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Faculty Spotlight: Bruce Austin


Faculty Spotlight

For Bruce Austin, many of his academic ventures have originated from asking questions that he couldn't find a ready answer for.

"I had certain questions that I wanted to answer and the answer to the questions required original research as opposed to term papers," said Austin, who became a professor of communications at RIT in 1976.

When Austin arrived at RIT, there was no department of communications and the course he taught, Conference Techniques, was a general education class for other majors.

"It wasn't exactly the teaching position that I would have chosen for myself," said Austin. "It was essentially teaching a small group communications class."

Still, the situation turned out to be advantageous for Austin and his future endeavors. Teaching multiple sections of the same course every quarter afforded Austin time to explore academic questions outside of the classroom.

"I got here at a really good time," said Austin. "It allowed me to flex in a certain way that I could really open up my own research."

This freedom encouraged Austin to explore concepts and perspectives that he found underrepresented.

"I did research on sort of oddball subjects," said Austin. "Most of my research had to do with media audiences and pretty quickly I focused on theatrical motion pictures."

The same curiosity that drove Austin's interest in theatrical film audiences inspired his most recent venture: an exhibit on the work of Frans Wildenhain.

'Frans Wildenhain 1950-75: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century' explores a quarter century of Wildenhain's work, totaling approximately 150 pieces. Shown simultaneously at the Bevier Gallery and Dyer Arts Center, the display began August 20 and will continue through October 2.

The opening reception for the exhibition is September 7 from at 5 p.m. in the Bevier Gallery.

Wildenhain was a founding faculty member of the School of American Craftsmen at RIT. He worked at the school for two decades, producing numerous works. He was also a partner in Shop One, a Rochester craft store that opened in 1953. Shop One served as a retail space and gallery for unique pieces by Wildenhain and other area craftsmen before closing in 1977.

Shop One was a piece of Wildenhain lore that resonated the most strongly with Austin.

"I knew that Shop One was downtown and I knew that it was a craft store and that they only sold crafts," said Austin. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'How did they do that?'

The question was driven by the question of economics, and tied to the inclusion of 'commercial' in the exhibit title.

"How do you start a store that's only going to sell crafts in a medium-sized market like Rochester and expect to make a go of it?" said Austin.

His attempt to answer his questions about Wildenhain motivated Austin to complete an exhibit that would commemorate this unique RIT connection to one of the most influential midcentury master ceramicists.

"I was aware of Wildenhain but didn't know too much about him," said Austin, who lives only a mile and a half from Wildenhain's former home in the area.

The original idea for an exhibit was much smaller in scale, as Austin intended to contact collectors to borrow a total of only about 50 pieces. He expected that it would occupy a single gallery and be accompanied by a simple pamphlet.

Austin found his original proposal met with a fairly tepid response before receiving some fortuitous good news.

Robert Johson, a former optical engineer at Kodak, was one of the most extensive collectors of Wildenhain's work. In 2010, Johson donated his collection of over 300 Wildenhain pieces to RIT's Archive Collections.

"Once I knew [Johnson's collection] was coming I took my modest idea and made it a much bigger idea," said Austin. "I wanted to present Wildenhain and his work because there hasn't been a retrospective on his work in almost 30 years."

Austin's rejuvenated proposal now spanned two galleries with an exhibition catalogue of approximately 300 pages, including 150 color photographs of the pottery, replacing the pamphlet.

The two galleries that house the Wildenhain collection provide more than a means of displaying so many works; the exhibit spaces serve as a bridge to connect two unique aspects of the RIT identity.

Here's a great opportunity to put them on display, connect the two galleries and two very important components of RIT life: deaf and hard of hearing culture as well as RIT's arts and crafts dimension," said Austin.

The logistics of the unprecedented exhibition of Wildenhain's work meant that Austin required numerous sources of support and assistance. The College of Liberal Arts was the preeminent sponsor of the event and even students from the college contributed as interns.

"I was lucky enough to be able to work with a number of other people that were really invested in the project," said Austin. "I think it's rare to find such a terrific combination of talented people."

Steve Bodnar (MS Communications and Media Technologies) used his professional journalism experience to help with creating promotional materials and the publicity campaign for the exhibit.

Three students from the museum studies program, Hanna Stoehr, Kelly Anderson and Alicia Treat also assisted Austin with designing the exhibit space and floor plans during the spring and summer quarters.

"It really became something that I thought up and I headed up but relied upon the assistance and cooperation of a lot of different people," said Austin.

As a way of giving back to the RIT community, Austin has decided to donate revenue from the sales of the exhibition catalogue to a fund for undergraduate and graduate research. The research projects must meet two criteria: they must have a strong relationship to RIT's institutional history and involve the use of archival sources. The belief is that this fund will continue to encourage future projects similar to the Wildenhain exhibition.

"It's a funding opportunity for anyone at RIT, undergraduate or graduate, who wants to a project that has a certain parallel to this project," said Austin. "I thought it would be a good way to channel revenue that's going to come from the book."