Too often, dreams and aspirations must be set aside for practicality and security, or practicality and security are sacrificed for the pursuit of dreams and aspirations. Happily for Sheryl Gillilan—new executive director for Art Access/VSA—this has not been the case.
After earning a Master of Law and Social Policy degree from Bryn Mawr College—as well as a Master of Social Service from the same university, along with a Bachelor of Arts from Lewis & Clark College in psychology—Gillilan was well prepared for a promising career in social work. However, another interest and passion motivated her, and that was fine art. How the two seemingly unrelated fields might unite was unknown to Gillilan, until she found a home at the Utah affiliate of VSA (The International Organization on Arts and Disability) in 2004 and was named as the executive director this October. Gillilan believes above all else that “art should be made accessible to everyone in the community”—and at Art Access, she is able to accomplish just that.
Gillilan has an acute social empathy. “Everyone has a story to tell, and here you don’t tell it through words, you tell it through art,” she says.
Art Access, located on the west side of Salt Lake City across from the Road Home shelter, is a place where the art deals with difficult issues, by artists who are dealing with difficult issues. This keen social sensitivity suits Gillilan perfectly as executive director and allows for a renewed energy and focus for the aims and ambitions of Art Access.
Gillilan’s primary focus is to make Art Access even more accessible. “I want to bring it out into the community,” she says. “I like talking to people; I am passionate about our mission, so it is really easy for me to sell it because I believe in it.”
Gillilan’s passion for art and diversity is channeled concertedly to those with disabilities, and the outreach programs at Art Access are a benefit to many who are disenfranchised in the community. Giving a voice to the marginalized through art, and showcasing that voice through exhibitions and workshops, has always been the core of the Art Access philosophy. Gillilan’s new leadership and experience only galvanizes this further, with her aim being to bring this work into the community. “I love working with emerging artists who are just trying to figure out who they are, and I can watch them grow,” she says.
Gillilan and her team are engaged in new ways to implement the outreach programs, educational programs, student workshops, programs for adults with disabilities, and literary- and theater-arts programs. This curriculum, which Gillilan and her staff are deeply involved with, is a benefit to many in the community who would otherwise not experience the joys of art. It’s also a chance for Gillilan to fully utilize her talents, as she encourages her staff to “consistently think of new ideas and new opportunities to implement them.” Inner Salt Lake City is a multi-dynamic community, she says, and Art Access is a malleable institution that molds to this community as well as the professional and personal qualities that Gillilan brings to it. She says, “If it is not malleable, it is stagnant.”
Gillilan welcomes the complexity of perspectives that come from a diversity of artistic voices. “If you get diverse people together and you have interesting conversations about art, we all benefit from that,” she says. “We welcome all of these conversations and these stories that are told through art.”
One impact already felt under the new directorship of Gillilan was the enormously successful Art Access Holiday Show, featured during the Nov. 18 Gallery Stroll. Gillilan intends to “make Gallery Stroll an event where it appeals to everyone, with music, with food and with art … a gathering place,” she says. The evening was a pleasure, with a casual and uplifting atmosphere where people of all types and ages strolled the gallery, enjoyed live music and sampled food from the vending truck outside. People wandered from art space to art space in the large complex—Art Access is connected to others such as the Utah Arts Festival Gallery, with whom Art Access coordinated to make the evening eventful and entertaining.
As for her hopes for the future of Art Access, Gillilan says, “By the time I leave Art Access, I would like to leave the organization better than I found it … and that goes back to my parents’ philosophy that when you go camping, you leave it cleaner than when you found it. I would hope the next person who takes over from me would leave it in better shape than I leave it.”
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