Bulletin July 2006
"It is not enough to offer a smorgasbord of courses. We must ensure that students are not just eating at one end of the table."
– A. Bartlett Giamatti
Volume 74 | Issue 4
July 2006

Finding Their Niche: Union galleries on college campuses

Before Neela Patel took over the art gallery at the Busch Campus Center at Rutgers University–New Brunswick-Piscataway a year and a half ago, she didn’t know the 650-square-foot exhibit space existed. Why would she? Before becoming assistant director for operations at the Busch Center, one of seven college unions on the 2,682-acre campus, she worked in the Student Activities Center, located across campus, on the other side of the Raritan River, in another town, nearly two miles away. The small arts space, in existence since 1996, simply was not on her radar screen.

Besides, Patel had much more visible options to choose from. The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers–New Brunswick-Piscataway has a permanent collection of 50,000 art pieces and rotating exhibits drawn from international sources. Although the Busch gallery does not compete with other galleries, those looking for art on campus have plenty of other choices.

In her new role, Patel is devoted to making the Busch Center gallery a priority. Yet, she has many other responsibilities within the college union. Although familiar with programming, she has no prior experience running an art gallery. “I’m learning a lot about art,” she said of her first year and a half running the space, which she has spent reorganizing the exhibit schedule, hiring student workers, and increasing publicity (personal communication, April 20, 2006).

A common situation

Patel’s situation—running a small art gallery in a college union without prior gallery experience to draw on—is one that union professionals often face. Union galleries typically occupy relatively small spaces in union facilities (Miller, 2003); most campuses boast larger, more visible museums or galleries in comparison, and those who run union galleries are often student affairs professionals who, although dedicated to their many responsibilities, have no previous experience with art or exhibitions.

As a graduate student pursuing her degree in higher education at Colorado State University, Megan Miller (2003) conducted a lengthy inquiry into the then-current practices of art galleries in college unions. The finished report includes data submitted by 25 four-year, public universities, all with enrollments of at least 20,000 students. Miller’s (2003) work explores the variations in budgets, leadership, exhibition frequency, and more at union galleries.

Potential for redefinition

Miller (2003), now assistant director of student activities at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, discovered a relative shortage of materials on union galleries during her project, leading her to posit that “the lack of focus nationally in the last 10 to 15 years signals that … the art gallery’s function is in question” (p. 6). She may be correct—the function of art galleries in college unions may need to be revisited. But rather than signaling their imminent demise, this fluidity also signals great potential for union galleries to redefine themselves through a combination of new management and publicity techniques, and by incorporating student input in innovative or increased capacities. To understand union galleries’ potential, it is necessary to fully understand the challenges that the professionals running them initially face. It also is instructive to learn the strategies successful union galleries have developed over time.


For union galleries on large campuses with more than one college union or art gallery, visibility is crucial to attracting visitors. On small campuses, galleries located in out-of-the-way corners of the college union also must overcome geographic obstacles. By posting up-to-date information on their Web sites, holding start-of-the-year events at the gallery, and successfully using campus and local media, union galleries can make sure everybody, on campus and off, knows what they do, when they do it, and where they’re located.

At Rutgers–New Brunswick-Piscataway, just making “people aware that we have an art gallery” is the biggest task, Patel said (personal communication, April 20, 2006). To address this, Patel created a student marketing position for the art gallery, which is responsible for publicizing the gallery’s events. Several more publicity possibilities are under discussion, she said. One idea is to revamp the union’s Web site, www.rc.rutgers.edu/centers, to include links to individual artists who have shown there. Another idea is to advertise the gallery’s exhibits by putting up posters in the other unions on campus. During the upcoming academic year, exhibits will be listed in the faculty/staff newsletter for the first time. “A lot of this stuff is just keeping things up to date and current,” Patel said (personal communication, April 20, 2006).

Five years ago, the Viking Union Gallery at Western Washington University enjoyed a prime location near the main entrance of the Viking Union. Everyone who walked into the union could not help but notice it. With one outer wall made of glass, visitors were inadvertently exposed to the artwork on display. The location was ideal for helping the gallery reach its goal of exposing art to “to people who might not otherwise see it,” said Lisa Rosenberg, who oversees the gallery (personal communication, May 18, 2006). Rosenberg, student activities coordinator and program advisor at Western Washington, said that 10,000 to 14,000 people visited or walked through the gallery each year during the eight years it was in that location (personal communication, May 19, 2006). “We had artists and people wander through; it was casual and serendipitous,” Rosenberg said.

However, a 2001 renovation project that expanded the retail dining-service area resulted in the gallery being relocated to a less visible space. For the past five years, the gallery has been next to the student life office, which sees relatively little traffic. Now visitors are mostly limited to those who purposely seek out the gallery. Attendance has fallen to approximately 4,000 people per year since the move (L. Rosenberg, personal communication, May 19, 2006).

To compensate for its current location, the gallery has begun to hold a popular beginning-of-the-year event in the gallery with the hope that people will remember its location. “One thing we do is our beginning-of-the-year poster sale. We didn’t used to do this, but now we hold it in the gallery,” Rosenberg said (personal communication, May 18, 2006). “During the first two weeks of the sale … several thousand students visit the space.” The gallery takes advantage of these numbers by publicizing its upcoming exhibits during the event.

Although its physical location has presented some attendance obstacles, the Viking Union gallery has a strong history of publicity, with established communication channels running between it and the campus’s media outlets. Every exhibit is promoted in some way, either through posters, newspaper listings, or on the campus radio station. Additionally, the student newspaper often reviews the gallery’s exhibits. These various pathways for publicity seem to carry over from year to year, Rosenberg said (personal communication, May 18, 2006).

At the Adele H. Stamp Union Gallery at the University of Maryland–College Park, one of gallery director Jeff Rhodes’ first tasks was to connect the gallery with regional and campus media. Before he became director a year and half ago, the gallery had some fabulous exhibits, he said, but it didn’t take advantage of the nearby Washington D.C.-area arts community, a potentially rich source of publicity and artist contacts (personal communication, April 19, 2006). Now, the gallery “gets listed in the weekly arts paper and The Washington Post, which brings in a larger audience and brings in artists that might be interested in exhibiting with us,” Rhodes said (personal communication, April 19, 2006).

Miller (2003) found that newspapers and word-of-mouth are the two types of publicity most likely to inspire students to visit a gallery. Other forms of publicity popular with union galleries include postcards or invitations, posters, and mailing lists (Miller, 2003).

Student input

Given the organizational structure of many union galleries, forgoing student contributions, whether as employees, interns, or volunteers, is not an option. Many union galleries fall under the jurisdiction of a union professional who must juggle many other responsibilities, and who, therefore, must heavily rely on student assistants or employees to run the gallery’s day-to-day operations (Miller, 2003). Rosenberg, at Western Washington, advises several student groups in addition to the art gallery. At Rutgers–New Brunswick-Piscataway, Patel is in charge of facilities and vendor management, and said that most of the union’s staff reports to her (personal communication, April 20, 2006).

At Rutgers–New Brunswick-Piscataway and Western Washington University, student coordinators play a significant role in union gallery operations. Patel hires a student manager who is responsible for facilitating most aspects of the exhibits. The student manager communicates with the artists, completes necessary contracts, installs the show, and organizes catering for opening receptions. The manager’s role is expandable or contractible, Patel said, “depending on how assertive the student is” (personal communication, April 20, 2006). Often those hired as student managers are interested in the programming aspect of the position, Patel said (personal communication, April 20, 2006). At Western Washington, students hired for the two coordinator positions at the union gallery typically have a background or prior interest in the arts, Rosenberg said (personal communication, May 18, 2006). She leaves the bulk of the decisions regarding exhibits and programming up to the coordinators, who are each hired for a one-year term. She reviews some written material on gallery procedures with them at the start of their employment; however, the majority of training is done through a peer-to-peer model, in which the outgoing coordinator spends a minimum of 10 hours training the incoming coordinator. If possible, the incoming coordinator assists in the hanging of one show during this training.

Rhodes, at the University of Maryland, does not have union responsibilities aside from gallery operations. With a background in organizing art exhibits, Rhodes was hired solely to oversee the union gallery. However, he is the only professional the gallery employs, a common arrangement according to Miller’s (2003) study. Sixty-eight percent of galleries surveyed had either one professional or none at all dedicated to the gallery (Miller, 2003).

Given his focus on the gallery, Rhodes is able to work more closely with his student employees. He hires student employees, predominantly those with art backgrounds, for general gallery work. “Half are studio majors; some are double-majors with art history. Two are non-art majors, with interests in marketing and design work … And for some, it’s just a job,” he said of his second-semester 2006 staff (personal communication, April 19, 2006). Student employees’ main responsibilities are attending to the gallery and hanging shows. Rhodes also selects a graduate assistant to play a more substantial role in the gallery’s functions. The assistant is usually affiliated with the art history or studio arts department at the University of Maryland, and the work at the union gallery is complementary to the graduate student’s academic focus. Rhodes and the gallery assistant work together to compose text for any exhibit publications and collaborate on designing exhibit layouts. The graduate assistant also communicates with artists and chooses pieces for exhibits.

Student employees are undeniably crucial to gallery operations in all three of these examples, providing support and assistance in an area where many union professionals lack knowledge. But it also is important to acknowledge what student employees gain from this work. They acquire hands-on experience in areas related to both their career and academic interests, which may include studio art, art history, marketing, programming, and community outreach.


Publicity is of little value if you cannot provide a quality experience once people arrive at the gallery. By scheduling substantive shows of undergraduate artists or organizing exhibits in conjunction with academic departments or student organizations, union less—union galleries are unequipped to book well-known artists. As a result, they are forced to devise an alternative model for exhibits.

The majority of exhibits at the Viking Union gallery feature student work, Rosenberg said (personal communication, May 18, 2006). “Western has a strong art department to showcase,” she said, explaining the reasoning behind its focus. “And then part of it is pure practicality. It’s pretty rare that we pay any artists” (personal communication, May 18, 2006), and students generally want to exhibit regardless of financial compensation. “Sometimes it’s just open-themed shows where a general call for work is put out,” she said. Occasionally, “particular classes will work collectively to put on an exhibit.”

At the Adele H. Stamp Union Gallery, Rhodes has found the most success in collaborative exhibits coordinated with academic departments and student organizations. “It brings a whole group of people that might not come otherwise,” Rhodes said (personal communication, April 19, 2006). This exhibit model is effective beyond just short-term attendance goals; it also helps establish the union gallery’s unique identity on the University of Maryland campus, which is home to other art galleries, one associated with the Art Department and possessing a bigger budget. This gallery, called simply the Art Gallery, has referred exhibits to the union gallery.

“They do strictly fine arts shows,” Rhodes said of the Art Gallery (personal communication, April 19, 2006). “So things that might not be appropriate for them, they pass on to us. We’re able to be more flexible. That’s one of the nice things about the space; we’re not so strict in what we can do.” Some of the past exhibits at the Stamp gallery that would not have shown at another campus gallery include one celebrating the 150th anniversary of the University of Maryland physics department, an exhibit organized by the Student Programming Board in which Tibetan monks built a sand mandala, and an exhibit organized to coincide with a U.S. conference of landscape architects held at the University of Maryland. By deliberately showing work that falls outside of other galleries’ exhibit genres, rather than exhibits that merely mimic ones at larger galleries, the union gallery is able to create a market niche for itself, increasing its visibility and desirability on campus and off. Of all the possibilities for the union gallery, Rhodes feels this model is the most promising, and he hopes to develop more collaborative projects. “That’s the area of growth that we’re looking at,” he said (personal communication, April 19, 2006).

Acknowledging that many people on college campuses suffer from a kind of information overload, gallery staff can provide consistency in their scheduling and publicity efforts. Before Patel became assistant director of operations at the Busch Center, exhibits at the art gallery ran on a sporadic schedule. “It was very haphazard,” said Patel (personal communication, April 20, 2006). “We never planned the academic year in advance.” Exhibits were on display for two weeks, and opening receptions were held on inconsistent days, depending on each show’s schedule. With hopes of increasing attendance, Patel addressed this issue of consistency, making sure that people know exactly what they will find at the gallery and when they will find it. Exhibits are now scheduled ahead, ideally a full academic year before they go up. Openings are scheduled for the first Tuesday of each month, at the same time, without variation. Shows are on display for a longer period of time—three and a half to four weeks, as opposed to the previous length of two weeks—allowing potential visitors a longer window of time to learn about the show and view it. The average exhibit length at the galleries Miller (2003) surveyed was between four and six weeks.

Finding a niche

These examples, all located at public universities, are not meant to be representative of all union galleries. But what these three examples make clear is that the success of a union gallery depends on several factors working together effectively. Union galleries will probably never occupy the same role that a larger art museum or fine arts gallery does on campus. They will most likely never have full-time staffs of more than one or two professionals. Union professionals with student programming, rather than art, backgrounds will most likely run them, and their student staffs will renew themselves each year. These three examples illustrate that such conditions do not have to be detrimental.

Patel’s situation shows that union galleries can be rehabilitated even after periods of neglect or disarray, their schedules reevaluated and reinvigorated. The staffing structure at the Viking Union art gallery shows that informed and invested student coordinators can take the place of one full-time professional, as well as be a source of institutional knowledge. Rhodes’ decision to focus on collaborative exhibits shows one possible direction for union galleries still struggling to define their roles and audiences on campus. Consistency in programming, uniqueness of exhibit content, effective publicity and marketing, adequate staff dedication, and knowledgeable student employees are all necessary to make the union gallery stand out.


Miller, M. (2003). Art galleries in campus student unions: A study of current practices. [Unpublished thesis]. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University.