Dissertation Work, February Update

Last month I talked about the on-site visits I’d made to the VMFA‘s archive to look at the materials on their first artmobile program. Since then, I’ve been reviewing the documents I photographed and taking notes. Let’s take a look at some of the things I’ve been learning.

Most generally, I’ve been learning about the history of the artmobile, from how it developed, to the exhibits it shared, to the number of vehicles in the program (there were actually four in operation during the Artmobile’s apex in popularity and funding, each with a different community focus). While the Artmobile officially opened in 1953, the VMFA’s staff began exploring it as a possibility for outreach years earlier, with the earliest documents in the archive dating from about 1950. A major impetus for starting the Artmobile was the VMFA’s statewide mission. When it opened in 1936, it was tasked with serving audiences across the state, not just in Richmond. As such, it already had a robust catalog of traveling exhibitions by 1950, with more than 70 shows available on request. Yet an ongoing concern throughout this period was the availability of appropriate exhibition space. For the VMFA, most of the public spaces in Virginia, whether they were libraries, schools, or other buildings, did not meet the museum’s expectations regarding appropriate security, lighting, and so on, which limited the kinds of objects they felt comfortable sharing. The museum wanted an alternative to the traveling exhibits that enabled them to share their higher-quality objects while guaranteeing the safety of those collections. The answer was to mobilize one of their own galleries.

One thing that’s really struck me about the Artmobile in its first incarnation is how intimately linked it is to larger trends in not only highway transportation, but the overall emphasis on automobile travel and leisure that defined the midcentury (and whose infrastructure continues to plague us today). After all, the interstate system is being developed at this time, enabling people with access to cars the ability to traverse the country at increasing speeds and distances. Brochures from the archive show that the Artmobile took inspiration from not just the availability of highways, but the proliferation of RVs and other leisure-based vehicles. With suburbs becoming an increasingly popular option for (white) people, moreover, city-based museums like the VMFA were having to contend with populations living further and further from their central urban location. Indeed, letters and statements from VMFA staff state explicitly that a major source of inspiration for the Artmobile was the recognition of automobile culture at large.

Related to this emphasis on modern transit technologies is the Artmobile’s public image. Publicity for the Artmobile, whether written by staff or newspaper reporters (subject to the approval of staff), emphasizes the modernity of the Artmobile, not only in its use of modern materials, but especially in its museum practices. Many newspaper and magazine articles emphasize the contrast between the Artmobile’s interior and exterior, and the seeming incongruity between the Artmobile’s outward presentation as a hauling truck and its interior as an art gallery. One quality that gets emphasized repeatedly in these documents is the modernity of the interior itself as a gallery. Staff members and reporters highlight how the interior uses up-to-date gallery technologies, from the spotlights used to illuminate individual works of art, to the use of monkscloth as a wall covering, popular in museums at the time. In essence, it’s not just a vehicle for transporting art, but a mobilized art gallery. Its curation is akin to the galleries at the VMFA’s permanent building, so what visitors are getting is the Museum itself. These descriptions have been especially exciting for me because I’ve been arguing in my notes that mobilized, autonomous galleries like the Artmobile are distinct from outreach exhibitions temporarily staged in extant, non-gallery spaces like school classrooms or libraries. They may share the same objective of providing access to art, but they present somewhat differently. One temporarily transforms an established space into a gallery-type setting, while the other temporarily offers an actual gallery.

In terms of the operation of the artmobile program, I’ve also been paying attention to its labor, particularly that of its Driver-Curator, the person who both operated the Artmobile and interpreted its contents to audiences. The Driver-Curators throughout the 50s and early 60s were young white men who had initially trained as artists or art educators and then received additional training in trucking. Some, like William Gaines, the first Driver-Curator, already worked at the Museum as Registrars or Educators. During the Artmobile’s operation, they essentially lived on the road, staying in the towns the Artmobile visited, usually with volunteers or hotels when available. In newspaper articles covering the Artmobile, an interesting class tension emerges when describing the Driver-Curator’s role, with a lot of writers observing how the position straddles white-collar and blue-collar labor. On the one hand, the act of driving a truck like the Artmobile, which resembles hauling trucks of the time, is associated with working-class labor. Yet the Driver-Curator presents himself as a museum educator, typically wearing a white shirt and tie. William Gaines in particular seemed to recognize and enjoy blurring class boundaries, deliberately eating at truck stops rather than drive-ins and socializing with other truckers.

The perceived novelty between curation and hauling artwork isn’t limited to the 50s. During my time in Roswell, I transported both individual objects and entire exhibitions by U-Haul on a few occasions, and I got more than a few odd looks from artists and audiences when I’d pull up in the truck. In these instances, the reactions were primarily related to gender rather than class, as people found the sight of a petite woman driving a truck amusing, (although really, the point of a U-Haul is that you can drive it without special training or license. It’s more akin to driving a large van or car rather than a 16-wheeler). But I can still relate to the surprised reactions that often come with the surprisingly mundane ways of transporting art. As Jennifer Roberts points out, we tend to forget that works of art are physical objects, and while moving them might be more involved than loading up a couch or table, the basic method is the same.

I’ve also been paying attention to the labor of volunteers. In particular, I’ve been noting the significance of the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs (VFWC), the group that sponsored the Artmobile’s operating costs for its first couple of years. The VFWC was (and is) an extensive organization, with local women’s clubs both operating autonomously and reporting back to statewide officers (and national ones too). The VMFA approached this group because they were longtime institutional members with a history of both assisting the museum and funding mobilized service vehicles, specifically a vehicle dedicated to cancer awareness and education. Yet their impact extended far beyond monetary donations. Consisting of local branches of women’s clubs, the VFWC essentially determined the Artmobile’s schedule for its first years of existence, working with the museum to create schedules based on weather conditions, the proximity of different communities, and the presence of local branches. Through their involvement with the program, in other words, they shaped the Artmobile’s visitation patterns, and by extension the art access it provided, with communities featuring women’s clubs getting priority (and yes, given that this is segregated Virginia we’re talking about, race will be addressed in this chapter, as it has been in previous chapters).

In addition, local women’s clubs performed the preparatory labor for on-site visits, from identifying appropriate sites for the Artmobile to park, to communicating with teachers and other educators about its impending visit. During the artmobile visit, moreover, these women’s clubs would assign members as “hostesses” to be available to assist the Driver-Curator by helping corral audiences or provide rest breaks by taking over the curation. A major reason for the Artmobile’s success was the significant volunteer labor of the VFWC, with its statewide social connections essentially providing the vehicle with a ready-made network of contacts and communities. Given that the social relationships between museums and their hosting sites has become a major theme in the dissertation, this information about the VFWC is especially useful.

I’ve still got some documents to work through, but I’ve already learned a lot about the program, far more than I can adequately discuss in one post. I’m especially excited to go through the exhibit schedules in more detail, as I should have enough data to be able to start mapping out its larger patterns of art access. Once I get through everything, I’ll peruse my freewrites and notes in relation to my other dissertation chapters to determine my primary focus. Regardless of the direction I take, this should make for an enriching chapter.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *