The S.B. Questionnaire: John Connelly

“People see it strictly as a student gallery,” says John Connelly of Santa Barbara City College’s Atkinson Gallery. “It’s an art lab for students, but it’s also a space where artists of historical recognition can inspire students.”   

John was recently selected as the first full-time director of the gallery, which is the SBCC Art Department’s showcase for the visual arts, hosting exhibitions of contemporary international, national, regional, and student artists each academic year. Connelly, a renowned independent curator and consultant based in Santa Barbara since 2014, is excited about his new position and expanding the scope of the gallery.  

“I want to focus on historical, seminal early work of important artists, to showcase the moment when they’re finding their voice,” explains John, who sees that as an important learning tool for students. “We will still have our annual student exhibition, but I plan on bringing guest curators as well as artists to curate exhibits.” From September 27 to December 6, the gallery is hosting a solo exhibition by artist Jane Mulfinger, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Art. 

“Ever since I moved to Santa Barbara, I was looking for something that would make sense to me as a curator,” John confides. “The Atkinson Gallery is a beautiful exhibition space. It has an annex next to the dining room, and we plan to use the entire campus as well.” 

Coincidentally, John lives next door to SBCC, and he walks to work.  “I cannot believe I work here,” he enthuses.

Born in Baltimore, John went to college in 1986 at Fordham University, where he took his first art class and started working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop. “Working at a gift shop is a great way to get to know the museum,” he recalls. 

He knew that he wanted to be around artists and study art history, but that he wasn’t an artist himself. John transferred to the State University of New York at Purchase and got a bachelor’s in art history. He made many artist friends there, as he did while interning for the New York City Arts Commission and working at the Museum of Cartoon Art’s gift shop.

Upon graduating in 1990, John found it hard to find a job. He worked at the Stein Gladstone Gallery for a couple of years and did his master’s studies at the City University of New York, Hunter College. 

From 1994 to 2002, he worked at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, starting as an archivist and artist liaison. Andrea became a mentor, and that’s where he first started curating exhibitions. He also met the artist Felix Gonzalez Torres, who will play an important role part later in John’s career.   

What does he enjoy about curating an art show? “It’s a way for me to be creative, to make a statement,” he explains. “I’m able to create a dialogue between different types of art works, and helping an artist how to edit and display their work is rewarding.”

In 2000, he started a nomadic exhibition called the John Connelly Presents Project. After a few years, he secured a permanent space and featured three artists who didn’t have New York representation. Eventually, it evolved into a permanent gallery where he was representing artists. “I had no backing,” he says. “I used my credit cards.”  

In 2005, he moved to a bigger space but off the beaten path. Then the recession hit — sales dropped by 75 percent, and the gallery limped along until 2010. That’s when John became director of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation in New York City, where he led educational and archival efforts to foster appreciation and study of the works of Gonzalez-Torres, who’d died in 1996. 

In 2014, John resigned from the position to move to Santa Barbara, where his husband, Frederick Janka, got a job at our Museum of Contemporary Art. “We live in the house Freddie grew up in,” says John, who says it was supposed to be temporary at first. “We live with my mother in law.” 

For work in Santa Barbara, John explains, “I did independent curating, advising clients on how to build and manage their collections, nationally and internationally.”

SBCC conducted a nationwide search to fill the position at the Atkinson Gallery. Lo and behold, John was less than a mile away. 

He’s very excited to be back in an academic environment, having fond memories of teaching classes on gallery management and art dealing history at the State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “I want the gallery to be more integrated with the art department,” he says. “I have interns that I’ll be mentoring on curating and gallery management.”

John Connelly answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Starting a curatorial project in New York City with no money, no backing, no physical space, and turning it into a successful art gallery. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

A prize-winning painting that my grandfather purchased in the early 1960s from a Maryland Institute of Art alumni named Ruth Levin. It is a colorful image of a blue lady surrounded by exotic birds. It hung in my grandparent’s living room and was the “fine art” that I grew up with. I feel it somehow it influenced me profoundly. 

What do you like most about your job? 

The Art Department at City College may be the first step for students interested in pursuing a career in the arts. That’s a tremendous responsibility and I want to inspire our students about the myriad of possibilities and opportunities. 

What is your greatest fear?

Hot air ballooning. 

What is your greatest extravagance?

Collecting art. 

Who do you most admire?

Dolly Parton, because of her talent and goodness. 

What is your current state of mind? 

9 to 5. 

What is the quality you most like in people? 

Honesty and the ability to listen. 

What is the quality you most dislike in people? 

Narcissism. 

What do you most value in friends? 

A connection to our common interests and a support network you can truly rely on. 

What is your most marked characteristic? 

Being reserved and thoughtful. 

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

I’m told I ask “Why?” too much. 

Which talent would you most like to have? 

Acting. I was a budding thespian in high school but always got the minor parts like “thief.” I wanted so badly to be an actor, but it is a talent that one cannot fake. 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I’d be a morning person instead of a night owl. 

Where would you most like to live? 

In my 20s, it used to be New York or Paris, but now I don’t know. I seem to be pretty happy 

in Santa Barbara at the moment. 

What makes you laugh the most? 

Reruns of Will and Grace and The Golden Girls

What is your motto? 

When in doubt, leave it out. 

On what occasion do you lie? 

I try to never lie. It always ends up badly. 

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