With thirty-three years of experience working in art museums, Joseph Mella managed, curated, and oversaw the operations of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and its collections. Prior to arriving at Vanderbilt in 1992, Mella served as Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Illinois, and in a similar capacity at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont. He holds an M.A. in Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also completed a Certificate in Art Collection Care and Maintenance. Mella received a B.F.A. in Printmaking from the University of Iowa, Iowa City.
In addition to applying museum standards and best practices to the operations and procedures while at the Fine Arts Gallery, Mella has been responsible for over doubling the Gallery’s collections from 2,957 objects in 1992 to 7,130 works of art in 2019. Mella has curated and organized over eighty exhibitions while at Vanderbilt, including a major retrospective and national tour of painting, drawings and prints by the Ecuadorian master of the twentieth century, Oswaldo Guayasamín, and the “Star Chamber,” a site-specific interactive sculpture by British land artist Chris Drury at Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory. Mella also established programmatic collaborations with other university galleries that include Fisk University, Bucknell University, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, University of Memphis, State University of New York, Potsdam, and collaborations beyond the academic world such as a series on public art that has brought such highly recognized artists to Vanderbilt as Frank Stella, Tom Otterness, Stephen Antonakos, Beverly Pepper, and Richard Haas.
While at Vanderbilt, Mella was also responsible for the establishment and subsequent development of a collection of contemporary graphics, photographs, drawings and artists’ books with strengths found in work by living women artists such as Mona Hatoum, Donna Ferrato, Carrie May Weems, Maria Magdalena Campos Pons, Louise Bourgeois, Alison Saar, Kara Walker, Shirin Neshat, Leslie Dill, Koo Kyung Sook, Sue Coe, Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, Fransje Killaars, and Christine Baumgartner, as well as other highly recognized international artists such as Gerhard Richter, Martin Puryear, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bruce Conner, Hamish Fulton, Robert Colescott, Joseph Kosuth, Michael Craig-Martin, Enrique Chagoya, Sigmar Polke, Willie Cole, Alexis Rockman, Mel Chin, and Terry Winters.
Additionally, while at Vanderbilt, Mella made significant strides in the development of gifts to the Gallery that have positively impacted the Fine Arts Gallery, its collections, exhibitions and educational programs it presents. He was also responsible for helping establish an endowment for art conservation, that to date has conserved over fifty works of art from Vanderbilt’s collections, including works by Alexander Calder, José Clemente Orozco, Georges Braque, Jacques Villon, and Joan Miró.
In recent years, student engagement and access to the permanent collection was greatly expanded under Mella’s leadership. This has taken the form collaborations with the Vanderbilt Visions program, a key component of an educational program that encourages first-year undergraduates to be empowered and responsible members of the Vanderbilt University community while exposing them to art and ideas beyond the classroom, as well as through partnerships with a wide variety of departments and centers across campus, including the Medical School, and the Blair School of Music.