But this moment of calm will be short-lived. On Sept. 2, the exhibit Sound will be filling the museum with auditory and visual pieces created by 17 of the more engaging contemporary artists working today. Eleven of the pieces will be experienced through headphones, two sculptural installations will be on view inside the museum, while a third will be installed in the grassy area out front of the museum. Michael Dickins, Barry Jones, McLean Fahnestock and Lynn Rhodes are but a few of the names on the impressive roster of participants; hardly household names in Northeast Florida, but all respected artists in the international scene. This collection and its result are indicative of the caliber of unique and cutting-edge contemporary art that Dickover has been bringing to the Crisp-Ellert, or CEAM, for the past six years. “I’ve had some pretty powerful experiences with sound as a medium,” explains Dickover, of the simple impetus in bringing this show to the space, triggered by her own direct experience with the arts. “Several years ago, Janet Cardiff had a Public Art Fund project in Central Park in Manhattan, where the participant wore headphones and followed her directions through the park. It was over 10 years ago, but that feeling of walking through and observing this very public space while in this very intimate bubble of Cardiff’s voice is something that has stuck with me.” A decade later, and Dickover has essentially translated that experience into a show, in a way sharing her memory through her own artistic medium — the museum.
Contemporary art remains a moving target. Yet Dickover has honed a kind of intuition and connectivity in not only discovering, but also attracting much-respected artists to CEAM. Since hiring on in 2010, she has turned Flagler College’s on-campus museum into a beacon of current, impressive art in the Southeastern United States.
And her efforts are resulting in the generation of even more arts-based activities for Northeast Florida. On Aug. 10, it was announced that CEAM and Flagler College’s Department of Art & Design received a $40,000 grant from The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida to fund a new artist-in-residence program. “The idea is that outside of the exhibition schedule, we’ll invite one artist per semester, for one to four weeks and they’ll work with the students,” explains Dickover. “But we’ve also focused this where the artists will really utilize the resources that are here in St. Augustine. Because we have so much historically to engage here — the Civil Rights legacy, Flagler’s legacy, the Native American imprisonment — and the natural and coastal environments.” The artist-in-residence program is just the latest development in Dickover’s ongoing efforts toward transforming CEAM into one of the more notable contemporary art venues in the Southeast. “It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a few years and something we’ve been building on already,” explains Dickover. “I’m really trying to bring together exhibits, visiting artists and students, the school departments, the community,” she adds, with a laugh, “it’s truly ‘transdisciplinarian’ arts.”
Julie Dickover was born March 11, 1975 in the almost-defiantly hippie town of Eugene, Oregon. “While we had the University of Oregon, which is a big school, it isn’t like Eugene is a major art city. I didn’t grow up going to galleries,” says Dickover. “I just happened upon liking art.”
She initially decided to major in Latin American studies when she started college. “When I changed my major to art history, I think my parents wanted to cry.” During her college years, Dickover also studied printmaking and photographic techniques. In 1996, she meet fellow artist Chris Balaschak in New York City. Under the collaborative moniker OK+OR (he’s a native Oklahoman, she’s an Oregonian), they worked on a few conceptual site-specific installations. “We made these conceptual projects that no one really knew about but us,” she says, laughing. “Which probably makes them even more conceptual.” Dickover admits that she simply didn’t have the drive to be a visual artist. “You have to promote the hell out of yourself,” she says. “And I’ve never been good at that. I’m bummed out by rejection. And as an artist, you really need to harden yourself. And honestly, I was a mediocre artist. The world doesn’t need any more mediocre artists.”
In 1998, Dickover graduated with a B.A. from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, majoring in art history with a focus in contemporary art. Two years later, she and Balaschak married and moved to Los Angeles. Dickover was hired as a registrar at Santa Monica’s Robert Berman Gallery and eventually accepted the same position at Hammer Museum, the art museum and cultural center founded in 1990 by entrepreneurial-industrialist Armand Hammer. “That was very much a specific museum job,” says Dickover. “I oversaw shipping, paperwork, installation, traveled with exhibitions … I never really had any ideas of being a curator.”
Armed with a Ph.D., in 2010 Chris Balaschak accepted a position teaching art history at Flagler College. The pair, now in their mid-30s, was experienced and knowledgeable in the realm of contemporary arts, having spent the last 10 years in Los Angeles. They were also young parents with a young daughter, Hazel. And there was much anxiety about making a big leap from the comfort and cultural wellspring of L.A.’s energized arts scene to a small Florida town with a small private college about which they knew very little.
“When we first got here, I really didn’t like it,” she laughs. “We took a red-eye here and I was so nervous that I threw up on the plane.” Although her initial reaction was hardly positive, a job offer from Flagler College to oversee CEAM was an unexpected surprise.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do,” says Dickover. “But the school saw that I had gallery experience and they said, ‘Hey, do you want this job?’” Dickover admits that she was stunned at first and felt like a “poser” when the offer came. “But obviously I took it,” she laughs, “because how many jobs in the arts are there in Northeast Florida?”
CEAM opened in 2007; prior to Dickover’s arrival in 2010, there hadn’t been anyone in place to really oversee the space with such ongoing dedication. Student portfolio shows had been featured as well as projects by Flagler art instructor Leslie Robison and exhibits featuring locals like painter Jonathan Lux. Yet within the first couple of years of Dickover’s exhibition offerings, attendance increased.
“You know, when I came here, I had been working at the Hammer Museum, which is an amazing institution. My standards for contemporary art, and also what I could see in Los Angeles at any given moment, were really, really high. And coming here, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to have this little gem of a contemporary arts space where someone wouldn’t be expecting it?’”
Dickover points out that there are similar spaces dotted around the Southeast, with venues like the Southeast Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. “And I just wanted to bring more contemporary art here,” she says. “Where it could be seen.”
Dickover’s tasks at the museum are all-encompassing, ranging from creating the program ideas and scheduling to curating, social media, collaborating with the faculty and students for various projects, and writing press releases. At times she even hangs the work for display. She acknowledges that Balaschak is a kind of silent partner, assisting in many of her activities. But her main focus, directive and passion is to attract artists to the space and help create worthy exhibits.
Over the course of 50 shows, dozens of artists have now shown their creations at CEAM, from the sports-competition-fueled works of Lee Walton to the humorous, autobiographical video pieces by multidisciplinary artist Julie Lequin. In addition, Dickover has offered several film series, including a celebration of the films of Andy Warhol and a retrospective of rock music documentaries. While hard-pressed to choose a favorite, Dickover quickly recalls one exhibit that made a personal impact. “One of my still all-time favorite shows was by Liz Rodda,” says Dickover, of the Texas-based artist’s 2013 CEAM exhibit, Clockwise. Rodda’s exhibit included video, cryptic sculptures and 2D work that posed big questions about destiny, belief and our influence on the outcome of experience. “I think a lot of people liked it, but it was also a little esoteric.”
The upcoming season includes exhibits and projects featuring Matt Roberts, Terri Witek, Jake Longstreth and Jamie Isenstein, along with the annual student BFA & BA Portfolio Exhibition. Artists’ walkthroughs and discussions are regular components of each show, as is the sense of community engagement and exploration. Last season, Edgar Endress’ exhibit Finding Baroque
(terre florida) was a collaborative, interdisciplinary project between Endress and Flagler College students, wherein they used the Spanish colonial past of St. Augustine as a template to create original art. This year will feature a similar kind of exchange between the artists that Dickover invites to the space and the greater community at large. Case in point: upcoming artist-in-residence Christine Sun Kim.
“She’s pretty hot shit right now,” Dickover laughs, of the acclaimed sound artist, who has had a residency at NYC’s storied Whitney Museum and participated in the international art fair, Art Dubai. “I’m pretty excited about this. She’s deaf from birth and her projects are amazing. But she can also be this bridge to other departments and an academic side of Flagler that I tend to not have much crossover with, like the Deaf Education program, and also the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind here in St. Augustine.”
Emanating from the walls and confines of CEAM, and threading throughout Flagler College and the city of St. Augustine, Dickover’s exhibits and projects engage more than artists, students and art lovers. It’s broadening a conversation about contemporary art here in Northeast Florida that is refreshingly inclusive, rather than coyly pretentious and masked in lofty doublespeak and even arrogance.
Dickover seems to have an almost innate gift for locating engaging and even celebrated visual artists, presenting them in a way that is somehow almost organically invitational to the audience, and building greater momentum off that very same casual approach, to what could otherwise appear to be intimidating and intense contemporary and conceptual art.
“I feel that all of the artists coming through here, whether they’re regional, national or international … all of that is just amazing press. They way I originally began to think of this five years ago was that I can build up this great archive of exhibitions and projects. And when I can approach someone who is highly in-demand, they’ll see what we are doing. And that really seems to attract even more artists. And if there is a goal, that might be it. I just want to bring in work that I feel good about and can stand behind.”
The opening reception for the auditory-themed exhibit Sound is held 5-9 p.m. Sept. 2 at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, 48 Sevilla St., St. Augustine, 826-8530. A walkthrough with curators Michael Dickins and Barry Jones is at 4 p.m. The exhibit is on display through Nov. 22, flagler.edu/news-events/crisp-ellert-art-museum.