“It’s been one of those days when everything went opposite to what I expected,” says David Knight, Director of Exhibitions and Collections at Northern Kentucky University, as he sits down at his desk in the office adjacent to the gallery. He has been presiding over NKU art, in its differing incarnations, for about twenty years.
“On second thought,” he contradicts himself, “actually, it’s been an on day, because I have to adapt, and I am a multi-tasker. I juggle many different hats, both in the department and in my personal life. People tell me, “David, you always have something going on!”
Dealing with printers, promotions, planning shows, hanging shows, talking to the media, dealing with artists and delivery of art works, sales, and taking down shows provides enough overlapping activity to make some people crazed. What equips a person to have the finesse to juggle this kind of job? Knight credits his childhood submersion in the arts along with his father’s influence.
“I had pretty dedicated parents,” he explains. “My mother is a musician and a teacher, as well as participating in all sorts of musical activities, and my father was an engineer.” This goes some distance towards explaining the combination of artistic approach and methodical thinking that characterizes Knight.
Knight says his studies in art began early. “My parents brought me to museums basically from the time I was a baby. My first visual experience was in Tulsa, Oklahoma were I was born, seeing sculpture in the gallery there at three years old. When I was in college, I went back to that museum and remembered everything I had seen. I walked in with some college friends and knew where the gardens and everything else were. My friends asked me how I knew, and I just had to say ‘it was all there!'”
Moving to Toledo began a routine every Saturday when Knight went to children’s art classes at the Toledo Museum. The classes were held in the same building where The University of Toledo held their art classes, so Knight was steeped in the variety of art being produced around him, from glass blowing to sculpture. As well, his parents traveled around the country with their two children, (Knight and his younger sister) and in every place, visited a museum.
“I learned everything from ceramics, core foundation, painting and drawing, and I was one of those fortunate few that had art in elementary school. We also talked a great deal about the art in our family.”
Knight did well in art competitions, and as time went by, an interest in the business of art grew and led him into a gallery internship while at college at Ohio Wesleyan. “I didn’t make my final decision until later, but I kept taking art courses, and because I did well in them, when I took art history, all those works were already in my head.” Architecture is an additional interest, encompassing architectural history.
Knight makes the point that having learned the actual skills behind artworks has enriched his career. “As a gallery director, knowing how all these things are made or put together has been a benefit. I’m glad I had that. Sometimes, though,” he muses, “it’s possible it may also get in the way. I can be highly critical, particularly concerning overall presentation and where a piece falls short. I’m certainly that way about myself—I like everything to be as perfect as it’s possible to be.” He laughs, “I give myself a hard time!”
In college, Knight knew in a broad way that he wanted to be in a gallery. “I had thought of working for a gallery for a while and then opening up my own space. And I did work The Fourth Street Gallery here and lived in the Fourth Street area.” Knight moved here when his ex-wife got a job in Cincinnati. “Most of the people I met in those years, I am still connected with to this day.” He also worked for the Carl Solway gallery along with another space in Loveland, the Maritain Gallery—named after Jacques Maritain (1882—1973), a French philosopher and political thinker.” The artist/owner, William Schickel, brought Knight in to start a gallery space to show and catalogue his huge body of liturgical work and some architectural pieces, as well as show work by other artists. Knight’s title was Curator, and he worked there part time and also at the NKU slide library. He was then asked by NKU to work in a gallery downtown shared by NKU, Miami University, and The Art Academy, which was a two-year commitment during the 1990-1992 renovation of the campus building housing the music department. Shows were periodically held in the small gallery at NKU.
Knight thinks he does things a lot differently from even ten years ago. “What artists make today is very different. They use a lot more materials. It’s now not just a painting or drawing; artists put many different media together.” He also mentions the fact that art today can also be ephemeral. “We don’t even know how long images will last on a CD,” he adds. “Even going from the slide format to the digital format for submissions has represented change. There has been so much transformation in the 20 years I’ve been here, that I’ve had to adapt.”
A career that spans 20 years in one place is not only an anomaly today but also has the potential for stagnation, but in Knight’s case, he feels that hasn’t happened. “First of all the University has changed dramatically. For instance, outreach within the community has expanded. At the time I came here, NKU was hardly mentioned in the area, where now it is significant. Then you add in the artistic participation. It’s a very different spot now. Where we are today with the gallery is a long way from the three tools and a cabinet of glass with which we started!”
The fledgling gallery started by sharing a storeroom with the music and theater departments and was in the lower theater lobby area. “When the renovation of the building happened in 1990 through 1992, we got the space up here. The smaller gallery has always been there, and at that time the Chair of the department saw the opportunity to get new equipment and build the program. Eleven years ago we had no wood floor. My goal is to add something new or different each year to make the program stronger and the gallery job easier to do. For instance the lighting system now is of a quality most museums would envy. Too, both the students and faculty are observant enough to help me know what is needed, but then it takes a lot to get it. You have to prove yourself.”
Knight says he hears artists say they only want to exhibit their work in the NKU gallery. “That’s always a nice compliment,” he adds.
Where do the shows come from? “Usually artists come through a faculty member, thus prescreening the work is already done. We don’t just allow anyone to submit work.” This latter is also budgetary factor, as it is a cumulative cost to send work back that can’t be used. The last couple of years, with no less budget restraint than that suffered by institutions all over the country, NKU has focused on more regional artists. “There are always ideas in my head, and I have a committee with good ideas too, and once a year we like to do a big show. However, until the economy improves we have to be careful.”
One of the exhibitions in which Knight takes particular pride was the 2004 national exhibition, Visual Journey: Enslavement, Underground Railroad, Freedom (b.j.U.re), dealing with both past and present relevant topics, concurrent with the opening of the Cincinnati Freedom Center. In a forward to the catalogue, for which they had a $10,000 grant and which Knight edited, he sums up his thanks by saying: “I am thankful also to my other colleagues at the University and the many students and friends at NKU who have challenged and supported me over the years and have enriched my personal and academic life at NKU. I would like to say a special thanks to my parents who have always encouraged me to be creative, and to pursue those special projects which have personal meaning for me.”
One of the pieces in the show is a loosely wound ball of twine. Knight expands on this: “It was done by David Chal, who was a student here at the time. Basically what he did was take a ball of twine and start on the Newport side of the river and walk across the bridge to Cincinnati. Then he rolled it up and said, ‘This is the distance between slavery and freedom.'” The piece is an abstract version of the journey, both real and ideological, that slaves took across a then shallower but still dangerous Ohio river, often with people bent on recapturing them.
Knight has also written for several publications such as Arts and Crafts Kentucky Magazine as well as jurying a number of shows. He likes to do at least one a year. He seems a man happy with his career and able to span the years with flexibility and a flow of new ideas.
– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin