‘The door opener’: Longtime University Museum of Contemporary Art Director Loretta Yarlow to step down

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2023 4:42 PM

AMHERST — After nearly 18 years at the helm of the largest art gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Loretta Yarlow will step down from the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) at the end of June.

Yarlow, who came to the Valley from New York City, where she had been director of exhibitions at Pratt Institute, has overseen considerable expansion and broadening of UMCA’s collection, while also creating a number of programs to build greater ties with local and regional artists, as well as students and faculty.

UMass officials also credit Yarlow for her strong financial skills, winning a number of key grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, and tripling the UMCA budget during her tenure, in part through donor cultivation.

In a recent phone call, Yarlow said she was particularly proud of building UMCA’s collection, including bringing in work from more female artists and artists of color, and in showcasing some of that work in new exhibitions.

But now, she said, she’s ready for a change — and she believes the museum is in a good place for a new director to step in.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Yarlow said. “It felt like it was time. I’m leaving when I’m healthy and when I think we’ve really been able to put the museum on the map as an important place for contemporary art.”

Indeed, Yarlow sees the growth of the university’s art collection — it now includes over 3,600 items — as a key part of her efforts at UMCA. She curated the museum’s current exhibit, “Sixty Years of Collecting,” to highlight the beginnings of that collection on campus, as well as its variety.

“This is a public collection,” she said. “It belongs to me and to you, it belongs to the students and the faculty, really to everyone.”

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Yarlow also coined the name for the museum in 2010, after it had previously been know simply as the University Gallery.

In a statement, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said Yarlow has not only added the work of well-known artists to UMCA’s collection, she’s also made the museum a key part of the area’s arts community.

“Loretta’s efforts to integrate the museum into the larger community has become a point of pride for the campus,” the chancellor said, “as well as an important way to cultivate — and sustain — new relationships.”

During her tenure, Yarlow developed the “Dialogue with a Collection” program, in which local artists create exhibits by using work from the UMCA vaults as cues. She also built partnerships and collaborations with UMass faculty in different disciplines, leading to new courses for students in areas like museum training.

In an email she sent to staff at the university’s Fine Arts Center, FAC executive director Jamilla Deria related a conversation she had with New York sculptor Leonardo Drew, who had an exhibit at UMCA in 2019. Deria said she asked Wood what had brought him to the region, and Wood said “I am here for one reason, and that reason is Loretta Yarlow.”

“From that encounter through today,” Deria said to FAC staff, “I have witnessed Loretta be the difference maker, the door opener, and facilitator of new possibilities for our students, campus, and region. I feel very lucky to have shared paths with her, to have worked alongside her, and to have learned from her.”

Before her stint at the Pratt Institute, Yarlow had worked in a number of places, including as director and curator at York University Art Gallery in Toronto. She and her husband also owned a private art gallery in Toronto for several years, an experience Yarlow says gave her good experience in the business side of art.

“And working at York University and then at Pratt, I really came to understand that teaching is a key part of any university museum, and I wanted that to be part of what we did at UMCA,” she said. “Our students are our next generation of artists.”

Yarlow has put together many notable exhibits during her time at UMass, including the first-ever print exhibition by New York artist Nicole Eisenman, who’s known more for her painting and sculpture. Yarlow says Eisenman will soon be opening just her second exhibition of prints, at Print Center New York in Manhattan.

She notes that she and her “small but dedicated” staff at UMCA have already planned exhibitions into 2025, and she figures she’ll lend a hand as needed for those shows after officially stepping down from UMass on June 30.

Could she be a guest curator at some point? “I’d love that,” said Yarlow, who plans to stay involved in other ways with the arts community.

UMass officials say the FAC will appoint an interim director for UMCA and launch a search for Yarlow’s successor in the coming months.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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