Advocating for the Arts in the Inland Empire
An Interview with Quinton Bemiller
Conducted by Jacqueline Bell Johnson
Quinton Bemiller wears many hats at Norco College. Currently he is Associate Professor of Art, Director of Norco College Art Gallery and Department Co-Chair of Arts, Humanities and World Languages. Previously he served as curator for the Kellogg Gallery of Cal Poly Pomona, and served as a professor at Chaffey College.
Jacqueline Bell Johnson: In the Inland Empire, with a less-saturated art scene, institutions like college galleries are playing a bigger role. What kind of community engagement do you expect from the gallery? What programs are you putting in place to reach out to the community to be that resource?
Quinton Bemiller: The exhibition I had about a year ago had artists who were also professors at several IE colleges and universities was great because their students came out. Our students got to see some of the art faculty from schools where they can transfer. LA artists, some in the IE, a nice for cross-fertilization. I have not yet captured the immediate neighborhoods. There’s not a lot of people coming from nearby. That’s something I want to work on. Trying to pinpoint where artists or people who are interested in the arts are is difficult. My strategy is to pull in different artists to bring in their networks of people and their audiences.
JBJ: You have curated at Cal Poly Pomona and Norco…you get to decide what art is shown in the IE in a big way. There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, considering. Do you have an aesthetic aim with curating? Are you looking to make a certain impact with the art that you bring in?
QB: My personal aesthetics do come in. I try to be as well rounded as possible. Working at the college, we’re always mindful of diversity.
I have certain diversity dynamics, for example the woman that I am showing, a photographer, also happens to be our Dean of Instruction. Through conversation and seeing some of her work, I realized “Wow, she’s this new practicing photographer. Why not show her work?” Things come up that are good for the relations of the college. In this case, she hasn’t shown that much and her work has merit. The photographs are natural landscapes like Joshua Tree, and I wanted to balance that out with painting. Marciano Martinez does watercolors and acrylics that focus on landscape..
Sometimes things come at you. When I was hired at Kellogg Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona they needed me right away. They had an exhibition of Persian photography coming, a big truck delivery. It was a traveling exhibition, and they had no one running the gallery. It wasn’t my curation. I go back and forth between having power to choose things and sometimes not having as much power to choose things or balancing – “What do the students need? What would be good for our college?” versus “What would be good for our community?”
What I’m working on this spring and summer is a show for the fall of art by veterans, who happen to also be practicing artists. It hasn’t been explored, and people tend to have certain stereotypes of artists. That show can capitalize on community relations and bring people from the community who haven’t visited and people that generally don’t look at art.
Honestly, for most curators, a personal relationship that has to develop on some level. I rarely find some random person: “Wow, I love this picture I just saw, I’m going to track this person down.” What usually happens is people come into my life. They start to be on my mind. When the time is right, I schedule an exhibit. The most frustrating part is I can only do four shows a year. One of those is the student exhibition. I am looking into having summer exhibition programming, because the gallery just sits there dark. That might be a good time to bring in something a little more adventurous. I’m considering an artist-in-residence, where we turn the gallery into studio space and have a visiting artist.
JBJ: The IE art community is only visible at certain times, like Pomona’s Second Saturday or the Riverside Arts Walk. It feels empty until those events happen. What resources or actions can we use to fill these voids, and strengthen the local art community?
QB: It is strengthening and is continuing as we have more happening. We’re getting more and more people out here. LA, has become very expensive.
Our biggest problem is logistics. At Norco College, I’m always questioning when is the best time to have openings. If it’s on a weekday night; that’s good for most students, faculty, staff, and locals. It’s terrible if they are coming from LA, or from OC. Rush hour traffic on a Thursday night, forget about it. We’ve got Saturday night, but I’m competing with all of Southern California. I have these events on Saturday afternoon.
We’re spread out. We have galleries in Pomona and the Arts Walk in Riverside. If I have an opening on the same night, though we’re not that far, it doesn’t help. Having clusters is nice. I see us as one of the outposts, a rest stop along the highway. We’re close enough to share programming. I would like to collaborate with the other schools and places showing art.
JBJ: What are local students, especially in the community college, looking for from an art class? What are they seeking from an education in the arts?
QB: A lot don’t know what they want. They have this general idea that going to college is good and they probably should do it. They might have family members feeding them “You need to go to college because if you don’t you’re going to have a very difficult life.” So, they come to college. Some take art because they already know they’re interested in it, maybe they were already making art. Some take an art class, because they are curious. Their art experience is limited but they really wanted to take the class. Some of those will have a little spark and realize that they’re really good and enjoy it. Others take the class and say “Well that was nice. I’m going to be a business major now.” Then I have students that are very good and passionate about it, but there’s a lot of pushback from family telling them that “Well, you can’t have a career in art, you’re going to starve to death, you can’t do that, you need to go into nursing or business management or one of the STEM programs if you want to survive.”
I find myself needing to be an advocate for art majors and an advocate for people that want to go into art as a career. That’s a big part of my job. During artists talks and I make sure that they are not just talking about their work. I prompt them to talk about their background, where they came from, where they went to school, how they decided to go into art, what jobs they’ve had along the way …all that’s important.
Listen to your inner voice and notice what things make you happy. You have to have that in your career choice and what you major in.
People won’t talk to students about that. They will show you a sheet of paper that says “If you do this job you could make that much money. There’s going to be an 80% increase in the amount of jobs needed in this field. If you go into this field you’ll be guaranteed a job.” I tell students there are no guarantees in life. You can pick any of those majors and attempt to do whatever you think is a sure bet but, there are no sure bets. You might as well choose something you are good at, you have potential for, makes you happy, and work really hard at that.
I’m teaching them to have confidence in themselves. I have a conversation about school with them. “Where are you going to go?” Students will transfer to Cal State San Bernardino because it’s close, or Cal State Fullerton. I’m trying to get them to expand their horizons, and look at other schools, look at some of the UC’s and private schools. They get freaked out because they are expensive. Yes, but when you go to CSUSB, they’re not going to check a portfolio to see how great you are as an artist. A private art school will look at the portfolio. If you’re really good and you’re broke, and maybe on top of that you’re a minority student? You’re going to have incredible opportunities. Transferring to a Cal State, the tuition is less, but you might not get all the same opportunities. I’m trying to convince students to think about many factors: not just what’s the closest, not just what’s the cheapest, but what opportunities do different schools give and then trying to find the right match. This is all new to them. Community college students, many of them are first-generation college students. Many of them have nobody in their family to guide them or advise them. When it comes to art it’s a hundred times worse, because they also have nobody that knows anything about art. They think being an artist means standing on the corner trying to sell paintings to people as they walk by. They don’t realize all the different possibilities of what artists do.
JBJ: There’s family, teaching, and curating, and somewhere in there you make art. How do you do the whole work/family/art balance?
QB: I have turned the garage into my studio. I have to …I’ll steal the phrase someone used “making an appointment with myself.” I have to interject that time. When certain things feel pressing and immediate- I got to get this done tonight, I’ll just stop and say, “You know what? I’m going to take 30 minutes right now and go into the studio and work. Depending on the day I have larger blocks of time I really savor and get as much done as I can. I also make a point to keep on it on a regular basis.
I see my identity as an artist – yes, I’m doing all these different things but in my mind I’m doing them as an artist. When I talk to students, I’m talking to them as an artist. When I’m making decisions about our program or the gallery, it’s with a perspective of the artist. I need to be in the studio making art the same way a runner needs to go running everyday. Part of it is a discipline. I learned that a long time ago.
The hardest part is being at school and passionately talking about artists, seeing exciting things happening to students with their art, and being in the environment of all these ideas, then having ideas racing through my head but not being able to do anything with it until I come home. When you come home it’s dinnertime, and I’ve got kids too, and Jane needs this or Violet needs that. Or, “Oh my god the plants are all wilted! I’ve got to go water the plants!” Then bam-bam-bam, it’s 10pm and your energy and emotions are totally shot. That thrilling inspiration you had at 11am… it’s like “where the hell did that go?” I have to fight to get it back and carve out time anywhere I can for my art.
You can find out more about Quinton at his website: http://www.bemillerstudio.com/