AMHERST – After nearly 18 years at the helm of the largest art gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Loretta Yarlow will retire from the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) at the end of June.
Yarlow, who came to the Valley from New York, where she was director of exhibitions at the Pratt Institute, led a significant expansion and expansion of UMCA’s collection while establishing a number of programs to build greater connections with local and regional artists, as well as students and teachers.
UMass officials also credit Yarlow for her strong financial skills, winning a number of key grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, and tripling UMCA’s budget during her tenure, in part by cultivating donors.
In a recent phone call, Yarlow said she is especially proud of building the UMCA’s collection, including attracting work from more women artists and artists of color and in featuring some of that work in new exhibitions.
But now, she said, she’s ready for a change — and she believes the museum is in a good place for a new director to step in.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Yarlow said. “It felt like it was time. I’m leaving when I’m healthy and when I think we’ve really succeeded in putting the museum on the map as an important place for contemporary art.”
Indeed, Yarlow sees growing the university’s art collection — it now includes more than 3,600 objects — as a key part of her efforts at UMCA. She organized the museum’s current exhibition, Sixty Years of Collecting, to highlight the beginnings of this collection on campus, as well as its diversity.
“It’s a public collection,” she said. “It belongs to me and you, it belongs to the students and the faculty, really everyone.”
Yarlow also coined the name of the museum in 2010, after it had previously been known simply as the University Gallery.
In a statement, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said Yarlow not only added works by renowned artists to UMCA’s collection, but also made the museum a key part of the area’s arts community.
“Loretta’s efforts to integrate the museum into the larger community have become a point of pride for the campus,” the provost said, “as well as an important way to cultivate — and maintain — new relationships.”
During his tenure, Yarlow developed the Collection Dialogue program, in which local artists create exhibits using works from the UMCA vaults as replicas. She also built partnerships and collaborations with UMass faculty across disciplines, leading to new courses for students in areas such as museum studies.
In an email she sent to staff at the university’s Center for Fine Arts, FAC Executive Director Jamila Deria recounted a conversation she had with New York sculptor Leonardo Drew, who had an exhibit at UMCA in 2019. Deria said she asked Wood what brought him to the region, and Wood said, “I’m here for one reason, and that reason is Loretta Yarlow.”
“From that meeting until today,” Deria told FAC staff, “I have witnessed Loretta make a difference, open doors and help create new opportunities for our students, campus and region. I feel very fortunate to have common paths with her, to have worked alongside her and learned from her.”
Prior to her time at Pratt Institute, Yarlow worked in a number of positions, including as director and curator at York University Art Gallery in Toronto. She and her husband also owned a private art gallery in Toronto for several years, an experience that Yarlow says gave her a good handle on the business side of art.
“Working at York University and then at Pratt, I really understood that teaching is a key part of any university museum, and I wanted that to be part of what we did at UMCA,” she said. “Our students are our next generation of artists.”
Yarlow has assembled many notable exhibits during her time at UMass, including the first-ever print exhibition of New York artist Nicole Eisenman, who is better known for her painting and sculpture. Yarlow says Eisenman will soon open his second exhibition of prints at the Print Center New York in Manhattan.
She notes that she and her “small but dedicated” staff at UMCA have already planned exhibitions through 2025, and she thinks she will lend a hand as needed for those exhibitions after she officially retires from UMass on June 30 .
Could she be a guest curator at some point? “I would love that,” said Yarlow, who plans to stay involved in other ways with the arts community.
UMass officials say the FAC will appoint an interim UMCA director and begin a search for Yarlow’s successor in the coming months.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]