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Breaks and Starts by Andrea Lipps, Curatorial Assistant, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Posted By Andrea Lipps, Wednesday, June 6, 2012
If there was one idea that seemed to permeate this year’s annual conference, particularly day one, it was that of breaks and starts. Jumpstarted by Helen Molesworth’s Keynote, the idea first took form in her observations about the tension of contemporary art and design in an encyclopedic museum. She stated that the contemporary was often seen as too radical a break from the art historical narrative, leading for instance to the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston as new institutions to display and examine art that broke from the past. Matthew Witovsky also touched on this in the following panel, noting that breaks and ruptures from the past create the contemporary. Critical to these ideas, however, is the notion that the new is always responding to history. In order to appreciate the present, we need to better understand its past. Molesworth called for the need to create a larger vocabulary and literature around the new, to contextualize it. Rather than simply familiarizing a viewer with contemporary art and design, we need to instead connect the contemporary to tradition and to explain it within the context of art and design history, building up the narrative and enriching the literature. How can the contemporary enable us to tell new stories about the past? How does tradition inform the contemporary?
At the same time, museums are rethinking existing definitions of collection categories and how those collections are shown in galleries, a topic addressed in the "Shifting Collection Boundaries” panel. Whereas geography, chronology, and medium are among the most common criteria to define departments or collections, as Witovsky observed, those criteria are becoming more difficult to formalize due to the multi-disciplinary nature of art and design today. "Roaming around is healthy”, Witovsky asserted. Cross-departmental collaborations are starting to become a new normative, pushing curators, museum professionals, and ultimately the public to make new connections and broaden our thinking both within the galleries and the collections themselves.
Breaks and starts also appeared (even if loosely) in the remaining two events from the conference’s first day. The "Expanded or Reconfigured Spaces” panel presented lessons from colleagues whose institutions are breaking from their existing spaces and undergoing architectural change. As we heard from Jim Labeck for instance, sometimes the push for the new enables us to rediscover the past, as with the restoration of the Historic Tapestry Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Renzo Piano’s sweeping wall of glass to visually connect the old building with the newly renovated space at the same museum. And the AAMC’s inaugural "Curatorial Slam” introduced the Pecha Kucha presentation format to the convening, a break from past conferences. Picking up on Witovsky’s earlier notion that "roaming around is healthy”, well, it seemed healthy here, too, getting a taste for the diverse work that makes up our field in thoughtful, albeit brief, presentations. Breaks and starts keep pushing us forward. As a field, I’m proud we’re embracing them.

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