After ten years of student and local art exhibitions, Matchbox Gallery is officially rebranding to Inferno Gallery, Inferno for short.
Perhaps the mysterious Sewall Art stickers are meant to serve as indicators for Sewall’s tiny gallery, tucked away in the courtyard. Accessible through the second floor (also known as, to the confusion of many freshmen, the floor below the quad entrance) and a sloping outdoor staircase, Inferno is the only student-run gallery on campus. Under the leadership of Lovett College senior and director Suzanne Zeller, Inferno marks a new stage in the gallery’s long history.
When Chris Sperandio, then Studio Art Director of Undergraduate Studies, arrived in 2008, he found an absence of student-run spaces. To rectify the issue, Sperandio proposed converting his second floor office into a 1,600 square foot student-run gallery – a proposal promptly approved and executed. Aptly named for its small size, Matchbox Gallery and Art Space held its inaugural exhibition, “For Uncle Buddy with Love” by Erin Rouse (Wiess ‘10) on Sept. 29, 2009.
“It’s a space for self-directed exploration, and it really fits the bill in terms of being a very viable exhibition venue [where] our students [can] learn the ropes,” Sperandio said. “Understanding what an exhibition is, is part of being an artist, and it’s part of art training.”
According to Zeller, students direct and design the gallery with little assistance and have been doing so since the gallery’s founding. The students’ work includes spackling the gallery walls, hanging or installing the artwork and developing the branding and marketing for the artwork. In this spirit of student independence, Sperandio said he takes a mostly hands-off approach with the gallery. Chair of the VADA Department John Sparagana said he shared this hands-off approach.
“The [VADA] department typically contributes $1000 [to Inferno] per year, sometimes more if its called for,” Sparagana said. “We meet with the director or co-directors initially, and we are available if support is needed, but we try to stay out of their way.”
RENOVATIONS AND DEVELOPMENTS
In 2010, the Thresher reported on Matchbox’s Envision Grant, which offered awards of up to $2,500 to students with community-enriching ideas. Logan Beck (Hanszen ‘10) applied for and received the grant, which he said he used to install track lighting, improve walls, and expand marketing.
“It was a really happy day when I found out that I got the grant,” Beck said in 2010. “What it means is that not only is this something that the students are behind, but also that Rice sees this as something that needed to happen. And its success speaks for itself.”
The Envision Grant transformed Matchbox from a hole-filled black box into a white-walled room with appropriate lighting. However, it wasn’t until 2013 that the gallery became the modern space it is today. With the help of VADA professor Karin Broker, the gallery won the Bill Wilson Student Initiative Grant. According to Matchbox’s website, this grant helped partially fund the gallery’s glass backdoor.
Despite Matchbox’s small budget and need for external grants, Sperandio said he has remained optimistic.
“Artists are used to making do with next to nothing. I don’t know that any amount of money would improve the opportunities that the students are already getting,” Sperandio said. “In putting together an exhibition, what is it that you want to say – who is it that you want to reach? And that challenge remains, whether you’ve got a budget of $10 or a budget of $10,000.”
NO MATCH FOR MATCH GALLERY
Ten years later, the name Matchbox has run its course. According to Sperandio, the time has come for students to reclaim naming rights.
“It seems fair to me as a student-run gallery, [the students] should decide what the gallery is called,” Sperandio said.
In addition to this reclamation, Sperandio referenced Midtown art gallery DiverseWorks’ MATCH as a more timely reason for a rebrand, as MATCH refers to its smaller theaters as Matchboxes – an unfortunate coincidence.
“It has led to a lot of confusion over the years, where we’ve had performers showing up to Matchbox Gallery expecting to perform here that night,” Sperandio said. “A city the size of Houston with two spaces named the same thing within a mile of each other is ridiculous.”
MATCH’s Executive Director Chuck Still said he was unaware of the conflict.
“As for confusing our Matchboxes with the Matchbox Gallery, we haven’t really experienced that problem, at least as far as the Box Office remembers,” Still said. “I hope [Rice VADA isn’t] changing the name on our account.”
With the pressure of Matchbox’s rebranding now on her shoulders, Zeller spent the beginning of her directorship conferring with her friends and VADA peers. A summer of brainstorming later, Zeller came up with the concept for Inferno.
“I was trying to think of names that would carry a visual link to the old gallery [name],” Zeller said. “Matchbox, of course, has matches and fire, which led me to Inferno.”
However, Inferno’s final logo carries ties beyond fire imagery, according to Zeller.
“When you call something ‘Inferno,’ people are going to think about Dante’s Inferno,” Zeller said. “I found a lot of drawings by Sandro Botticelli, and I found this one disembodied Gorgon head that I really liked.”
Lovett College senior Helena Martin executed Zeller’s vision, creating visuals based off the Gorgon head.
“[Suzanne and I] talked a lot about medieval and Renaissance imagery of hell and devils, though we decided to stay away from overly theistic imagery,” Martin said. “Some of the main ideas we touched on were using illuminated writing, tarot cards, stained glass windows and trying to reference the history of the gallery through design.”
A FUTURE FOR INFERNO
Zeller said that she does not foresee any major changes to the gallery beyond the rebranding, but that she plans to continue to emphasize prioritizing student art on campus. According to Zeller, a call for submissions has been put out, and exhibitions will begin in early October. The gallery’s uniquely small size continues to provide a prime space for installations and environmental pieces.
“For what Inferno is about, the scale feels right,” Sparagana said. “Interesting things can happen in a small space.”
The gallery’s success invites more discussion about the future of VADA and student art on campus. With the removal of Rice Gallery and the addition of the Moody Center, the state of VADA is in greater flux than ever – and like before, Sperandio said he is dreaming bigger.
“10 years down the road, I would like to see a proper fine arts building for studio, film, photography and theater that houses a proper facility for the department and also has a beautiful, ground-floor gallery space for the students to manage,” said Sperandio. “That’s where we should be in ten years– [it’s] where we should be in two years.”
This article was edited on Sept. 13, 2018. Chris Sperandio was formerly Studio Track Director – the current director is Lisa Lapinski.