A Conversation with Erica Wall


“There is so much opportunity here,” says the new executive director of the Lunder Institute for American Art

Executive Director of the Lunder Institute for American Art Erica Wall (right) talks with artist Tessa Greene O’Brien about her work at the Greene Block + Studios, the institute's home base.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Caitlin Penna
September 22, 2022

Erica Wall joined the Lunder Institute for American Art as its new executive director in July, moving to Waterville from North Adams, Mass.

There, she earned her reputation as a creative and dynamic arts educator and curator, working with a variety of community groups in her role as executive director of MCLA Arts and Culture at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She’s also operated her own commercial gallery and has worked as a museum educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and others. 

Wall is putting her experiences, creativity, and dynamism to good use at Colby, where she will advance the mission of the Lunder Institute as a creative incubator, scholarship convener, and community partner. 

Established in 2017 with funding from Peter and Paula Lunder, the Lunder Institute for American Art acts as a research and creative arm of the Colby College Museum of Art. Based in downtown Waterville at the Greene Block + Studios, it provides fellowships for artists and scholars and connects them with faculty, students, and multiple communities, as well as the museum’s collection of art. Its presence is growing on campus and beyond as more Lunder Institute artists organize workshops, exhibitions, and engage in conversations that advance our understanding of American art, including how it is taught, made, studied, and interpreted.

Wall recently talked about her role and the Lunder Institute with Colby News. 

What drew you to the Lunder Institute?

There is an exceptional amount of potential. That is what drew me here. In the few years the Lunder Institute has been in existence, some amazing work has been done, and I am excited to be the one who gets to build on that and take it to the next place.

A lot of my interest lies in how research, scholarship, and artmaking intersect. How do we create a nexus point for that? That is what the Lunder really represents, not just for the campus community, but for the art community and for the art world as we know and understand it. The significance of being able to just focus on American art is huge, because there is so much going on right now in terms of understanding America’s history, or America’s histories, and reconciling those. I really feel the potential is to be more at a recognized nexus point for that research, that scholarship, that artmaking that defines the Lunder as a space where we can incubate those sorts of ideas that start to help us to look at American art from different perspectives, to expand the narrative around it, to incorporate more voices, but also to give us a space to actually sit with it. A lot of these ideas around what American art is today, it’s not about corrections and replacements. It’s about the expansion to really show the different layers.

Over the course of your career at museums and running your own gallery, you have worked directly with artists, curators, and scholars. This position gives you the opportunity to do all of that at once.

Yes, that’s right, and that’s what really attracted me. I’ve worked so much with artists at different stages in their careers, and I’ve worked primarily with artists who have been historically underrepresented to make sure that those contributions are illuminated and added to the conversation. I think what really drew me here was an opportunity to continue that work, and to expand it in terms of being able to work with scholars, researchers, and curators and convene them all in a space where we can start to think about things differently that contribute to the field. And the collection is stellar. To be able to offer that to artists and scholars is amazing.

Erica Wall is excited to be the one who gets to build on the Lunder Institute’s previous work and take it to the next level.

You speak with great reverence of artists. Are you an artist yourself?

I am not an artist. In my freshman year at a Catholic college, I was taking an art class and my professor said, “Hey, Erica, have you ever thought about declaring studio art as your major?” Never crossed my mind. I really enjoyed it, but it never crossed my mind. That winter break, I came home and told my mother, “Sister Mary Beth told me that I should pursue art.” And my mother just looked at me and said, “Are you familiar with the term ‘starving artist’?”

So that nipped that. I pursued political science as I was told to do and I was going to go law school. I finished up at UCLA, got my degree in political science, but I wasn’t destined to be a lawyer. I always tell my parents, “You would have saved a lot of money if you just let me pursue art, because here I am.”

And here you are now in Waterville. You came from a thriving arts community in North Adams, Mass. Do you see any similarities between North Adams and Waterville?

I was director of Massachusetts College Arts and Culture, which involved overseeing all public arts programs and spaces, primarily a gallery. We were situated in a very amazing anomaly of arts organizations in such a rural community, and that is what made it really, really fun. What drew me there was the opportunity to be able to partner and serve our students and faculty working with Williams College, the Clark, and Mass MOCA. All of those entities are very strong in and of themselves and don’t necessarily intersect in the way that you might imagine. There is no established North Adams Creates.

Here in Waterville, I’m really impressed that Waterville Creates exists, and I am impressed with the investment and the excitement around creating space in town. That demonstrates how well Colby and the town and the community have moved projects forward. That speaks of a really amazing relationship, which is hard to establish because there are lots of different constituencies you have to make happy. Here, I don’t have to build all the partnerships that I did before. They exist, and I get to build on that. I’m a big believer in collaboration. Collaboration and community are what moves things forward. It feels good to be able to figure out a way to say, “Yes, let’s try that.” There is so much opportunity here.