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“This is new and this is cool and we want to show it to you.”

Posted By Brooke Kellaway, Getty Fellow, Walker Art Center, Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at ICA Boston, in her opening day talk, quoted what she considered one of the most prevailing expressions of contemporary art museums. Their impulse to make prominent the virtues of newness and coolness, though it’s one she totally appreciates, is too frequently made without proficiently presenting the work of art’s historical context. Which is a loss, she said. Molesworth reminded, "what is contemporary about contemporary art doesn’t reside in the object per se, but rather in the ideas that went into making it.”  Contemporary works of art, from their inception to their circulation, are inherently connected to the cultural, political, and economic systems in which they exist and operate. If this contextualization is neglected, what then is the historical mark of the museum? What is its immediate impact as a knowledge producing institution? How does it define its commitment to supporting living artists? 

[image caption: Robert Gober’s Untitled (1999-2010). Plaster, beeswax, human hair, cotton, leather, aluminum pull tabs, and enamel paint. Harvard Art Museum.]


The issue of context seemed a pressing one throughout the days I spent at AAMC 11th Annual Meeting. In today’s museums, how are artistic ideas put forth and engaged with through presentation and programming? The curatorial imperative is seriously changing in our swiftly expanding field of information, perspective, critique, audience, and discipline specificity. How then do we speak, what do we say, who do we speak with, when do we translate, where do we say it, why?


While these complex questions couldn’t be fully answered, many of the talks focused on some interesting ways curators are dealing with them in museum settings….


In the session, Give and Take: Shifting Collection Boundaries in the 21st Century Museum, Emily Ballew Neff, Curator of American Art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, took up part of this question in terms of the language that we use—specifically, rethinking taxonomies. Neff asked, "What do we mean by American when we refer to American art?” And, in terms of perspective, Matthew Witkovsky, Curator and Chair, Department of Photography, Art Institute of Chicago, spoke about bringing more voices into the mix by working more interdepartmentally, insisting that a work of art is ever more interesting when not constricted by the limits of departmental purview, but instead looked at in various ways. 


In the session Expanded or Reconfigured Spaces, Jim Labeck, Director of Operations at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, discussed the framing that a museum’s building has on the works within it. He said, "Sometimes we forget that the visitors experience the whole thing…sometimes you get so attached to the pieces of the program, and it’s important to remember the importance of the architecture.” Then some interesting questions regarding university art museums were raised by Deborah Martin Kao, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Harvard Art Museum. In the midst of their redesign, the Harvard team asked,  "How do you create, in a contemporary building, a place for historical material?” Kao also questioned the educational and interpretive role of the redesigned museum, asking, "What is distinctive about a teaching museum?” "What do we want the works in our collection to do?”


On the topic of activating collections, during the Pecha Kucha: Inaugural Curatorial Slam, Martina Bagnoli, Curator of Medieval Art at Walters Art Museum, talked about innovating new ways to interpret and interact with their collection by engaging outside voices. She described using social media to invite the public to sort through 2,000 or so Byzantine objects in their museum storage. This crowd sourcing "fosters understanding, promotes cultural value, distributes knowledge, and provides an opportunity for social interaction.” It also creates new audiences. The cultivating of new audiences was an interest of Xandra Eden, Curator of Exhibitions at Weatherspoon Art Museum. Referencing her exhibition Zone of Contention: The U.S./Mexico Border—an investigation into the effects of global border issues on her specific community in Greensboro—Eden worked closely with members of the community to inform the development of this project.  Her priority wasn’t to culminate the research into only an exhibition, but rather to set forth an ongoing dialogue on these issues of conflict. In doing so, Eden’s work "opened up a path for people who never felt the museum was a place for them to take part, and also for people who never felt they had something to give back to the museum.” Despite her having to do a bit more work in locating and involving these other audiences, Eden ended by saying, "if it connects people to their own life experience, I’m all for it.”


In our thinking about making the exhibition experience a most meaningful one, although there’s never a scientific methodology involved, it is interesting to check out the planning practices of our respected peers. Deputy Director and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at Seattle Art Museum, Chiyo Ishikawa, talked about their process of bringing exhibitions to fruition in the Curatorial Short Course: Exhibitions Management, sharing some of the steps SAM takes to make the great shows they do.


[image caption: AAMC Director, Sally Block, introduces Chiyu Ishikawa at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.]


Some initial questions she asks curators when they’re proposing an idea include how the show relates to the artistic mission, identity, and priorities of the institution, its contributions to scholarship, whether there’s a compelling narrative, the significance of its timing, the audience appeal, if institutional partners could be involved, and publication plans. During the rigorous conceptualization and then throughout the realization of each exhibition, Ishikawa emphasized the importance SAM places on both bringing multiple perspectives to the fore, and doing their best to imagine the visitor experience.


Finishing up, in the session on Technology and Community Engagement, Karleen Gardner, Curator of Education at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, spoke directly to visitor experience. Spending time studying the psychographics of their visitors ("the explorer” vs. "experience seeker” vs. "recharger” vs. "aficionado,” and so on) and also reaching out to those who don’t currently frequent the museum, and then making an interpretive plan based on these identities and expectations, the Memphis Brooks Museum changed things they might otherwise not have noticed, such as maps and signage for way-finding, photography policy, label design, and overall communicative language.  Another cool discovery to enrich visitor experience was presented by Jennifer Scanlan, Associate Curator at Museum of Art & Design. The museum’s summer internship program had high school students research works in the collection and interview artists to then record stops on an audio tour of the collection.

[image caption: ICA Boston’s media center, overlooking the Boston Harbor. Designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro ]


Over the course of three days in Boston, at the sessions held at three art museums throughout the city—the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (plus an evening reception at the Peabody Essex Museum)—hundreds of curators exchanged their unique thoughts, experiences, and expertise in bringing artists’ work a bit closer to the ever-expanding millions of visitors interested in these ideas.  It was an exciting time to be in conversation with so many invested colleagues. Tremendous thanks to Sally Block and Hannah Howe for making this happen!


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