Phyllis Gill gallery: an unexpected legacy

Jimmy Lai/ Highlander
Jimmy Lai/ Highlander

Riverside is known as “the city of arts and innovation,” and at UCR we do a lot to uphold this reputation. From the Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside to the treasures on campus, there’s plenty contributions to artistic culture. One such gem is the small and lesser-known Phyllis Gill Gallery.

John Divola first met Phyllis Gill in 1989, when he first came to Riverside to teach as a professor in the art department, where Gill was working as the administrative assistant. Divola describes her as “a remarkable human being, a person that that remembered everybody. She remembered everyone’s phone number not only their name. She knew everybody and everybody knew her.”

Gill retired a decade ago, but left behind her an unexpected legacy in the art department. At first, I thought it strange that an art gallery on campus should be named after an administrative worker, rather than an artist or professor.

However, hearing Divola describe how Gill made such a positive impact on people’s daily lives, it started to make all the sense in the world that this is the kind of person who should be honored with an art gallery. Someone who remembers birthdays, someone who is always friendly, someone who cared about every student.

“She was the heart and soul of the department,” Divola shared, “so when it came time to name the gallery, it seemed fitting.” She worked in the department for over three decades after graduating from UCR with a BA in English. Phyllis still lives at her home in Riverside today.

The gallery that shares her name is on the third floor of the arts building. Before its time as a gallery, it was a seminar room.

Gallery submissions are open to all students, even non-art majors, though ideally they should be taking classes within the departments. “It’s a very liberal curation process,” Divola commented. Essentially the department looks for pieces that show self-expression and investigative thinking.

It’s an informal exhibition process — an experimental space where students have a chance to show their work and start a conversation about art. Although we have the Culver Center downtown, there are advantages to having a smaller space on campus. For one, it can be a quick trip in between classes. It also creates a space for students to be exposed to artwork from their peers on campus in a way that encourages conversation.

“That’s really one of our challenges,” admits Divola, “to generate some sense of community among the students.” The gallery helps to facilitate that community closer to home.

Displays typically last a week, which allows the department to showcase many different students’ work throughout the year, and in turn keeps weekly visits fresh.

The department encourages experimental pieces to showcase. One of the more experimental pieces the gallery has ever displayed, Divola shared, were giant phalluses, which required precautionary signs leading into the gallery.

On an average week though, the work isn’t that kind of scene. It ranges from photography to more traditional pieces. Whatever is on display though, it is sure to be thought-provoking at the very least.

The gallery is not open during the summer, but around this time proposals will start coming in and the first exhibition will be on display by week two of the quarter.

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