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What’s that noise? It's art!

The Western Gallery looks to create more awareness of art collection on campus

The Western Gallery reflects fall colors on Western Washington University’s campus at dusk on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. The colored window panes on the front of the gallery are actually solar panels which power speakers playing out noises and music to passers by. // Photo by Finn Wendt

Students walking past the Western Gallery in the middle of Western Washington University’s campus this fall have been hearing a variety of noises from the front of the building. Students may have heard bird noises, rock ‘n’ roll or even audio essays coming from the exhibits.

These noises are from an exhibition called "Sound Out Radio," an internet radio station being played from speakers on top of the gallery’s entrance for the student body to hear.

Though "Sound Out Radio" is a recent exhibition that has caught the attention of the student body, Western is known beyond the Northwest for another exhibition: the Campus Sculpture Collection, a collection of 29 pieces of sculpture art scattered across campus that have drawn national acclaim.

Hafþór Yngvason, the Western Gallery’s director, was previously the director at the Reykjavik Art Museum but was drawn to Western by the sculpture collection.

“I came here because of the sculpture collection. It’s a fantastic collection. It’s amazing to be able to work with it,” Yngvason said. “Some of these sculptures are important not only for the artist but also the history of modern art.”

In the mid-20th century, a time before arts-development bills such as the Bellingham 1% for the arts bill, Western put in place an arts allowance for on-campus pieces. From there, the university was able to build up the sculpture collection that Yngvason believes to be one of the five best university sculpture art collections in the country.

“Western is an Ivy League university when it comes to this sort of thing, and I want students to know what a privilege they have here,”  Yngvason said.

Many students, however, are unaware of the prestige associated with the on-campus art of Western.

“I knew they had some big artists, I didn’t know it was world-class,” said fourth-year Paul Striby. 

Striby said he hasn’t been to the current Western Gallery exhibit on sculpture artist Isamu Noguchi, who made Red Square’s “Skyviewing Sculpture.”

“I would generally only go in if someone I knew was putting something on or something drew me, right now the exhibit hasn’t drawn me in,” Striby said. “More outreach would help, I didn’t always know you could just go in.”

Outreach from the gallery is something Yngvason hopes to continue to grow. He wants the student body to be more aware of the significance of the sculpture collection as well as other on-campus art. 

“We really want to bring the message out a whole lot more, we want people to take pride in this,” he said.

Yngvason said that while attendance numbers are bouncing back from COVID-19, there is still important work to be done in making sure students are aware of the free-to-all gallery right in the middle of campus. 

“A lot of students don’t know necessarily if they are supposed to be there, and it’s very important for us to get those people in,” he said.

Striby echoed that sentiment and said that more outreach would help students be aware of the art exhibits on their campus.

Performance and sound art like "Sound Out Radio" are part of an effort to bring the art to the students. Western assistant professor of sculpture and expanded media

Sasha Petrenko, the artist behind the Sound Out project, hopes to see more direct engagement in the arts among Western's student body and hopes that outreach from the Western Gallery can enable wider engagement.

“I think it’s just gonna get better as everyone returns to campus, but I think there’s definitely room for everyone to engage with it more,” Petrenko said. “Music and dance certainly know about it, but what about environmental studies, what about anthropology?”

As the school moves further away from the dog days of the pandemic, those within the Western Gallery and Western art department hope the student body can come to take pride in and celebrate an on-campus art collection that they believe could rival any in the nation. 

As Petrenko put it, “If we didn't celebrate the arts, then what would we celebrate?”

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