CHAMPAIGN — Even before Rehema Barber started her new job Oct. 1 as visiting coordinator of Figure One, she was contacting members of the arts community here.
One was Kelly White, executive director of 40 North 88 West, the Champaign County arts council.
White was impressed.
"Her energy is incredible," she said of Barber. "I think she's really going to embrace the idea of combining what the university has to offer with the community aspects of Figure One, which is crucial for where it's located."
Described as a project, or exhibition, space of the University of Illinois School of Art + Design, Figure One opened two years ago in the heart of downtown Champaign, at 116 N. Walnut St.
Figure One has had limited hours — open mainly Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Barber, an art historian and curator, hopes to change that.
She will be at Figure One from 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Figure One will be staffed by students from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays and 1 to 9 p.m. Saturdays. She will occasionally drop in then as well.
At Figure One, she wants to continue to present challenging art while helping to provide context for it.
"The goal is to have people come back and be comfortable," she said. "If you leave it up to people and they have no a priori knowledge of the art — they feel defensive.
"My philosophy is art is inclusive. It's a conversation. It's a statement. It's communication. If you don't help your audience see that, you're not doing your job fully."
Barber also wants Figure One to be a programmatic space, with educational experiences such as gallery conversations, live music, dance, and perhaps film screenings.
Figure One started mainly as an exhibition or project space for UI students and alumni. Barber also wants to show work by faculty, plus local, regional and national artists.
"Some of our local artists need exposure, and some national artists need exposure in Champaign-Urbana," she said.
Figure One had reached out to the community, mainly via a summer residency in which a UI student or recent grad worked alongside an artist from the community. Some kind of residency program will continue; Barber said she wants to study the lay of the land before making any changes.
The Figure One fall calendar was set before Barber arrived, so she will work on a spring schedule as well as other things such as "branding" and building a website. Barber is redeveloping the social media sites for the exhibition space as well.
Barber, who has classroom and museum teaching experience, is not teaching at the university but eventually will teach a course that dovetails with Figure One. She hopes to have it serve as a training ground for students.
She succeeds Jimmy Luu, an assistant professor of graphic design in the School of Art + Design. He continued to teach while serving as coordinator of Figure One.
Barber is here as a full-time visiting coordinator of Figure One, on a one-year contract that could be renewed.
"We'll see what happens," she said. "I know I came in a little late to the party, but I'm really excited about what's going on. I see a bright future."
So does Carolyn Baxley, owner of the Cinema Gallery in Urbana. Barber also met with Baxley, who said Barber will bring a solid marketing background to Figure One.
"I think it will have much more visibility under her leadership," Baxley said. "From what I can tell talking to her, she has really good ideas for connecting. She wants to bring other gallery owners in for regular gallery chats, to share ideas."
Barber majored in art history from Roosevelt University, and in 2003 she received a master's degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in art history, theory and criticism.
As an undergraduate, she was a museum fellow at the Chicago Historical Society, now called the Chicago History Museum. As a graduate student, she worked as a guide at the Museum of Science and Industry.
While studying for her master's, she received the 2001-02 Romare Bearden Fellowship, designed for a minority student to spend a year at the St. Louis Art Museum. There she worked in different departments but primarily focused on museum education. She also curated a small installation.
After the fellowship ended, she finished her master's degree, then returned to St. Louis to obtain a K-12 teaching certificate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
At the same time, she taught art to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at an all-black public school in St. Louis.
From there, she went to the Amistad Center for Art and Culture in Hartford, Conn. It's part of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in the country. As a curatorial associate, she worked in various capacities and oversaw the Amistad Center's 7,000-piece collection.
While at Amistad, she participated in a week long intensive course "Next Generation," at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for emerging leaders in the museum field.
She also traveled to Memphis in 2007 with the Amistad-organized exhibition "Soul Food! African American Cooking and Creativity" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
After she returned to Hartford she was recruited for the job of executive director of Power House Memphis, a nonprofit that presented contemporary art and film while linking Memphis with global artistic communities.
It closed in 2009, within a year after she started her job. The board chairman at the time said contributions were down, and all of the grant funds had ended.
While in Memphis, Barber taught, as an adjunct at the Memphis College of Art and the University of Memphis, courses in contemporary art, introduction to art, arts management and art history.