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Past and Present by Staci Steinberger

Posted By Staci Steinberger, Wednesday, June 6, 2012

            When greeting a new colleague at the AAMC Annual Meeting, the standard introduction seems to include your name, your institution, and then your field. Even as someone fairly new to the profession, I’ve quickly learned to identify myself as part of a sub-category,  a designation that affects what journals and listserves I follow, which exhibitions I attend, and what jobs I applied for when I finished graduate school. While these divisions are often taken for granted, bringing different fields into conversation at the 2012 Annual Meeting revealed how the legacy of these institutional missions and departmental boundaries have shaped scholarship and collections.

            In the keynote discussion,  Helen Molesworth raised these questions for contemporary art, examining how museums have treated a category that is uniquely ephemeral. She traced the history of presenting new art, contrasting the Museum of Modern Art, whose cultural role has changed as a once contemporary collection has aged into a historic one, with Kunsthalles like the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, whose initial decision not to collect led to a program based in an ever-evolving but decontextualized present.  The latter, where Molesworth serves as Chief Curator, has only recently begun to build a collection. This shift provides the septuagenarian museum with the ability to consider longer narratives, recognizing that the present happens within the context of history.  Looking at encyclopedic museums, such as the Israel Museum,  headed by her co-presenter James Snyder, she queried whether the ancient and new demanded such different criteria for display and acquisition, ultimately challenging contemporary curators to ask historic questions of their works.

            These issues were taken up with force in the second panel, "Give and Take: Shifting Collection Boundaries in the 21st-Century Museum.” Emily Ballew Neff described her challenges in broadening the scope of the MFA Houston’s American Art department to reflect the growing acknowledgment that "America” describes two continents, not just one nation-state. While academic art historians have been drawing these larger connections for some time, American art curators must balance new discoveries with the weight of institutional precedent, drawing from collections developed in earlier eras, and convincing funders with more traditional conceptions of the field. Matthew Witkovsky provided further evidence of the sometimes arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries, noting that many of the works whose medium brought them to his Department of Photography could easily fall under Modern or Contemporary headings, or under any number of geographically defined-departments.  Marla Berns explored how the Fowler Museum’s history – it was founded as a Museum and Laboratory of Ethnic Art and Technology – led to thematic installations that compare forms and functions from around the world, and curatorial positions that are defined by continents, not chronology. When presenting contemporary artist Nick Cave’s sound suits, the Fowler’s emphasis on the cultural as well as aesthetic role of objects brought new context to the works, which were shown in kinetic performances as well as static displays.

            Each of these presentations struck a balance between the newest questions of the academy and the historic expectations and realities of individual museums. Stepping back to see how these missions and boundaries continue to impact how art is shown proved incredibly instructive, challenging curators to see beyond the expected categories, and to allow the questions and approach in other fields to illuminate our own practices.

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