Rachel O’Connor started big—very big.
When she succeeded Terrie Hosey as the curator of the Art Association of Harrisburg in January, the first show she hung was the mammoth annual membership show, the perennially popular “Figuratively Speaking”—51 pieces depicting the figure in all manner of media, filling the historic building’s myriad rooms and halls.
“I’m a very cautious person,” said O’Connor. “But at the same time, there’s something inside of myself that’s like, no, jump into the deep end without any floaties.”
She seized the opportunity to work in Harrisburg while wrapping up graduate work at the Savannah College of Art and Design in January 2016.
“I was in the last semester of my second year,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming. The art world is really hard to get into, so I thought—this is my foot getting in the door.”
This first step into the world of art was, literally, like coming home.
O’Connor attended Cumberland Valley High School and already had studied with HACC and Messiah College professors. She even got to work in the art mecca of New York City, when, as an intern, she co-curated a show at the New York Center for Art and Media Studies.
With all of this experience, the year she spent as assistant curator at the Art Association provided O’Connor with plenty of opportunities to contemplate.
“What does it mean to be a curator in a small institution, in a smaller city?” she said. “How do I shift my thinking from what it always was when I was in school—‘I want to be a curator in New York City!’—which means something so different than being a curator in Harrisburg. I started to realize that there are some differences, but there also don’t have to be a lot of differences. Curating is still curating.”
For O’Connor, curating is collaborative. When it comes to placing a work within a particular context, she takes the vision of the artist into account. Part of that context also is the location of the Art Association—in Harrisburg.
“My job as the curator is to think about our audience,” she said. “Harrisburg is our audience. Whether or not Harrisburg as a city is coming in and viewing our work, it doesn’t matter. They are still our audience. So, I have to think, ‘What artist can I bring in? How can I display things in such a way where I’m caring about the city and the people who live in the city?’”
Recent collaborations with Metropolis Collective and the Makespace have brought in crowds different from those that usually visit Art Association shows, and O’Connor wants to keep cultivating those shifts.
“We’re part of the art community, but we have not been speaking to the art community,” she said.
In O’Connor, Harrisburg’s art community has a sharp-eyed, big-hearted ally.
“I really love working with living artists,” she said. “And I realized that—this sounds funny—but I actually love other artists’ work more than I love my own, and I love artists maybe even a little bit more than, or equally as much as, I love art. What can I do where I can have relationships with them and work with them and care about them?”
That is exactly what she is doing.
At the Art Association, O’Connor is particularly interested in bringing in fresh talent. As an example, from the end of February through March, the show “Impulse: Then & Now” featured five artists who studied with her in New York: Joel Daniel Phillips, Christine Aria Hostetler, Chelsea Tarnas, Heidi Wiren Bartlett and Kate Running. Tarnas and Running’s work, in particular, complemented the tension between the homey, 19th-century space of the Art Association and the clean, vivid and contemporary quality of the artwork on exhibit.
It was a clear indication not only of what O’Connor can stir up and inspire working in Harrisburg but what happens when she makes connections.
“I want to speak to the art community and say, ‘We’re all in this together. I’m with you and the Art Association is with you, and I want to work with you,’” she said.
The Art Association of Harrisburg is located at 21 N. Front St., Harrisburg. The current exhibit, “89th Annual Juried Show,” runs through June 15. For more information, visit www.artassocofhbg.com.