'A borderless museum': Kemler to lead GVSU Galleries and Collections, continue commitment to infusing university grounds with art

Nathan Kemler
Nathan Kemler
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts


Nathan Kemler is the new director for Grand Valley's Galleries and Collections, a designation that takes on a unique significance considering how vast those galleries and collections are.

Kemler will oversee a continuous display of art throughout 130 buildings and grounds in six different locations. About 50 percent of the 19,000 pieces of art Grand Valley manages is on display, Kemler noted. Most museums have around 10 percent of their collection on display at any given time.

"Art is everywhere on campus. It is a borderless museum," Kemler said. "The stories don't stop and start, they are continuous throughout our community at Grand Valley. You leave one building and go into the next and the story continues."

That commitment to surrounding the Grand Valley community with art and making it accessible to all is a core value of the university and an important reason why Kemler wanted to lead the Art Gallery.

Kemler replaces founding director Henry Matthews, who is now serving as distinguished university associate, Galleries and Collections, within University Development. Kemler had been serving as interim director until the recent permanent appointment.

"I came to Grand Valley for a particular reason that has kept me here over the 12 years, and that is a barrier-free vision of artwork in public spaces, which is a core concept I value," Kemler said. "I believe art tells the story of the whole human experience, therefore I believe art matters because we matter. It's a catalyst for social change.

"What Grand Valley has is a unique model that is not seen very often. You cannot move through Grand Valley without encountering artwork. I get excited when I think about what this collection is and what it could be, in particular how it can be used."

While at Grand Valley, Kemler has served as collections manager, curator of collections management, assistant director and then interim director before this appointment. He said over a 20-year career in the museum field, he has worked in every aspect, from collection care and curation to working with community partners and donors.

He said he has also sought out leadership programs that have helped him hone his adaptive leadership skills, helping him find ways to empower others while the entire team responds to the changes produced in a rapidly evolving world.

That wide-ranging experience will be an asset for the Art Gallery's future, said Ed Aboufadel, associate vice president for academic affairs.

"Nathan brings extensive experience in the museum field, including the collection and exhibition of artwork," Aboufadel said. "He is well-known across the state for his leadership of the Michigan Museums Association. Nathan’s collaborative leadership style will be critically important to the Art Gallery as we move forward in the 2020s."

As Kemler eyes what's next, he said digital initiatives and big data will be critically important to the Art Gallery's future. He wants Grand Valley to continue as a leader in innovation that ensures accessibility on digital platforms.

He also is excited about continuing current collaborations and finding new ones. One of the upcoming collaborations is with the Muskegon Museum of Art and the local Anishinaabe community to provide a platform for Anishinaabe artists to tell their own stories rather than have someone tell it for them, he said.

A continuing partnership and point of pride for Kemler is the collection of work from contemporary artists in the Chicago area. He said Grand Valley has assembled a top-tier contemporary art collection through this collaboration and that the artists are especially pleased with Grand Valley's commitment to showing work rather than storing it.

He said this contemporary collection is "challenging" for those who view it, yet it also shows the power of art when a viewer is engaging with it.

"Art is such a strong tool for communication," he said. "You can get through very challenging dialogues and perspectives through art in a safe way because you can find a common cause."

That notion is also why Kemler wants to focus on collections that, as he said, "are reflective of the learning values of the university," such as social justice and stories of empathy. He envisions collecting a variety of art, from sculptures to sketches, that specifically address those issues.