Early in 2022 The Block welcomed Isabella Ko (WCAS BA ’20) back to The Block as our Engagement Coordinator. We were thrilled to work with Isabella in a new professional capacity, after her contributions to the museum as an intern and a docent during her time as a Northwestern undergraduate. We sat down with her to learn a bit more about her background, her interest in engagement, and her goals for her new position.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way to museum engagement?
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. I had the privilege of visiting art museums and traveling with family growing up. And I was able to develop an appreciation for learning about and connecting with different human experiences through art and visual storytelling. I think I’ve always enjoyed interpreting art forms and observing/partaking in cultural discourse, especially when done with others (I’m thinking about how much I loved English class in high school.) I was able to take AP Art History too, which helped solidify that I wanted to major in that discipline when I attended Northwestern.
It was through my curatorial internship at The Block after my first year at NU that I gained exposure to curation and the art museum field, and also learned about the existence of the fields of museum engagement and education! I became Block Student Docent (now known as a Student Associate.) Through these opportunities, I realized how much I enjoyed being in the company of people and art—and valued being able to learn with and alongside others through objects. I like that the arts can help create communal experiences and am invigorated by the idea that when deeply intertwined with curation and all other forms of museum/cultural work, engagement can foster a sense of community, build knowledge, and empower.
What particularly interests you about working within the context of a campus art museum?
Because they are located within collegiate environments, campus art museums—at their best—are focused on learning and teaching in a very particular way. What that looks like to me is an institutional seeking out of new and interdisciplinary ideas; experimentation; and criticality that students, scholars, and educators at an academic institution bring. I think being student-centered means supporting the growth of students and actively creating/expanding ways for students to have significant decision-making power and feel a sense of ownership of the museum.
It’s exciting when these same values and outlooks are extended to the communities that colleges/universities are situated in—when we act as a dynamic, thought-provoking, communal place for folks in and outside academia. I think it’s special that the Block can serve as an local art museum that is free and perhaps more easily accessible for folks who live in and nearby Evanston.
What museum exhibitions, programs, or cultural activities (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
I am incredibly grateful I got to see DePaul Art Museum’s Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, and Reparations I Chicago to Guantánamo. It’s such a crucial exhibition that I will continue to revisit, learn from, and aspire towards. I deeply appreciate how many comprehensive resources live on and can be accessed while the exhibit is no longer on view.
Non-visual art related: I’ve been enjoying Worldwide FM and think it’s such a cool platform. Also, through planning our public program with Melissa Blount and Prentis Hemphill, I was introduced to Prentis’ podcast, Finding Our Way. I recently relistened to this conversation between Prentis and Priya Parker, which prompts such great reflections on public programming, but also the general acts of creating and being in spaces of gathering. I’m also thinking of a recent episode Prentis did with ALOK (whom a student organization I was involved with—APAC—brought to campus during my time in undergrad!) One of the many moving topics they discussed was friendship. In a similar vein to what ALOK says in the podcast, it feels wrong for me to not mention my beloved friends when I talk about myself and my path!
What are your upcoming goals for your role and the Block’s engagement department?
I feel very lucky to be in a team with Erin and América and am energized knowing we are so aligned and can move towards exciting possibilities together. I wonder a lot about what it means to be in community—community as a feeling more than just a descriptor for a group of people. I seek to work committedly towards being a genuine, responsible community member. I’m eager to understand more about the arts and cultural landscapes of Northwestern and Evanston and where the Block can contribute to and learn from them. I want to help show up for what folks are doing, build reciprocal relationships, and share and relinquish power and resources.