Artists make magic in The Memorial Union Gallery
The MUG showcases student, faculty artwork in the heart of campus
“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
— Pablo Picasso
Those words may have been spoken first by the famous 20th century artist, but the modern-day artist, manager and curator of the UND Art Collections has lived up to them.
Sarah Heitkamp said that even while she was a graduate art student at UND, she dreamed of bringing an art gallery to the heart of campus. The Hughes Fine Arts Center always had its own gallery, she said, but that’s just a bit off the beaten path.
“The space is great, but we just don’t have the traffic there. Unless you’re in the building for another reason, you don’t see it,” Heitkamp said. “It’s just a challenge, and I think our art students and faculty definitely deserve better exposure.”
And that’s exactly what they got with The Memorial Union Gallery — or as it’s affectionately called, The MUG.
The signage isn’t in place yet, but Heitkamp says it soon will be at the all-glass-front gallery located prominently on the main floor of the new Memorial Union.
The gallery has been in operation for five months now, but Heitkamp said it was a few years back when she first saw the blueprints for the Memorial Union and asked if a space tagged as “retail” might be reserved for a gallery instead. The idea was met with immediate enthusiasm from students, faculty and administrators, she said.
“This gallery sends the message that the University really values the arts,” Heitkamp said. “It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, where we could put a gallery in a high-traffic area where the artists are more exposed to the public and the student population.
“It’s so incredibly rewarding to see our students have such a beautiful space to display their artwork. It’s professional. It’s contemporary. It photographs beautifully. Everything about it is pretty spectacular.”
What’s more unique, Heitkamp said, is the students have a big part in operating it. “Of course, I oversee it and train and mentor, but the students are really in charge of it from day to day,” she said.
The bright and roomy gallery — with its simple wood-slat observation benches and its supersized artist statement stretching the height of one wall — certainly is hard to miss. But if you’ve somehow managed to bypass it so far, Heitkamp says you should swing a right at the center of the Memorial Union the next time you enter from the north. Gallery hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
What’s so special about it?
Heitkamp manages 30,000-plus pieces of artwork in the permanent UND Art Collections. And at any given time, she says up to 1,500 pieces rotate through the Living Art Museum — comprised of regular exhibit spaces in buildings across campus — along with the downtown Empire Arts Center Gallery and another gallery on the second floor of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.
The MUG is different, Heitkamp said, in that it’s reserved for artwork by current students, faculty and visiting artists — the latter of which is made possible through the UND Department of Art & Design’s Visiting Artists Program and the Myers Foundations.
Just last week, the gallery hosted an opening reception for artwork by visiting international artist Shona Macdonald, whose “ghosts, darkly” exhibit explores the effect the land has on thought and feeling.
In her artist’s statement, Macdonald says her images in drawing and painting “are derived from discreet, overlooked aspects of the natural and manmade world and expand beyond the depiction of specific locations.”
To the casual observer, the shrouded images in her artwork appear to be both eerie and hauntingly beautiful. But that’s what makes it so interesting, Heitkamp said.
“The artist really focuses on capturing these almost ephemeral images of just everyday things like rocks and trees. You don’t know what you’re looking at until you get up close, and it starts to come into focus,” Heitkamp said. “Some of what makes it so good is the mystery of it. As soon as you start wondering how that artist even got there, you know that you’re looking at something special.
“The art is already making you think and imagine all sorts of things you never imagined you would think when you first walked into the gallery. Art is magic that way.”
The magic — and the exhibit — will continue through April 1.
Meantime, Heitkamp and her students are making some of their own magic as they explore new and different ways to create more interactive art experiences through technology such as video, moving text and QR codes that can queue up the voice of artists talking about their work.
“Immersive art is a totally different way of experiencing art, and that’s really a focus for us going forward,” Heitkamp said. “We can elevate the experience by getting that science and technology involved.”
In fact, the gallery’s inaugural showcase, “Land Art: A Partnership with Nature,” was an interactive exhibit in collaboration with Graduate Program Director and Professor Patrick Luber and his sculpture students. When COVID-19 shut down classes in 2020, Luber’s students went outside to get creative. They used items found in nature to create artwork.
Gallery visitors were able to not only view photographs of the outdoor sculptures but also were invited to create their own masterpieces on the spot out of stones, twigs, sand and pinecones. That artwork then was photographed and shared via social media, Heitkamp said.
Coming up next
In April, the gallery will feature artwork from the nationally renowned all-female Guerilla Girls art collective. The anonymous group of feminist artists, who are known to wear gorilla masks to hide their identities, was formed in 1985 in New York City. A Wikipedia biography on the group says its mission is to bring gender and racial inequality into focus in the greater arts community.
They are known for their “guerilla” tactics such as “culture jamming in the form of posters, books, billboards and public appearances to expose discrimination and corruption.”
Whether you’re an art aficionado or a novice, Heitkamp says everyone can enjoy a visit to The MUG.
“Anyone can appreciate art. Some people just might not realize they enjoy it because they haven’t had a lot of opportunities to encounter it,” she said. “Now they have a place where they can do that. They can step away, take a breath and enjoy a quiet moment in the gallery before getting back to their studies.”
MORE INFO: You can see the latest about The MUG and its upcoming exhibits and programs by following “UNDartcollectionsofficial” on Instagram or “UND Art Collections” on Facebook.