By Alexandra Zigomalas
When Karen Levitov (ΦBK, University of Wisconsin-Madison,1991) came to the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University, she brought ambition, expertise, and a passion for the arts to an otherwise science-oriented campus.
Levitov consistently approaches the gallery as both its director and curator with excitement. “The wonderful thing about the Paul W. Zuccaire gallery is that I have a lot of autonomy,” she said. “It is really fun to be able to work with artists, some of these artists who I have known for a long time or have admired for a long time and wanted to work with, and I now have the opportunity to do so.”
Because of Levitov’s experience and the environment of the gallery, she has been able to take a risk on the newest exhibition: ANTIFORM: Packer, Patrick & Ros. Unlike most of the shows that Levitov produces, ANTIFORM goes against the grain. It is a combination of three experimental artists who all work in New York City but who have never done a show together. However, Levitov knew each of these artists separately and was confident in their ability to come together and transform the gallery space.
“I was familiar with the artists’ work, so I trusted that they would do something really interesting in the gallery,” Levitov said. “Two of them wanted to do work that was completely on site using objects that they found in and around this building, so I did not know what this show was going to be until the day it opened.”
ANTIFORM was certainly a challenging and exciting risk for the gallery. However, no one doubted Levitov’s ability to create a successful show. This was because she got her start at a much larger institution, on Museum Mile in New York City.
Beginning her PhD in art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Levitov found herself at Stony Brook University after her advisor moved to Long Island. After Levitov finished her PhD coursework, she was encouraged to apply for a curatorial position at the Jewish Museum, which is a mid-sized museum on 5th Avenue in New York City. Although she had experience from working at a museum in Wisconsin, she was now able to work on much larger exhibitions showcasing artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Henri Matisse.
While at the Jewish Museum, Levitov learned from the chief curator and her mentor, Norman Kleeblatt. Levitov described Kleeblatt as a “throw you into the lions’ den kind of mentor,” but also as an inspirational curator who helped shape both the Jewish Museum and her career.
“Norman Kleeblatt was really a great influence because he did shows that were extremely ambitious and challenging, and not expected—I think that was a big influence on me, and how I curate now,” Levitov observed. “He set the precedent for the Jewish Museum being somewhere that showcased art that was very thoughtful and intellectually challenging and that went outside the boundaries of what one would think a Jewish museum should show.”
After twelve years at the Jewish Museum, Levitov returned to Stony Brook in 2014. Although she left mentors like Kleeblatt behind, she has incorporated her experiences into making the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery her own. She is ambitious and thoughtful, and this can be seen throughout ANTIFORM.
Levitov enjoys using her position as curator and director to reach students across Stony Brook’s diverse campus. She employs students not only in the arts but also in the sciences, such as biomedical engineering. As a Phi Beta Kappa member, Levitov values the responsibility of helping the next generation of potential members.
“Phi Beta Kappa is an organization that is really interested in creating leaders and in networking the leaders that they create,” Levitov said. “Being accessible is part of what I want to do on a college campus—both to have the gallery accessible, but also to be accessible as a mentor. I want students to feel comfortable coming in to talk to me about whether they’re interested in going into museum work or into art history graduate programs. That is part of where I think an organization like Phi Beta Kappa can be an inspiration to others.”
Alexandra Zigomalas is a junior at Stony Brook University double majoring in history and art history. Stony Brook University is home to the Alpha Beta of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.