Arts & Theater

She’s bringing UC Davis art into a new era

She has curated exhibitions in high-density cities such as San Francisco and San Diego. But now, surrounded by fields and the small-town vibe of Davis, Rachel Teagle says she has found an ideal spot in the art world.

Teagle, 46, came on board in August 2012 as founding director of UC Davis’ Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, a $30 million project that opens to the public on Nov. 13 and is expected to take UC Davis’ rich artistic legacy into a new era, and with more public access than ever before. This combination of sophisticated art appreciation and rural landscapes speaks directly to Teagle, who is a Missouri native.

“When I flew in for the (job) interview, I loved flying into Sacramento,” said Teagle, in between sips of tea at Mishka’s Cafe in downtown Davis. “I saw the farmland, and … when we were looking for a house, I wanted a view of the farmland. I felt like coming to Davis was coming home in a way.”

Teagle was hired a starting salary of $185,000 annually to oversee a museum with more than 75,000 square feet of space. Its opening exhibition, “Out Our Way,” will showcase more than 200 pieces from UC Davis’ pioneering art faculty, including Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley.

Along with its longtime reputation as a school with strong agricultural and veterinary programs, UC Davis is renowned in the art world for its progressive spirit and wry humor, especially in the realm of ceramics, which fueled the Funk Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Artistic matters didn’t pique Teagle’s interest until she was a young adult. She took her first college art class as a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. Teagle was so inspired by professor Angela Miller that art soon became her calling. Teagle ultimately earned a doctorate in contemporary art history from Stanford University.

“For me, it was all in college, and that’s another reason why I feel connected to (UC Davis),” Teagle said about the origins of her love for art. “In college … I learned that art could have meaning on parallel with literature but in a different way. It was a completely new concept to me and so impactful. The language of images was all around us.”

Teagle has spent the bulk of her professional career in California, including serving as director of Stanford University’s Anderson Art Collection from 1998 to 2000. She also worked as a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 2000 to 2001, before moving to San Diego. There, Teagle directed the curatorial department at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and was named in 2007 as executive director of the New Children’s Museum near San Diego Bay.

Teagle says her time at the New Children’s Museum helped form her vision for the Manetti Shrem Museum. She wants the UC Davis museum to be a place of learning for those who are just starting to discover art, yet also speak to those who’ve attended museum exhibitions for years or are artists themselves. The Manetti Shrem Museum, in perhaps the ultimate expression of accessibility, will have free admission. The museum will also host an art-themed pizza party for UC Davis students on Nov. 12 and other hands-on experiences for visitors.

“I was really influenced in how you connect with an audience of younger people, and (I’m) excited by this opportunity to impact people at this time in their lives,” Teagle said. “We know it’s a challenge to connect to young people and have to be creative. We have to use music and other types of events that will get them to come over. A huge part of what we’re doing is growing future audiences for the arts.”

Now, after the four years she has been on the job, the museum’s ribbon-cutting nears. Opening the Manetti Shrem has required an extensive workload for Teagle, including hiring staff, setting the vision for the space and its scope and soliciting donors for the $30 million museum. About eight months before Teagle was hired, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem of San Francisco donated $10 million to the museum.

As founding director, Teagle says her job has required a tremendous amount of multitasking while setting the proper tone for staffers. Randy Roberts, deputy director of the Manetti Shrem Museum, says Teagle has been perfect for the role.

“Her vision has been extremely important to the direction of the museum,” said Roberts, who was previously the deputy director of Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum. “It’s the core of everything we’re doing, and she’s translated it very effectively to the staff. I’ve been in the museum business a long time and I’ve rarely seen a place where the staff knows the vision as much as they do here, from the building engineer to the curator, about who the audience is and what the hopes are for the future.”

Meanwhile, Teagle says that she’s enjoying the quality of life in Davis, along with her husband and two children. She has welcomed living in a city where bicycling ranks as a preferred method of transportation, farmland isn’t far away, and a rebellious artistic spirit is in the air.

“A lot of people didn’t expect that a traditionally agriculture school would have this kind of (artistic) legacy,” said Teagle. “It’s very rare to open a new museum that has a real story to tell. It’s a huge part of why I’m here.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

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