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February 4, 2010

Making Pitt Work: Law librarian/art impresario Marc Silverman

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 7,000 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.


An art gallery in the Barco Law Library that sprang from a distaste for empty space is continuing to draw visitors to its displays a decade later. The gallery on the library’s main floor hosts three or four shows each academic year, showcasing the work of artists and photographers from within the University community and beyond.

Marc Silverman, the law school’s associate director of public services, envisioned the gallery after some stacks were removed from the library, leaving behind bare white walls.

Officially, his library job is administrative: He manages the day-to-day details of the public side of the law library, teaches research classes and guest-lectures.

But he also has an undergraduate degree in fine arts and a master’s degree in art history.

“Rather than live with a boring space, I thought it would be nice if we could do something with this,” said Silverman.

Given the okay and a small budget, the initial exhibition appeared in 2000, featuring the work of a photographer friend of Silverman’s. “Originally, it was people I invited,” he said.

About a quarter of the artists have University ties; the rest are a mix of local and out-of-town artists.

Marc Silverman of the Barco Law Library poses in the gallery with spin art paintings.)

Marc Silverman of the Barco Law Library poses in the gallery with spin art paintings.)

Among them are former classmates of Silverman: Willie Osterman, now a photography professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Ohio-based photographer Ken Frick. Charlie Lume, who once worked for Silverman and now is a faculty member in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, has been another Barco exhibitor.

“As time went on, people started to seek me out for this. Rarely do I have to beg my friends to show their work here,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to building an artist’s resume, the shows can generate some sales. “Just about everything is for sale,” Silverman said, adding that the University takes no commission.

Not just anyone can show his or her work in the gallery. Silverman vets each artist in advance. “To hear people’s ideas and talk to them about things they want to do is interesting,” he said, adding that typically he seeks artists who have been working in their chosen medium for 15-20 years. He admits that the hardest part of the job is diplomatically turning down those whose work doesn’t meet the gallery standard. “We’re not looking for amateurs,” he said.

In the early days, Silverman had his doubts about whether his concept would take root.

“I wasn’t immediately sure whether students appreciated it,” he said, but after getting some direct feedback, as well as overhearing some of their discussions about the exhibits, he was convinced that students were paying attention and the exhibits were a valuable addition.

There has been a learning curve along the way — early on,  when Silverman used fishing line to suspend the works, hanging the shows took a couple of days. And, having a gallery inside a library space presented some unique challenges. Once, Silverman recalled there was a painting so large that it had to be brought in on a rented truck. It barely fit into the Barco building’s elevator, squeezed in diagonally.

The gallery has come a long way from plain white walls and displays hung with fishing line.

A formal gallery space with new lighting and a professional hanging system was worked into the plans when the library was renovated in 2004, creating a more professional display area in the midst of the library’s law reference collection.

Gallery preparations take time, but Silverman and his assistant Helen Jarosz are accustomed to the routine: Press releases and invitations must be prepared and catering for the opening reception arranged. Information for insurance purposes must be gathered —the University insures the artwork and, fortunately, Silverman said, nothing untoward ever has happened to any of the exhibits.

The shows are hung two or three days prior to the opening night and the process typically takes an entire day.

Some artists come in well prepared, having measured the space and mapped where each work should go. Others simply show up and allow Silverman to decide.

Above: The invitation card for the art gallery's upcoming show, which opens Feb. 12.

Above: The invitation card for the art gallery's upcoming show, which opens Feb. 12.

Shows typically are booked at least a year in advance and opening receptions usually draw 50-200 people. Currently, Silverman has shows lined up through fall 2011.

“Most people want six months to prepare,” Silverman explained. Works need to be selected and framed, or prints of photographs made and matted. And some artists choose to create work specifically for their Barco gallery show, he said.

For the most recent show, “Spin Art Meets Photographic Art” by Michael Rosella, Silverman worked closely with the artist who, over the course of two years, shot photographs to accompany carnival-style spin art paintings.

The next exhibition, “Negotiable Ambivalence,” will feature paintings and drawings, some based on ancient Roman courthouse scenes, created for the gallery by Nationality Rooms tour coordinator Michael Walter. It opens Feb. 12 and runs through May 28.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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