Taos Center for the Arts Talk

A few weeks ago I shared some of my recent experiences with virtual conferencing. Today, I’ll talk about another virtual event that I just participated in last week, a conversation about the Community Art Center Project in New Mexico.

The poster from last week’s event.

This event was hosted on Zoom by the Taos Center for the Arts. What was especially cool about this conversation was that you were able to hear from two of the Roswell Museum’s curators: Aubrey Hobart, current Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and myself. Aubrey and I met in person before I left, and we’ve remained in touch intermittently since then, so it was an easy and natural conversation between two people who care a lot about this institution.

Compared to a conference or symposium, this was a more informal talk. To prevent Zoom fatigue we keep the event to fifty minutes. About forty minutes or so of that time was spent talking, with the final ten minutes being reserved for questions. I spoke during the first half, where I discussed the history of the Federal Art Project, the Community Art Center Project, and finally the three different community art center sites in New Mexico at Gallup, Melrose, and Roswell. During this part of the talk, I played a slide show featuring historical images of the Roswell Museum and other sites.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. This is one of the pictures I showed during my part of the talk.

We then transitioned over to Aubrey, who talked about the Museum’s current layout, upcoming events and activities, and the importance of supporting this institution during what is proving to be a challenging moment in its history. COVID-19 has adversely affected the economy in southeastern New Mexico, so the Museum’s staff and funding have both been reduced. Frankly, I don’t know what the Museum’s long-term prognosis looks like, which was one of the reasons why it was important to have a current staff member speak on its behalf. Aubrey’s presence and presentation reminded viewers that the Roswell Museum is still around and serving the community, but it could use some support right now.

They say in a lot of professions that it’s not necessarily what you know that counts, but who you know, and that definitely influenced this event. The Director of the Taos Center for the Arts, Colette LaBouff (who is also a published poet and writer), was one of my coworkers at the Roswell Museum before she landed her current position. She’s been following my blog since then, and based on my previous experiences in New Mexico, thought I would be a good fit for an informal talk. When she asked me if I could think of anyone who’d like to participate with me, in turn, I immediately thought of Aubrey, as I thought it’d be a nice way to spotlight current happenings at the Roswell Museum. I may not work there anymore, but I still like to think of ways to highlight that institution.

Overall this was a fun event. While the energy I often get from live audiences wasn’t there in the same way, I still found myself getting excited and enthusiastic once I got going. It was also cool to be able to participate from across the country, and to interact with audience members despite being 2,000 miles away. Similar to my observations on virtual conferencing, Zoom conversations like this one can also enable institutions to host a variety of speakers without worrying about the cost of travel, which could be cost-prohibitive depending on the distance or schedule. Likewise, I appreciated that I was able to fit this one-hour commitment at the end of a regular workday, whereas before I would have had to set aside a day or two for travel. As nice as it would be to see these places in person (especially Taos), it’s also good to be able to work on my William & Mary commitments without compromising my schedule.

Overall, I had a good time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these kinds of events remain commonplace, at least for the immediate future.

Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures

COVID-19 has changed the way we do a lot of things, or at least think about how we do things, from working remotely to providing education. Academic conferences are no exception. While some organizations like the American Studies Association or the Space Between Society have opted to postpone their gatherings until next year, others have been experimenting with virtual conferencing. I recently presented at one of these virtual forums, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, which I’d like to talk about today.

Selections from the Index of American Design exhibited at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center alongside local antiques, January 1938. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

As the name suggests, virtual conferencing means that you convene online instead of in-person. Conferences can happen in real-time, with viewers logging in at a scheduled time to view specific videos or presentations, or in the case of Museum Exhibition Design, asynchronously. This means that presenters upload videos of their presentations ahead of time, and then attendees can watch the videos at their convenience. In lieu of live Q&A’s, participants type their questions in a comments forum, and presenters respond when they get the chance. I got to experience an asynchronous conference earlier this summer when I participated in DH2020, an international digital humanities conference. I wasn’t a presenter, but watching the different presentations and commenting in the forum helped me get acquainted with the virtual conferencing format. The advantage of asynchronous presenting is that participants can attend the conference from anywhere in the world regardless of time zone, so long as they have an internet connection (as other scholars have pointed out, Internet connectivity is yet another signifier of systemic inequality and access, especially when it comes to education).

Hosted by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures aimed to create a nearly carbon-neutral conference experience. Scheduled from September 1-11, the conference hosted 500 participants from around the world, and dozens of presenters ranging from Ph.D. students and professors, to curators and exhibition designers. As you can imagine, enabling a virtual experience hosting so many different presentations and participants is a heady logistical undertaking. Its three primary organizers, Dr. Claire Wintle, Hajra Williams, and Kate Guy all did a fantastic job crafting a website that was easily navigable, stylish, and accommodating to various computer interfaces.

Beyond the conference itself, what really made this experience special is its ongoing life as a repository for exhibition design scholarship. Prior to the launch of the conference, attendees were invited to submit links to publications, projects, and other resources relating to their research, and these sources were made accessible to all conference attendees. What’s more, while the conference itself is over, these resources, along with videos that have had their image copyrights cleared, will remain online, rendering the scholarship of all the different participants available for future research. As far as virtual conferences go, Museum Exhibition Design offers a strong case study on how to run such an undertaking effectively, as well as facilitate ongoing access to different scholarly resources.

As with my previous conference experiences at the University of Michigan and the Space Between Society, I discussed the Community Art Center Project (CACP) in my presentation, but this time I focused on the influence of labor networks in exhibition design. More specifically, I explored how freight transport, quick installation times, varying architectural spaces, and staff experience all likely contributed to the standardized aesthetic of CACP shows. Additionally, I suggested that the standardization mandated by the format of the CACP itself likely contributed to an overall preference for small-to-medium-sized, two-dimensional works that could be transported easily and installed in a variety of spaces. I also speculated how this could have informed the development of the modern art canon itself, or at least public perceptions of what art should look like. For an individual case study, I focused on questions of labor within the Roswell Museum by considering the work experiences of one of its gallery attendants, Rainey Woolsey, and the issues she encountered regarding the recognition of her work. Based on the reception I got in the comments section, viewers found this particular take on the CACP engaging. Given my own interest in recognizing the labor of all museum workers, this could be a very fruitful direction for me moving forward.

As for the video itself, I ultimately went with the simplest option in that I made a PowerPoint and recorded it with a voiceover, though I originally planned to film a full video of myself narrating the text and splicing in images. Aside from personalizing the video, I wanted to show myself to make my identity as a white woman and all the privilege that entails transparent to viewers (this is also why I’ve added a picture of myself to my website’s homepage). I soon realized, however, that the video editing software required was beyond the capabilities of my laptop. Editing a full video also demands a significant amount of time to do it well, and since I was about to take my qualifying exams, I decided to opt for the simpler option. Despite scaling back my initial ambitions, I did manage to record a brief introduction and conclusion of myself, so while the majority of the video was a PowerPoint with narration, the beginning and the end featured me talking to the camera. Additionally, at the request of the conference organizers, I added closed captions by putting the video on YouTube, uploading a copy of my transcript, and synchronizing them.

The introduction I recorded for my video, which I filmed with my smartphone mounted to a tripod. Now you know what my voice sounds like.

While the video did its job in conveying information about the CACP to viewers, virtual conferencing has also been a learning experience, and watching the other presentations helped me identify several things I can do better in the future. While I included citations in the transcript of my talk, for instance, from now on I’m going to include bibliography slides at the end of my presentations so that viewers can consult any sources that interested them. I’m also going to add separate slides for direct quotations and their sources, again so that viewers can note exactly which sources I’m using in case they want to look them up. A lot of the videos I watched also included a more dynamic use of images, video, and text, which have inspired me to experiment with my own use of media. In short, this conference reiterated to me that presentations are an important scholarly resource, and should be made as accessible as possible to researchers.

The conference also emphasized the importance of investing in technology if I want to start making videos seriously. I learned through this experience that if I want to do videos well, I should invest in equipment like reflecting glasses for teleprompters. I’d also need to switch from working on a laptop to a desktop capable of handling video editing software. Luckily for me, my partner Brandon has a desktop for his gaming and we recently created an account on it for me, so if I decide to pursue that route, I at least have the computer at hand.

So what’s my overall take on in-person vs. virtual conferences? Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. In-person conferences definitely have a certain energy to them, and you’re more likely to be focused on the event itself because everything is concentrated in a finite period. There’s also the spontaneity of being able to approach speakers during breaks or after their talks, which you don’t experience in the same way with virtual forums. As someone who enjoys traveling, I also like being able to visit new places when I go to conferences.

All that said, there are a lot of advantages to virtual conferences. Since they’re often asynchronous, I can take my time thinking of questions to presentations, and I’ve noticed that I participate in Q&A’s a lot more as a result. As fun as conferences can be, they’re also pretty draining because of all the presenting, listening, and networking going on, so I do like being able to space out presentations over a longer time. And while the spontaneous coffee chat may not be possible, I still had several meaningful discussions in the forums, and even had an outside meeting on Zoom with a speaker whose work I especially enjoyed. Most significantly perhaps, virtual conferences offer another means of accessing scholarship, especially for graduate students. Not everyone has the budget or the generous time blocks to travel to conferences (or in the case of travelers from the United States like myself, we’re not really wanted anywhere right now), so having these virtual options can enable other scholars to participate who might not have been able to attend otherwise, and that’s important.

Overall, I had a great experience at the Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures Conference, and it should serve as a model for other experiences like it. After all, virtual conferences are likely to be the norm for the immediate future, and perhaps beyond, so we should embrace their potential as scholarly resources.

Thinking (and Reading) About Museums

Last week we explored the art of the New Deal era, from Holger Cahill’s exhibition writings to more recent works exploring the political dimensions of 1930s art. Today, we’ll be considering a topic that has played a seminal role in my professional and personal life: museums.

Celebrating the completion of my very first exhibition, the culmination of my internship at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2010-2011.

Most broadly, the texts I’ve been working through are asking two interrelated questions: what functions do museums currently serve as cultural institutions, and just as importantly, what kind of work should they be doing? With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, museums have been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy. As museum professionals reevaluate their missions and ongoing roles in society, it’s important to examine the values these institutions espouse through their exhibitions, programming, and outreach. In other words, what kinds of stories do museums choose to tell through the objects they display or the educational programming they put together?

While the phrase “museums are not neutral” may seem to be the latest hashtag on the cultural scene, scholars have long recognized the politicized nature of museums. As Steven Dubin and Timothy W. Luke both observe in their respective books, Museum Politics and Displays of Power, museums are inherently politicized institutions because of the authority we associate with them. Since museums are traditionally portrayed as preservers of knowledge and culture, they’re ascribed with an aura of trustworthiness that makes them ideal places for reifying social values or beliefs. To put it another way, museums sacralize the objects and ideas within them, providing a sense of legitimacy to whatever or whomever is brought within them. In the words of Indiana Jones, an object is in a museum because it belongs there, and in the eyes of society, museums are supposed to reify so-called normative values. When they depart from that objective to question longstanding beliefs, as the 1995 exhibition The West as America at the Smithsonian did when it critiqued a romanticized version of American Western history, they become controversial.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the values traditionally ascribed to museums in terms of education and aesthetics are strongly linked to class, as Alan Wallach explores in his book, Exhibiting Contradiction. During the 19th century, art museums in particular became a means of affirming the taste of upper class patrons who supported them through philanthropy. As temples of objects, museums essentially sacralized the tastes of the wealthy by disconnecting works of art from their historical contexts, presenting them instead as seemingly timeless examples of beauty and good aesthetics. As our expectations of museums have shifted from the temple of art to the education/activist model, art museums in particular have slowly adopted revisionist histories with mixed results, as they are now expected to undo the timeless mythology they constructed during the 19th century.

More recent texts like Patricia Banks’s Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums complicate Wallach’s discussion of class by examining intersecting identities of race or gender. Focusing specifically on African American museums, Banks argues that upper-middle and upper-class donors support museums for different reasons depending on their race, gender, age, and involvement with culture. Donors working in the for-profit sector, for instance, tend to support museums because of the positive association it projects onto their business, as well as for the opportunity to network with related professionals, whereas nonprofit donors get involved for more individualistic reasons. White donors perceive African American museums as spaces for integration, whereas Black philanthropists value them as specifically Black spaces telling Black narratives. Art collectors specializing in Black artists patronize museums as a way of legitimizing their private collections while simultaneously confronting the overly white, male canon of art history. In short, the kind of work a museum does for the community largely depends on the person you’re asking, underscoring that museums participate in a dialogue with their audiences.

Yet other authors take a different angle to museums by examining their potential as sites of resistance or questioning. In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree explores several case studies of indigenous museums performing decolonizing work, with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways being considered especially successful. In particular, she explores how these institutions either do or do not center indigenous voices, including the use of indigenous frameworks of history, and confronting the ongoing trauma of genocide and other atrocities. In Lonetree’s scholarship, indigenous museums should be more than memorializing or reifying institutions. Rather, they should act as sites of healing by willingly confronting the traumas of white colonization.

While not overtly resistance-oriented in its subject matter, the contributors to the anthology Defining Memory make a case for smaller museums as alternatives to the imposing model of major institutions like the Met or the Field. By emphasizing a localized sense of place, highlighting quirky subject matter, or displaying collections with minimal interpretive texts due to limited staff or budgets, small museums, inadvertently or otherwise, can offer visitors greater autonomy in their own interpretive experiences. Additionally, they often highlight objects or subject matter that go against the perceived norms associated with larger institutions. Whether it’s a video recording of an Elvis sighting or the skeleton of a two-headed calf (or in the case of the Isle of Wight County Museum I visited before the pandemic, the world’s oldest ham), small, local museums often celebrate difference, an approach unintentionally in keeping with queer theory.

Still other authors argue for the potential of museums in taking a more radical approach to their work. In Curating Community, Stacy Douglas posits that museums should question and interrupt such western, liberal ideals as community, sovereignty, and autonomy. Focusing specifically on museums in South Africa, she posits that museums conventionally affirm individual autonomy as articulated in constitutions. Whereas constitutions are obligated to maintain questions of borders and sovereignty due to their role as legal documents, museums can and should actively question these ideas in order to get people to think about the interconnected, interdependent nature of existence.

As you might expect, I found this part of the list quite engaging. Given my interest in the Community Art Center Project, questions regarding what kind of work museums and galleries can and should do resonate with my research. As I’ve learned from the Roswell Museum’s early history, local and federal supporters had different answers to these questions, which affected the exhibitions and programming that took place there. Moving forward, I’ll definitely remember these readings as I continue delving into the museum history field.

More importantly, these readings have helped guide my ongoing thinking about museums as institutions. Whether I’ve visited them for fun, worked in them as a curator, or researched them as a scholar, museums have played a substantial role in my professional and personal life (especially my personal life, given that I met Brandon through the Roswell Museum). Yet as recent articles have pointed out, museums are problematic institutions given their complicity in white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and sexism. Should I decide to return to museums after the program, I’ll need to confront these issues in my work, and do my part to create more inclusive institutions. As I work on my dissertation, I know I’ll keep thinking about, and acting on, these questions.

Brandon’s Art Handling Adventures: 2020 So Far

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my schedule had become repetitive due to reading for comprehensive exams. I’ve been at home reading every day since January, and while the books I’ve been working on have been quite interesting and helpful for my future work, my day-to-day activities have been rather mundane. For the last couple of months, the most exciting thing I’ve been doing is walking around the neighborhood and seeing how many rabbits I can count (I’ve gotten up to 20, in case you were curious).

That hasn’t been true for Brandon though. As Senior Preparator at Colonial Williamsburg, he has not only continued going to work since the pandemic started (since he doesn’t interact with visitors he can social distance from them), but has also been busy installing brand-new galleries and refreshing older ones at the art museums as part of a long-awaited expansion. Today then, I’d like to highlight what he’s been up to by taking you on a tour of these new spaces.

For clarification, when I say art museums at Colonial Williamsburg, I’m referring to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Since these two collections are housed in the same building, they’re often just called the art museums. I’ll also start referring to Colonial Williamsburg by its initials, CW, as that’s what Brandon and I typically use when we talk about it.

This new exhibition, British Masterworks, showcases some of the most exquisite objects in the museum collection. And not surprisingly perhaps, a lot of them are very heavy.

Brandon took me to the art museums a few weeks ago so that I could see these spaces for myself. I hadn’t been to a museum since February, so I definitely noticed new safety protocols in place. All visitors are expected to wear face masks, and there’s plenty of signage reminding people to practice social distancing. CW has injected a little humor into these signs by using references from the collection. So a sign might say “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or one George Washington,” for instance, or “Remember to stay 6′ apart, or six teapots.” Through these playful references to the collection, CW aims to defuse the discomfort of social distancing while reminding visitors of these new rules.

The biggest change at the museum is arguably its entrance. For those who haven’t been the art museums before, the entrance was a little peculiar because it was underground. You’d enter through the old mental hospital, but in order to reach the museum, you’d have to walk downstairs and through the gift shop. It all felt a little covert and confusing, and the exhibits on the hospital itself felt like an afterthought.

Now however, you enter the museum through this building:

You then walk down this hallway to the entrance desk. It looks a little empty right now due to social distancing protocols, but I can assure you it feels a lot less covert than the old entrance. The openness and formality of the new architecture, with its series of brick archways, definitely plays a role in that. As for the hospital, it will use its newly-opened space to expand its exhibitions and explore the history of treating mental health more deeply.

What Brandon has been busy doing is getting the galleries ready for visitors by filling them with lots of wonderful objects. Some of this work has entailed refreshing older galleries with new collections or exhibitions. The gallery on the left, for instance, used to be dedicated to musical instruments, but now focuses on Southern pottery. Brandon actually picked up some of the newer acquisitions during a courier trip to Atlanta last year, so he was already familiar with some of these pieces and their structural quirks. The gallery on the right, in turn, is part of an exhibition called British Masterworks, which highlights the most ostentatious and sumptuous works in the DeWitt Wallace collection. There’s even an original portrait of Elizabeth I, which is pretty rare for a United States collection.

There are also several brand-new galleries. These two installations, which are placed right next to each other, are meant to show off the respective holdings of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Museum while also clarifying the two collections to visitors. The Rockefeller display on the left features plenty of imaginative folk art (including a carving of a hybrid rhinoceros-hippopotamus that doubles as a record player, because why not), while the DeWitt Wallace installation highlights furniture and other decorative arts holdings. There are also portraits of Rockefeller and the DeWitt Wallaces on view to help visitors connect the objects they see to the collectors who donated them.

While there are several new installations ready for visitors to peruse, other spaces are still in progress. The carved buffet below, for instance, was made by a former enslaved man named Jonathan Moss and will be part of a new exhibition showcasing Black furniture makers and artisans in Williamsburg. The gallery on the right contains a partially installed map exhibition.

Other expansions within the museum address the behind-the-scenes aspects of exhibition design. This new installation of paintings by Edward Hicks, for example, includes text panels that were designed and printed entirely in-house. Even that wall sticker you see with the Peaceable Kingdom backdrop was printed here. This allows the exhibition team more freedom and leeway in determining exactly what they want for each show, which will make them look that much more polished in terms of detail. The text panels for the Hicks show, for instance, are custom-designed to each painting, with details from each work appearing alongside the border. As someone who has had to outsource print jobs like this, I imagine it will be very liberating to the staff at CW to design and print their texts on their own time and by their own expectations.

This new exhibition on Edward Hicks offers a more comprehensive overview of his career. In addition to the Peaceable Kingdom paintings for which he’s most famous, this space features examples of his landscapes, trade signs, and history paintings. I especially like the decal used on the entry wall, which is basically a giant sticker that CW produced in-house. The fact that CW can print its own exhibition materials will give them a lot of freedom in terms of design.

This installation work has not been easy for Brandon. As I mentioned in a previous post, being a Preparator demands creative problem solving, especially with collections as eclectic as those at CW. Even under the best of conditions, the objects he works with are often old, heavy, and fragile all at the same time, qualities that demand delicate installation work. Social distancing has made his work even more challenging because he’s had to move these pieces with either fewer coworkers to help out, or none at all. During the peak of the installation process, Brandon would come home from work exhausted, but was already thinking about what he would need to do the next day to get the next pieces in place. Despite these challenges, however, Brandon and the rest of the collections department have done a wonderful job, and the galleries look fantastic. While the pandemic has necessitated that CW cancel the opening receptions that would have celebrated these new spaces, I’m still proud of Brandon and all his hard work, and I’m delighted to have been able to see these spaces he’s helped assemble in person.

When you feel safe to visit, there’s a smiling hippo-ceros-record player waiting to say hello!

I hope everyone gets a chance to see these exhibitions when it feels comfortable for them. There’s some great stuff to check out, and there will be more exhibitions to come in the near future. And Brandon will be there to make sure they’re all put up safely.

Thinking About Public Histories

One of my first museum jobs was a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society in York, Maine. I held this position during the summer of 2009, between the first and second years of my Master’s program at Williams College. I remember it as a pleasant summer overall. I made some great friends, and I did a lot of different things. I gave tours of various historical buildings, did research on early 19th century processions, and perhaps most memorably, participated in a bit of costumed reenactment. While my subsequent career has not gone down the road of the house museum, that summer was still an important time for me, as it anticipated my eventual shift from medieval and early modern European painting to American art and culture.

Me in a replica 18th-century costume. As part of my summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society, I participated in historical reenactment. In keeping with the norms of the period, I wore a head covering when I was actually working.

I have been thinking about this summer more recently because a lot of my readings on my history list address public history, whether in the form of living museums and reenactments, or historic preservation. in addition to tracing the historical development of these practices, a lot of these texts are addressing the social and economic impacts of these public histories for various communities. In History Comes Alive for instance, M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that during the 1970s, public history and developed alongside a growing interest looking to history to advocate political agendas. Taking the 1976 Bicentennial as a launching point, Rymsza-Pawlowska explores how a variety of individuals and institutions, from the federal government to more grassroots organizations, looked to historical episodes in an effort to find parallels with the present. Their objectives ranged from promoting patriotism to protesting current policies, as when indigenous groups protested a reenactment of a 19th-century wagon train. Whereas the 1950s and 1960s seem to regard history as both finished, and distantly located in the past, this book posits that the 1970s collapsed the distinction between past and present by appealing to more affective ways of experiencing history, a practice that we continue to see today, whether in the form of living museums, or political invocations to a previous historical era. 

Other texts, like the essays in Giving Preservation a History, focus on historic preservation, both as a historical practice and a means of providing economic stimulation to different communities. A key argument in this book, as well as related texts, is that historic preservation is not a neutral activity. The histories that get preserved and just as importantly, the ones that get erased in the form of demolition, say a lot about the society that deems them significant. If public history is a way of cultivating citizenship, then it matters which stories get to be told to which communities. Additionally, many of the authors argue for balancing the economic stimulation that often accompanies urban revival, with cultivating a sense of community. Too often, downtown areas get revitalized architecturally, only to have the people who lived there be driven out due to rising real estate prices. not surprisingly, it is often Black people and other people of color who bear the brunt of this displacement.

The texts on historic preservation have resonated with me in particular, not least because I actually got to experience a little hands-on historic preservation back in college. During my  sophomore year, I took a seminar called “Lake Forest College as Cultural Landscape.” Over the course of the class, we studied different architectural styles within the history of college campuses, with our own college campus serving as the primary case study. A significant assignment entailed doing a survey on a specific building. This meant that we needed to look at a specific building on campus and visually document all of its architectural features. We then needed to go to the college archives, do research on the buildings, and document what kinds of changes took place. 

I was assigned a building called Moore Hall, one of the older surviving dormitories on campus. Built around 1892-1893 by the architects Pond & Pond, the dorm was originally intended as a second-class dorm for male college students. In other words, it was nice, but not quite as elaborate as a first-class building. Originally the structure was three stories high, but after a fire during the 1920s, it was rebuilt with a fourth story, because by that point the college was experiencing a housing shortage and needed more room. Over the next several decades, the building would undergo subsequent changes that gradually stripped away its original features. As a result, by the time I was surveying it in the early 2000s, a lot of the architectural features that made the building distinctive to its period, the qualities that we call architectural integrity, were gone. Moore Hall had also developed a somewhat infamous reputation as one of the least desirable dormitories, offering very little in the way of modern amenities. A few years after I took that class, the building was demolished to make way for a more modern, suite-style dormitory.

It was a very interesting project, but if I were to do it again, I would pay more attention to the histories of the people who actually lived in that dormitory. The main thing I remember about Moore Hall was that the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke once lived there as a student, but I don’t recall all that much about the demographics of the building. What were the demographics of the Moore Hall community, and did that change over the years? How did people actually live in the building? What sorts of spaces did they use for social activities, if at all? In other words, I was so preoccupied with documenting the architectural history of the building, that I  neglected its social histories, which were just as important.

It’s important to delve into the social histories because neglecting them can lead to real consequences in terms of living spaces. During that same seminar, we took several field trips to different college campuses in the Chicagoland area to explore other case studies that we could compare and contrast with the Lake Forest campus. One of these places was IIT, and more specifically one of its most famous buildings, Crown Hall by Mies Van der Rohe. Initially affiliated with the Bauhaus, he relocated to the United States and became one of the most important proponents of the International Style. He settled in Chicago, so a lot of his most famous buildings are in the city. I’ll admit, it was very cool being able to see this structure after learning about it in class.

What I did not know about was the history of this site before Crown Hall, something I only learned about recently while reading “Mecca Flats Blues,” one of the essays in Giving Preservation a History. Before Crown Hall, there used to be an apartment building called Mecca Flats. Built in 1892, it served as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition of 1893. A distinguishing feature of Mecca Flats was its open-air lobby, which provided access to a communal space from the individual apartments. After the fair, it became a working-class apartment building. By the 1920s, African Americans primarily inhabited the building, and it was an important site for jazz and other kinds of performance. During the mid-twentieth century, IIT decided to take over this area in order to build a new campus in the International Style. Despite being an important living space for the African American community, as well as architecturally significant due to its distinctive lobby and multiunit living accommodation, Mecca Flats was ultimately cleared out and demolished.

If we ever discussed this history in class, I don’t remember it, which suggests that we didn’t discuss it nearly enough. If I were to take this college class again, I would hope that we would discuss this. Better yet, if I were to design a course like this, I would be sure to include this history and others like it.

Studying this history matters because we continue to live with its repercussions. If we don’t contextualize current living conditions within historical frameworks, and see how past actions have enabled present inequalities, it becomes tempting to look at the past through the lens of nostalgia. We wish for a sanitized version of yesteryear that never existed.

Contextualizing our histories is also important for accountability, something I’ve been considering with regard to the Northeast’s role in promoting systemic racial inequality. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my very first museum job. During the summers of 2006 and 2007, I served as a tour guide for the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. Built between 1858 and 1860, the house is an architectural gem, as it represents the earliest and most complete interior design commission for the Herter brothers, important American designers. Constructed in brownstone and emulating the Italianate style then popular in Europe, the house is a marvel, with more than 90% of its original interior features and furnishings intact (they’ve also been doing a lot of conservation since I worked there, so it looks even more spectacular now). When I gave tours of this house, I would talk about these features, from the symbolism of the paintings, to the hotel-like layout from which the homeowner, Ruggles Sylvester Morse, took inspiration.

What was only mentioned in passing was the house’s connection to slavery. Though originally from Maine, Morse was a hotelier based in New Orleans; the Portland house was his summer home. As far as I can recall he didn’t own any enslaved people himself, but as a businessman based in the South, his work benefitted from slavery as an institution. During the Civil War, he actually spent little time in New England because he was a southern sympathizer. While we would mention Morse’s southern sympathies during the tour, it was never a primary focus. Thinking back on the readings I’ve been doing, I wonder now what a tour centered on Morris’s role as a southern sympathizer and hotelier benefiting from slavery would look like. No doubt, the tour format has changed since I was a guide there, but if I ever revisit Victoria Mansion, I’d be curious to see what kind of content they address now.

The readings have especially resonated with me this time because so many of them connect to previous experiences, both as a college student and early career professional. While I cannot change the way these courses were taught or the way I conducted my tours then, moving forward, I can be more mindful of the kinds of issues these texts raise.

#MuseumFromHome: Art Engagement and Covid-19

Life in the age of Corona has changed the way we do a lot of things, including how we consume art and other museum artifacts. I may not be working in museums right now, but I’m still concerned for their long-term well being. More immediately, I’m interested in how museums have been using the closures of Covid-19 as an opportunity to engage their audiences digitally. Today then, I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last couple of weeks.

Who says you have to go here to experience great art? By the way, this is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it’s literally the first image that came up when I typed “art museum” into the search engine.

First I’ll tell you a little about my process. I’ve always followed museums on social media, but I’ve been focusing on them more recently as a way of managing my time online (i.e. preventing downward spirals into anxiety and despair). I’ve been paying particular attention to how art museums have been responding to Covid-19, since my background is in art curation, but other kinds of institutions have been posting content as well (in arguably the cutest examples, of course, aquariums and related institutions have been letting the animals out to tour the museums). Of all the social media sites, I tend to use Instagram the most because it accommodates both text and image, but I’ve also been following individual museum websites, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m not especially familiar with TikTok or the other more recent platforms, but if I were to turn this into a research project I might look into them to see if and how they reach younger audiences.

I initially started thinking about museum responses to the Coronavirus when I started seeing the hashtag #MuseumFromHome on a lot of recent posts. From there, I began following different museums that either used that specific hashtag or otherwise related their content to the Coronavirus closures. The rhetoric typically goes something like this: “hey, we know you’re at home and can’t visit us, so we’ll bring the content to you!” Or something along those lines.

This Tiffany Lamp is one of many pieces the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has shared on Instagram recently.

When it comes to actual content, art museums have usually been sharing works from their collections, but certain themes have recurred. A lot of posts have a domestic element to them, whether through sharing works that focus on the home, or having staff members share works while working from their own houses. Such tactics not only establish a sense of empathy with viewers who are likely homebound, but also enable museums to align themselves with the familiar comforts associated with domesticity, underscoring their desirability as social media sites to visit. In one of the more extensive examples I’ve seen, Shelburne Museum, in addition to its blog and Instagram posts, has been offering tours of Founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s house via Facebook Live, led by curator Kory Rogers. A lot of posts also feature humor in them, with various museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, and other institutions offering moments of levity in a serious time.

Other posts have a decidedly less domestic character, in an effort to help visitors feel less confined. Some Instagram posts feature photographs from recent gallery tours, for example, encouraging visitors to reenact the experience of walking through the museum’s distinct spaces. In the most extensive examples, museums have enabled visitors to take actual virtual tours of their spaces. Places like the St. Louis Art Museum have also been recording new events and posting them online to maintain social distancing, such as a gallery talk by Kehinde Wiley. Other posts show works that depict different geographic locations, enabling viewers to embark on a virtual world tour through art. Sometimes these works will reference famous holidays or artist birthdays, offering a celebratory angle to the posts. What all these myriad efforts share is a sense of escape.

Harvard Art Museums recently shared this pastel by John Appleton on Instagram, Ocean Sunrise.

For the most part, the content has also been apolitical, with a focus on providing a sense of comfort and pleasure to visitors. That said, some places like the Allen Memorial Art Museum have taken a current events angle by sharing works on Instagram that address issues of health access and well-being. The Allen Museum also makes a point of including works by women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, and rotates its posts among different staff members. These posts are among the most extensive I’ve seen on Instagram, and read like detailed, scholarly exhibit labels.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum has been sharing works like Jenifer Woford’s MacArthur Nurses. Andrea Gyrody, Ellen Johnson ‘33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and one of my classmates from Williams, writes about the painting here. It’s a fascinating discussion, so be sure to check it out if you have a chance.

There’s also a strong personal element to these posts. A lot of museums will have curators and other staff share their favorite works, for example. Sharing staff favorites is an effective way to personalize museums with their visitors (heck, I did it at the Roswell Museum), but again, it’s the scale at which this is happening interests me. In one of the most popular recent examples, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has handed over its social media reins (forgive the pun) to its Chief of Security, Tim Send. Describing collections objects and other aspects of the museum through a distinctly humorous, folksy lens, Send introduces a personalizing element to his posts while also allowing visitors to experience the museum through the perspective of a staff member who might not usually get represented in social media. Additionally, Send’s wholesome and apolitical posts provide an optimistic element that associates positivity with the Western Heritage Museum’s brand, right down to Send’s hashtag #HashtagTheCowboy.

Tim Send has become a media celebrity thanks to his humorous posts for National Western Heritage Museum, and provides a new perspective on the museum’s collections. Image courtesy of https://heavy.com/news/2020/03/tim-send-national-cowboy-museum-twitter/

What also intrigues me is the way museums have been engaging audiences through participatory means. A lot of these methods have been used before, but it’s the scale at which it’s happening that’s struck me. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, have recently provided free coloring pages based on objects in their collection. Other museums like Shelburne have made music concerts available on Spotify and other channels so that visitors can re-experience those events from their homes. In perhaps the most playful example of inviting visitors to recreate or complete works of art through their participatory engagement, museums like the Getty and the Rijksmuseum, taking inspiration from the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine, have been inviting viewers to dress up and recreate works from their collection with items found in their own homes. Again, people have been dressing up as paintings for years, but it’s the scale and direct invitation to participate that’s caught my attention.

An example of a painting recreation using household materials, in this case a vacuum cleaner and towels. Image courtesy of @tussenkunstenquarantaine .

So what are my takeaways from all of this? Honestly, these are only preliminary observations because this social media work is still very much evolving, but here are some thoughts:

  1. How will this affect traveling exhibitions? Walter Benjamin argued in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photography would render the uniqueness of the original obsolete, but the scale at which people travel to see art in person, whether through traveling exhibitions or contemporary biennial, suggests that we still consider viewing the original significant. Yet ecocritics have rightly pointed out the ecological unsustainability of such a model, and that we should reevaluate the necessity of viewing originals. As these social media posts have suggested, viewers can have meaningful experiences digitally, if altogether different from the visual and tactile experience of the original. At the same time, I worry that this whole pandemic response could used as a means to justify cutting operating budgets to museums, since virtual experiences are possible.
  2. Social media can question or reify extant biases: While engaging visitors through a museum’s collection of greatest hits is a guaranteed way to secure visitor engagement, museums can and should also use social media as an opportunity to share lesser-known facets of their collection, or enable other staff members to contribute content.
  3. Everything depends on access: The world of the digital has often been hailed as the great democratizer, but as recent articles discussing the recent shift to online teaching have underscored, everything depends on web accessibility. If you can’t access the internet, you can’t experience this content, and not surprisingly, internet accessibility patterns tend to reflect the infrastructures of institutional racism and class-based separations.
  4. Ecological impact: the internet is often envisioned as an ethereal network that can liberate us from detrimental effects of climate change, but in reality it’s a massive physical and electronic infrastructure demanding large amounts of energy while also relying on toxic chemicals to make its connections work. In moving their work online, to what extent are museums assuaging or aggravating the current ecological crisis?
  5. Museums are more fun when visitors participate: Whether they’re dressing up as their favorite paintings or requesting that specific works be highlighted in Instagram posts, the whole #MuseumFromHome moment we’re experiencing is definitely a dialogue occurring between museums and they’re respective viewers, and that often makes for the most interesting posts.

So those are some preliminary thoughts. Overall, I find the work museums are doing right now to be exciting, and I’ll be interested to see how it continues to develop over the coming weeks.

Thinking About Art Shipping

A few weeks ago I was reading about the history of shipping containers and their influence on society. The book, appropriately enough, was titled The Container Principle, by Alexander Klose. His central argument is that the concept of containerization, of putting things into a standard-sized box designed explicitly for moving stuff to other places, has shaped globalization through enabling mobility, encouraging the standardization of forms, and the hyperconsumption underpinning late capitalism. He then explores the container’s significance through a series of chapters exploring its development, with the modern shipping container associated specifically with oceanic transport emerging during the 1960s.

A key part of containerization, Klose argues, is the emphasis on movement and transport as opposed to strictly storage. He posits that older forms of storage-based furniture, such as blanket chests, were tied to specific objects, and by extension a sense of rootedness to place and domesticity. To continue with the blanket chest example, storing blankets brings up associations with the bed, which is kept in the home, which is the site of procreation, and so on. Shipping containers, on the other hand, are designed for moving stuff to different places. Their design revolves around efficient, all-purpose storage, rather than be tailored to the specific objects they hold. It doesn’t matter what goes into them, whether it’s blankets or electronics. What counts is that they efficiently get these things from place to place. Their primary association isn’t with domesticity or sense of place, but rather their capability for transport.

I’ve been thinking about Klose’s concept of containerization within the framework of my previous experience as a curator. During my five years in Roswell, I spent a lot of time dealing with the movement of artwork. Sometimes I moved art myself, usually in the back of my car. Other times artists shipped their works themselves in a variety of packaging. Still other times we hired professional art shippers to move objects for us. What stands out from all of these experiences, however, is not simply the enhanced mobility of the art object as rendered through modern transportation forms, but an emphasis on their uniqueness, their materiality, as things.

The most vivid example of this occurred while working on the exhibition Magical and Real. For the show’s initial opening at the Michener Art Museum, we had about 20 of our works shipped to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, through a company called US Art. The day the art shippers arrived, we blocked off a gallery where they could wrap each of the works and place them in crates built specifically for the show. What struck me (and assuaged my anxieties about having the collection travel across the country) was the specificity surrounding the crates. Each box had been lined with thick foam passing cut to the exact framed dimensions of each work. In other words, each foam slot could only accommodate one specific work. No other painting would fit correctly. The process of transport may have been modern, but as a container, the art crate underscores rather than erases the object’s individuality.

We encountered that uniqueness again when the objects came back for the Roswell installation. This time, we not only had our own works, but all the other paintings from the Doylestown installation. Yet each crate and package, no matter which company manufactured them, underscored the individuality of the object through their construction. Those crates may have been designed expressly for movement, but they could only move one specific object.

That sense of the art object’s uniqueness is a quality underpinning art travel as a genre. Walter Benjamin speculated in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photographic images of artwork would dispel their seeming aura of uniqueness, but the number of people willing to undertake substantial journeys to see works of art in person suggests that the power of the original has not entirely dissipated. Whether we’re visiting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, or seeking unique immersive experiences such as Meow Wolf, art-related tourism is a big industry, to the point that scholar Adrian Franklin has recommended that we recognize it as a field distinct from tourist studies. Even at the Roswell Museum, we had visitors who came expressly to see singular works like our sole Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram’s Skull with Brown Leaves, or Peter Hurd’s The Gate and Beyond.

Peter Hurd, The Gate and Beyond, 1952, egg tempera on panel. I had at least one visitor call me asking whether this painting would be on view when they visited.

Then there’s the travel that works of art undertake to reach new audiences, suggesting that the experience of viewing the original object in all its materiality is a more profound encounter than viewing a reproduction. To take a recent example, the Obama portraits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are ubiquitous on the Internet, yet they’re still about to go on a national tour to various museums so that audiences unable or unwilling to travel to DC can see them in person. Even in an age defined by digital images, we continue to valorize the material power of the original work of art as a sensory experience.

I speculated on the aura of art objects in my mobility class last semester. For my final project, I argued that the uniqueness attributed to art objects stemmed in part from a sense of rootedness as articulated by anthropologist Liisa Malkki, or a connection to a specific place, culture, or conceptual idea. This rootedness, I argued, offers viewers a sense of stability and connection. By looking at the original art object, they get to experience that rootedness directly, without the intermediary of a photograph or digital image. Its physical presence, in other words, suggests a more tactile, authentic link to a sense of tradition or place, verifying our own experience of the world through the medium of our bodies.

But why does any of this matter? What difference does it make whether we understand the motivations behind why art objects travel, or why we undertake journeys to see them? Who cares how a crate is molded to a painting’s dimensions beyond knowing that it minimizes vibrations?

On an ecological level, it is important. As art museums and similar institutions grapple with climate change through their exhibitions and sustainability practices, they’ll have to confront the various ways they contribute to carbon emissions. Exhibitions, especially traveling ones, produce a significant amount of waste stemming from their ephemerality as experiences. Just as a shipping crate for a painting is fitted to one work’s exact dimensions, exhibition texts are catered to one specific show. Once that show comes down, those labels, vinyl letters, and panels get discarded. Crates generally can’t be used for other paintings unless their modified, a process that requires adding or throwing away foam and other materials. Then there’s the problem of transporting artwork and emissions resulting from transport in trucks or places. And the list goes on.

Russell W. Belk grapples with the role of museums in promoting consumption in his book Collecting in a Consumer Society. By celebrating the materiality of individual objects and placing primacy in things as the most effective means of preserving a culture, he argues that museums have promoted collecting and consumerism. In displaying material objects, particularly those of the rich, as things to be celebrated, museums demonstrate by example that it is inherently good to possess things. But what happens when the collectors who cherished these things die, or are no longer able to maintain their objects? What happens when children or other relatives are not interested in their parent’s collections? What about all the stuff that gets thrown away during purge cleanings? Where does it go? As these questions suggest, the unfortunate part of identifying yourself through your objects, of projecting your uniqueness into your things, is that no one else may care for them in the same way, because they do not see themselves in them. One person’s treasure is another’s trash.

So what does all of this have to do with containerization? As an art historian interested in how travel infrastructures influence art accessibility, I’m intrigued by how modern transport forms and materials have shaped how and where we move art. While some concepts such as transport via highway are distinctly modern, other concepts like the uniqueness dimensions of crates seem strangely resistant to standardization, even as the crates themselves follow certain procedures in terms of dimensions and building quality. In short, modern art transport, as far as I can tell, continues to affirm the uniqueness of the art object even as the art image becomes increasingly ubiquitous through digital means. Whether or not that’s the best model for our planet, however, is a question we’ll have to confront. Indeed, it may be time we reevaluated what it is we value about art in the first place.

Guided Creativity: A (Sort of) History

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been making an effort to be more consistent with my artistic practice. After seeing that I could make something every day with last year’s abstraction challenge, I’ve tried to draw or paint something new several times a week. I often work on these projects in the evening, as a way of unwinding before going to bed, or on the weekends as a way of taking a break from work.

A key part of what I find enjoyable in making art is knowing that there will be an end result. Whereas academic work can take months, often years, for tangible projects to manifest, creating a new drawing or painting enables me to watch my results unfold more quickly. Making hatch marks or brush strokes is calming, yes, but there’s also satisfaction from seeing an artwork come to fruition. In other words, downtime feels worthwhile because it’s productive in a very literal sense. Even if the work isn’t for sale, just knowing you’ve made something, whatever its purpose, offers a sense of accomplishment.

A series I completed last month: Feathered Four Seasons, 2020. Cyanotypes with tempera, gesso, and ink on paper.

Since I’ve been making art more consistently, it’s gotten me thinking about the role of creative productivity in American culture. From adult coloring books to knitting circles, guided creativity is as popular as ever today. Whatever you choose to make, you’ll have something to show for all your downtime. In a productivity-focused culture where doing nothing is discouraged, despite its benefits, craft projects legitimize leisure by enabling us to show the tangible results of our relaxation.

Not coincidentally, crafting and its related activities are entwined with wellness. After all, what better way to affirm the necessity of the arts than through connecting them to physical and mental health: a quick search online will display numerous articles touting the benefits of arts and crafts on mental wellness. At William and Mary and numerous other institutions, craft circles have become an important part of the wellness curriculum.

A page from a coloring book I made in 2015. You can still find it on Amazon. What, did you think I wasn’t going to peddle my wares on here?

Not that this is anything new. Take a look at American visual culture and you’ll find a rich history of crafting and what I call guided creativity. When I was in Roswell, everybody was into ceramics (including myself). When my mother was a college student in the 1970s, macrame was popular. And let’s not forget about Bob Ross, whose positive messages of happy little trees and joyful mark-making have been experiencing a resurgence thanks to the Internet.

Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bob-Ross .

Nor is guided creativity a recent phenomenon. Art historian Jennifer Jane Marshall has traced the popularization of soap-carving during the Great Depression. During the 19th century, theorem painting was a popular craft, especially among young women. These art forms may utilize different media, and indeed their very status as art has been questioned by both their contemporaries and subsequent historians, particularly when largely practiced by women. What they all share, however, is an emphasis on results. Whether you’re following a paint-by-numbers set or knitting a scarf, these techniques promise practitioners both the thrill of creativity and the security of guaranteed results. In short, their creative experiment is all but promised to succeed, rendering their time useful.

Image courtesy of https://www.richmond.com/entertainment/art/colonial-williamsburg-presents-theorem-art-at-abby-aldrich-rockefeller-folk/article_f5023f77-1dc6-5686-9c11-305b654a0c03.html

What drives this need for productive creativity? Some would argue that it reflects the capitalist nature of American culture, which places an emphasis on results and profit. That scarf or theorem may not be for sale, but it is the tangible result of work, so you have something to show for all the time you put into it. Indeed, entire industries have developed around guided creativity, with art supply stores offering coloring books, yarns, and other materials to stimulate one’s crafting prowess. Others would argue that guided creativity further enables the capitalist machine by distracting practitioners from the systemic economic and cultural dissatisfaction that permeates their lives. Who has time to rage against the machine when they’re preoccupied with knitting a hat? Still others would posit that guided creativity serves as a means of controlling creativity energy by funneling it into predetermined forms. You may be free to choose your own colors or patterns, but the basic structure and form of the activity you’ll do has been predetermined for you. In short, you can be creative so long as it doesn’t challenge the status quo when it comes to cultural forms. Color within the lines.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about guided creativity through the lens of the Community Art Center Project. In addition to hosting regular exhibitions, these centers also offered free art classes, with the intention of teaching adults and children alike how to paint, draw, or sculpt. As Victoria Grieve argues in her book The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, there was a commercial element to this effort. The Federal Art Project didn’t expect all of its students to become professional artists, but it did aspire to encourage sales by instilling art appreciation into visitors through education. Making art, in other words, would not only enable people to express themselves creatively, but would also help them to appreciate art as a commodity they could purchase for their own homes, having learned how to enjoy looking at it through their classes.

Student with artwork, 1939. In addition to exhibitions, the Roswell Museum hosted free art classes that taught painting, drawing, sculpture, and interior design.

While I don’t disagree that there’s a commercial aspect to the Community Art Center Project, I also think there’s something else going on here, something more basic. Making art, in my opinion, is often a distillation of what we experience in everyday life. Not so much in subject matter per se, though that often happens, but rather in the process of experiencing the world through sensory means. We experience and change the world through our bodies. Whether we’re touching a blade of grass or chewing food, our bodies are our means of both experiencing our and changing our surroundings. What better way to assert your presence in the world than by making something, whether it’s with your hands, your feet, or your mouth?

Not coincidentally in my opinion, the significance of craft and the handmade surges alongside massive technological change. During the turn of the twentieth century, for example, the Arts and Crafts Movement developed in Britain and the United States in response to a perceived decline in manufacturing quality due to industrialization. By reviving the craft-driven, handmade traditions of medieval guilds and workshops, designers like Gustav Stickley and William Morris argued that they could produce superior designs that emphasized the human presence.

From left to right: Vivian Bevans, Fall Tree, watercolor on paper; Zulma Steele-Parker, Drop-Front Desk with Three Iris Panels, 1904, oil paint and green stain on cherry wood; Ralph and Jane Whitehead, selection of White Pines Pottery with textile created at Byrdcliffe Colony, c. 1915-1926, Ceramic; Zulma Steele-Parker, Byrdcliffe, No. 4, c. 1914, oil on board.

Nowadays, in a world where smartphones and other screens connect you to virtual worlds, you can still find people typing poetry on vintage typewriters or baking bread as a means of achieving what they consider a more authentic experience. That desire to exercise positive change through our bodies, to a leave a literal mark on the world, persists. It’s frustratingly ironic that the arts are the first to go when it comes to funding because they’re considered nonessentials, but history has shown repeatedly that they are in fact important to a sense of self and well-being.

So is guided creativity nothing more than a commercial scam designed to keep us complacent while the capitalist machine rages on? Perhaps, but I think there’s something else going on too. In making art, hope to leave a trace of ourselves in the world.

Regardless, I’m going to keep making stuff.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel

I may not be actively curating shows at the moment, but I still visit art exhibitions, both for the often enjoyable content and to keep up with current installation and scholarly trends. One particularly fine exhibition I recently attended was Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February 23rd. Today, I’d like to talk about the show and my impressions of it.

First, a little bit about Edward Hopper (1882-1967). He’s probably most famous for the painting Nighthawks, which was featured in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but his oeuvre encompasses far more than that work. Born and raised in New York, he was a realist artist proficient in a variety of media, including oil painting, watercolors, and intaglio printmaking. His work often explores the loneliness of modernity, with his compositions usually highlighting isolated figures in movie theaters, automats, and other places that really only developed in the 20th century. His paintings, in particular, are often rendered in a tightly-painted, almost clinical style, and there’s definitely the discomfiting presence of the voyeur emanating from them. His work has endured with American audiences not only because of the relevance of his themes, but also because his works explore the tenets of abstraction while remaining grounded in representational painting. When you’re looking at one of his paintings, you’re never in doubt that you’re looking at a person or a house, but he arranges his objects in such a way that you can appreciate his use of line, shape, and color.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, as the title suggests, focuses on the role of hotels, and more broadly the travel and hospitality industry, in Hopper’s career. Curated by the VMFA’s chief curator in American art, Leo Mazow (who, incidentally, wrote one of the essays for the Magical and Real catalogue), the exhibition’s main thesis is that hospitality and tourism constitute a significant but overlooked part of Hopper’s oeuvre. To illustrate this argument, the exhibition then not only features works that include depictions of hotels, but documents the significance of travel, and by extension frequenting hotels, to Hopper’s oeuvre. The show then contextualizes Hopper’s travels within ongoing changes in tourism throughout the twentieth century, arguing that Hopper’s preference for the relative comfort and anonymity of hotels reflected broader trends in American travel and vacationing, with the automobile becoming an increasingly significant part of the overall cultural landscape.

The show includes an impressive array of materials dating from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. While most of the materials focus on Hopper, the exhibition also includes work from both his contemporaries and more contemporary artists to situate his work within a broader cultural and aesthetic framework. In going through the exhibition, viewers get the sense that, contrary to his compositions, Hopper is not working in isolation, but rather is responding to ongoing changes in both technology and social norms. Stylistically, his work may not necessarily change all that much over time, but his subject matter does.

In addition to highlighting some fine examples of Hopper’s work, the show also cleverly uses multimedia features to both engage audiences and effectively illustrate how travel fueled his practice. The gallery spaces includes several covers that Hopper created for travel and hotel magazines, for instance, as he was initially trained as a commercial illustrator. The exhibition also includes several flat screens that allow visitors to retrace various road trips Hopper took with his wife, Jo. As they learn about each stop, the screen displays quotes the pair wrote about a place in their respective letters and journals, as well as works that developed out of those road trips. For those who are more analogically inclined, there are also several cases of postcards the Hoppers sent to friends, a feature that helps humanize these artists by showing that they were, in effect, tourists.

While work from other artists is sprinkled throughout the exhibition, a lot of it is concentrated in a gallery dedicated to contemporary work, demonstrating to viewers not only the persistence of travel in American culture, but the influence of Hopper himself on later generations of artists.

Throughout the show, there’s definitely an interactive element. Some of it was quite subtle, as is the case with this vinyl cutout based on one of Hopper’s sketches. The original drawing is only about 18″ x 24″, so seeing it rendered on a human scale gives the work a different kind of presence while also reminding viewers that Hopper’s art was very much based in humanity and modeled on real people (his wife Jo modeled for a lot of his paintings).

By far the most novel interactive aspects though, are the two built hotel environments within the exhibition. The two installations, a lobby and an actual hotel room, respectively, are meticulously based on Hopper’s paintings. Indeed, it was somewhat uncanny to look away from the painting to see its built counterpart nearby, giving you the opportunity to experience the composition in both two and three dimensions. You can even pay to stay overnight in the hotel room, further enabling you to vicariously relive Hopper’s travel experiences (though I’m pretty sure it’s booked solid at this point).

The interactive element of Edward Hopper and the American Hotel is not an isolated phenomenon. Immersive, participatory exhibitions have become increasingly prominent in museums over the last few years, reflecting the influence of theme parks, as well as social media and the ever-present quest for Instagram-worthy images. The most overtly participatory art experience I’ve been to is Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe (though critics debate its actual art status), but more traditional museums like the Dallas Museum of Art have also embraced immersive experiences like Yayoi Kusama’s All the Eternal Love Have for the Pumpkins, on view in 2017 and 2018.

What I appreciate about Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, however, is that its participatory elements don’t feel like a gimmick, but instead provide insight into Hopper’s artistic practice. When you look into that empty hotel room, or presumably stay there, you get a sense of the isolation that he was trying to render in paint. When you look into the hotel lobby and see other visitors interacting with it, you can imagine Hopper doing the same thing, and perhaps envisioning how to best arrange the seemingly random influx of visitors into a meaningful and coherent composition. When you interact with the flat screen, you not only retrace his journeys, but can apply what you’ve learned to the paintings in the show, giving you greater context. The entire exhibition itself constitutes a kind of journey that takes you through Hopper’s career, with the interactive elements complementing and enhancing rather than detracting from the art’s travel-themed focus.

If you can’t tell, this exhibition resonated pretty deeply with me. Part of it was just me reminiscing on the curating experience (and envying the VMFA’s budget. Full-scale replicas of rooms aren’t cheap to make), but like a lot of the people in Hopper’s paintings, traveling and hotels have been an important part of my life. As a curator in New Mexico, I spent a lot of time in hotels due to overnight research trips or conferences, and am familiar with their weirdly generic quality. Hopper also painted a lot of places that I’ve personally visited, like the two scenes of Ogunquit beach above. In a lot of ways, Hopper’s paintings, though done many decades earlier, offer insight into my life, which is the overarching point of the exhibition.

But not everyone’s lives. The traveling America that Hopper paints is a decidedly white one, and the exhibition does address this. The labels for the magazine covers, for instance, discuss the role of black labor in enabling the travel experiences of white America. Some of the catalogue essayists also talk about the racial and class tensions underpinning Hopper’s work, specifically David Brody and Carmenita Higginbotham. A few of the more contemporary works on view also mention the Green Book and other themes specific to the black tourism experience. Yet I would have appreciated it if the exhibition itself had confronted the whiteness of Hopper’s oeuvre more directly, as that’s really the only way to challenge its status as the norm.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the exhibition. Mazow and the VMFA staff have put together a beautiful installation, so much so that I found myself getting a little nostalgic for my days in Roswell. It only seems appropriate then, that the exhibition ends with this painting: an old man looking out at a defunct railroad. As Hopper makes evident throughout his oeuvre, the past is in the past, and we can either grow old longing for it, or we can move forward. After a final look at this painting, I exited the exhibition ready to face whatever comes next.

My Goals for 2020

With the new year comes a time for reflection and new aspirations. Since I already did some reflection in last week’s post, today I’d like to highlight my goals for the coming year.

First, some academic goals:

  1. Complete my exams: This is probably the most obvious one, but getting through exams is the next big stage in my doctoral studies. I’m scheduled to take them in August, so get ready for future posts that talk about what I’m reading.

2. Write my prospectus: Once you’ve taken your exams, the next step is to write your prospectus. This is where you talk about what your dissertation topic is, the methodologies you’ll use to research it, and what intervention you hope to make in the field. Since I already know what I want to write about, I have an advantage, but I’ll still have plenty to do to get it ready.

3. Continue applying to (and ideally presenting at) conferences: Beyond sharing your work and having experience to put on your CV, conferences are a great way to network, so I definitely plan on continuing to attend them.

4. Continue networking: As an introvert, this is one of my biggest challenges because talking about yourself and your work to lots of new people can be draining. It’s important to get your name out there though, so my goal is to continue expanding my network here. I’ve started making inroads at Colonial Williamsburg, the Chrysler Museum, and the VMFA. This year I’d like to get better acquainted with people at the Smithsonian and the AHAA.

5. Start working on a DH project: Since coming to William and Mary, I’ve been envisioning a digital component to my dissertation, something that can be available to the public. Rather than idly think about it, I’d like to actually start working on it, even if it’s just sitting down with an IT expert and sketching out preliminary ideas.

6. Start looking for opportunities to get my writing published: I’ve been making lists of prospective journals to publish my work. As I get ready to start working on the dissertation later this year, I’d like to target some prospective journals for publishing future chapters.

7. Start inquiring about putting together an exhibition on art centers: Being a curator, I often think about academic projects as installations. Since the Community Art Center Project was all about exhibitions, moreover, I think it would be a good opportunity to curate a show around its history and materials. It’s a tall order, but it’s worth exploring, both to give another dimension to my work and keep my hand in the curatorial business.

And Just as Important, Some Non-Academic Goals

  1. Keep making art: I committed to painting every day last year. This year I want to keep that habit by working consistently in different media. I’ve already finished one oil painting and am getting reading to start a silverpoint drawing. I’d also like to get back into printmaking more seriously.

2. Get back into baking: Readers of my old blog will know I like to bake, even getting into sourdough during my last year in Roswell. I haven’t done a lot of baking since coming here, but I’ve been changing that by getting a new sourdough starter going.

3. Play music regularly again: Last year I played my flute in the William and Mary Wind Ensemble, but I didn’t join this year because I wanted to leave my schedule open for TAing. Unfortunately, I ended up practicing very little as a result, so this semester I’d like to be more consistent about my music, whether it’s in a group or on my own.

4. Write a memoir: I started writing a memoir when I moved here about my experiences in Roswell, as I’ve got a number of experiences and insights I’d like to share, particularly for anyone thinking of working in small museums. That project got derailed once classes started, but I’d like to have another go at it. Even if I only write a page a day, as I learned from my writing workshop, that will amount to a lot of text over time.

5. Exercise: I already do this regularly, but now that I’m no longer in classes, it’s important to get out and move consistently. Right now I alternate my days with circuit training, going for walks, and riding my back. I’m also looking into taking up swimming and getting back into yoga.

6. Get out more: I used to go stir crazy in Roswell if I didn’t get out periodically, and as much as I like Williamsburg, the same applies here. With my schedule being more flexible now with classes finished, I’d like to explore Richmond and other places, whether on my own or with Brandon.

7. Continue spending time with Brandon: We have a great relationship because we believe in open, frequent communication, and giving each other space. Brandon is very understanding about the demands my program makes on my time, but it’s also important I spend quality time with him every day. Now that classes are finished and my schedule is more open, I definitely want to make sure we get to enjoy one another’s company.

Those are my goals for 2020. It’s a lot, but I see these as ongoing goals for this year and beyond. So here’s to a happy, healthy, and productive year for everyone!