To be or not to be…. controversial

Last year, the National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition called, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” that ended up causing quite a stir. The show examines how gender and sexual identity informed and was a key component to modernism in America, and contributed a perspective about modern painting that has not yet been fully explored. While there were some risqué aspects of the show (nudity, playing with gender and gender roles), there was one piece that caused a particular outcry among the religious right.  David Wojnarowicz’s video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” that contained a scene of ants crawling over a crucifix, was taken down, as it was seen by some (namely William Donohue of the Catholic League) as anti-Catholic. There was a huge outcry against this decision, and a series of protests and panels were held across the country to discuss the Smithsonian Secretary’s decision. Funding was pulled from the exhibition, and some of the artists in the exhibition took down their artwork. This was a controversy on the scale of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcorcan Gallery in 1989, and many people were not pleased.

Fast forward one year, and “Hide/Seek” is now opening at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. But the Brooklyn Museum Director, Arnold Lehman, has made it quite clear that Woknarowicz’s work will be a part of the exhibition: “Lehman says there is a long history of gruesome depictions of the crucifix in art history and says the piece shows the anguish and anger of an artist dying of AIDS. ‘He himself was brought up as Catholic. I don’t think he would have ever thought if this as anti-Christian or anti-Catholic,’ says Lehman. ‘I think he thought of this as a cry for someone to look at the suffering going on in the world and try to help.'”

The Brooklyn Museum is using a video to try and put that specific work of art into a context that visitors will understand, therefore diminishing the chances of pissing people off: “The Brooklyn exhibit also has a timeline about the “A Fire In My Belly” video that was not in the D.C. show, as perhaps another way to create context about a controversial work of art.” I definitely understand the need to make the work as accessible as possible (the museum should be doing that for every work it shows), but I think that they are making a mistake by singling out this work again.  Yes it has proven to be controversial and perhaps misunderstood, but every new audience brings the potential for new controversy, especially in a show like “Hide/Seek.” If the museum is going to take the time to contextualize “A Fire in My Belly,” why not do it for the whole show?

I respect the Brooklyn Museum for keeping the exhibition intact and I understand why they added the extra element for “A Fire in My Belly,” but something about that decision rubs me the wrong way. I went to the show while it was in DC, and there are so many incredible paintings that awed me, made me question (or honestly grossed me out a little), BUT the point is that there are so many other works in that show worth talking about. It would be a shame if people got caught up in the controversy again and missed some of the other elements that makes “Hide/Seek” such a powerful exhibition.


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Art as the Memory Keeper

I thought I’d add a little feel-good post to get us through the rest of the week…

ArtNews posted an article on November 1st about a new program going on at MoMA that is targeted specifically at visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A little history, before we begin: “MoMA’s pioneering work with the Alzheimer’s population began in 2006 with a pilot program at a nursing home, developed by Francesca Rosenberg, director of the education department’s Community, Access, and School programs. In 2007, the MetLife Foundation awarded Rosenberg and her team a $450,000 grant to develop an arts-and-dementia program that could be adopted by other institutions. A second grant of $400,000 two years later funded an outreach effort that saw MoMA educators visiting institutions around the world to train museum professionals, caregivers, teachers, and health-care providers. A third MetLife gift, earlier this year, will underwrite yet more training.”

What I was able to glean from the article is that the educators are taking these visitors with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia through the galleries using VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies. The basis of VTS is that the facilitator, or educator, offers absolutely no information to the visitors, and instead relies on the group to discern what a painting or object is about.  Facilitators ask three questions: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? The facilitator repeats back each answer, sometimes rephrasing to get at certain key words, and accepts each answer at face value.  Visitors must back up their answers with evidence from what they see, but no answer is wrong.

This strategy of learning in the gallery, that has its roots at MoMA, is especially effective with Alzheimer’s visitors, according to the article in ArtNews.  Art can trigger emotional memories (the kind that dementia patients can still recall), and because there are no right or wrong answers when using VTS, participants don’t feel uncomfortable if they do not know a name or date. Patients with diseases that are increasingly isolating are allowed the opportunity to engage not only with the art, but with the community around them and their own memories as well.

I see this program as a museum at its best, using its collection to engage with and contribute to the community in which it exists. MoMA is taking theories and teaching techniques that were developed in its own house and applying them in ways that are not entirely obvious at the outset. Say what you will about MoMA, but this is the kind of program that should be emulated in museums everywhere.

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Occupy Wall Street… or Museums?

Sorry for my absence last week – I’ll make up for it with a couple of new posts this week.

The topic of conversation today is Occupy Museums, a new scheme in the OCCUPY movement happening around the US. Last week, the Washington Post reported on this new movement, whose manifesto can be found here. First, I thought that I’d share a few of my favorite gems:

“The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite.”


“Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital … The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.”

Granted, I’ll give these protestors the fact that it’s hard to disassociate museums with cultural elitism.  And the last thing I want to do is call them, “sore losers,” as they put it in this manifesto by Paddy Johnson.  But isn’t this the age of the new museology? Haven’t museums already started to change?  Let’s take a look at the National Museum of the American Indian (which I went to yesterday for the first time, by the way. Very cool). The whole premise of the museum is that it works in collaboration with the people whose culture and art are being displayed.  These different native nations actually curated individual exhibitions about their culture and history. NMAI is is not created by or necessarily catering to the 1% at all.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is another example. NMAAHC is an entire museum dedicated to telling a part of American History that has been forgotten or discarded by the 1%. And these are federally funded museums. Our government is actively supporting institutions that speak to a very diverse America.

I think the quote that bothers me the most is: “Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!” Museums exist today because of a belief in sharing the art that they have collected with the public.  As Maura Judkis from the Washington Post says, “Though museum exhibitions drive the market for art collectors, the art likely would be off-limits to the 99 percent because it would be displayed exclusively in the homes of the 1 percent.” Judkis has a point – if it weren’t for museums, none of the artwork we have access to today would be on display.

I do believe that museums should be held accountable by the communities in which they exist, but I do not think that Occupy Museums is the answer. Who knows, maybe full-on protest will bring the results that these people are looking for.  But considering the more conservative nature of museums in general, my money’s not on these protestors.

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There’s an app for that…

Recently, I have been reading the Dispatches from the Future of Museums (thank you, Professor Pomeroy for taking us to AAM so I could learn about this wonderful resource), and I just came across a very interesting article. Before you say anything, yes, I 100% stole the title from the source article for this post. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?  But seriously, this article on mobile apps for museums really caught my eye.

Basically, Wikipedia has created an application for mobile phones that allows a museum visitor to scan a barcode located on a wall label or text and find out tons of information about an artist or a painting. First let me say: this is really cool. I don’t understand how technology works so when all of a sudden I can click a button and 1. order a pizza 2. text a friend and 3. learn about the complex identity politics associated with Catalonia as revealed through Joan Miró’s representation of its landscape and traditions all at the same time (a traveling show of Miró’s work is one of the first exhibitions to use this technology) – I’m a bit floored. For me, the history nerd who looks up historical and artistic facts in and out of museums on a daily basis, this is like Christmas come early. I love knowing every detail that I can about an object before I sit back and just look at it, and an application like this will provide me with the information that I so seriously crave.

The article also highlights the fact that QRpedia, as the creators are calling it, will allow museum professionals to provide information about any object in almost any language.  For larger museums that draw international crowds, I think that something like QRpedia could prove to be indispensable. Most museums only provide information in one written language, and maybe a handful with their audio tours.  This new application could help a museum reach entirely new populations simply by making exhibitions more language accessible.

However, I also understand that there could be some drawbacks.  Distraction from the object and more focus on the technology is what immediately comes to mind, and keeping people glued to their phones while they walk through a museum is not exactly an inspiring sight.

For the most part, though, I am excited about the prospect of technology like this.  I think it could be an important interpretive tool if used correctly – I guess the issue is how to do that.

But also, I am writing a term paper for another class on this EXACT topic, so finding this article was like killing two birds with one stone. Now if only there were an app for that….


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Keeping up with the Rubells

Alright, I’ll admit it: I get google alerts about art and culture as a way to keep me up to date with what’s going on in the art and museum world in DC (and also to help me get ideas for this blog). So I’m going through this past week’s alerts, and I swear every other article is about Mera Rubell, one of her museums, one of her hotels or one of her exhibitions.  Now, for those of you reading this that don’t know who Mera Rubell is – well, you’re too far gone for my help. Head right on back to that rock you’ve been living under.

But for those of you who do know who I’m talking about – it’s clear that this woman and her husband, Don, have invaded and are recreating the DC art scene.  In 2009, she did a tour of artists’ studios in DC that was highly covered by the Washington Post as part of a project for Washington Project for the Arts (WPA). Last year, the Rubells bought property in SW Washington from the Corcoran Gallery with plans to build a luxury hotel and apartments with a museum next door to house part of their incredible collection of contemporary art.  Just a few weeks ago, the first major art fair ever in DC was held at the Rubell’s Capitol Skyline Hotel, also in SW.  And to top it off, the Rubells donated all of the works and curated the new show that just opened up at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 30 Americans. Seriously, I don’t think this woman sleeps.

What I find most interesting, however, is the attitude about museums that the Rubells seem to have.  To them, it is not just about exhibiting interesting, provocative, educational, or beautiful works of art.  Showing these works is extremely important, but their work is just as much about social justice as it is about art. In one of the first articles that came out about the new museum in DC, Mera Rubell was quoted as saying, “This is a story of urban renewal … It’s about having faith and allowing yourself to dare to imagine a future.” She has embraced the new role of the museum in society completely, and I believe that this new idea stands at odds with many of the more traditional museums in the city.

As I understand it, the new hotel and apartments in DC will act as an endowment for the museum, and all three will (supposedly) help revive a neighborhood that has struggled in the past.  It is their hope that they can do for this neighborhood in SW Washington what they did for Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood in the past.

While I’m still a little unsure about the entire project, I am excited to see what’s coming.  Will there be a clash between the old and new museology in DC? Will the public embrace an outsider coming in who wants to “fix” all that is wrong in DC (not just artistically, but socially as well)? I honestly don’t know. But DC will be the place to be in terms of the art and museums in the coming years, and I don’t plan on missing it.

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Milbanksy and the Death of Street Art

Washington City Paper has been following the shenanigans of a group of street artists who have dubbed themselves, “Milbanksy,” and have stickered the city with images of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, Thomas Jefferson, and pandas. First of all, I am upset that I have not seen these, and have vowed to keep a better eye out for them.

Secondly, I found it interesting that the Washington City Paper writers were disparaging on the idea of hyperlocal street art and its possibilities within the city: “We assumed all of this was satirical—a mash-up of street-art tropes and low-stakes parochial concerns that exposed the absurdity of both. Turns out we were only sort of right.”  It seems that Milbanksy was following the City Paper’s coverage of their work, and the most recent article  includes a response given by the artists themselves to the staff writers at City Paper. I immediately liked these guys/girls, though, mostly because they started spouting out points that we’ve covered in our readings over the past few weeks: “But how many of the stickers [posted around town] are accessible? That is, how does a person engage any random sticker? Who notices stickers, anyway? The appreciation of any image depends in large part on personal experience, obviously. But we’ll leave the art history stuff to the experts. Which we are not.”  Their attitude about the project was part jokester and part instigator, which I guess could be typical for many street artists.

I also found it interesting that both parties, Milbanksy and City Paper, bemoaned the fact that street art is on its way out.  Milbanksy commented that by posting these sticker they, “are unwittingly continuing street art’s march from a maligned form of expression to one that is so mainstream that it loses its appeal,” and City Paper begins an early article about Milbanksy by saying, “If an art form is dead once all it can do is comment on itself, well, it was nice knowing you, street art.”

This idea calls into mind some of the readings and discussions we’ve been having on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and it’s place in museums.  What began as subversive to the cultural and artistic norm is now so mainstream that we’ve labeled exhibitions that contain these works as “blockbusters.”  The City Paper articles are suggesting that street art is dead because it is too mainstream, which I find somewhat depressing. My roommate (who wrote her thesis on street artists, as it so happens) brought up the graffiti show at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the first major exhibitions focused on street art, that opened this past spring.  If street art is at the point where it can be the subject of a major exhibition at a museum, has it lost one of the main qualities that initially made it great? What the, is the next step? Continue to exhibit street art? Or leave it to it’s more humble origins?

This is a topic that I could go on about for a while, and perhaps I will at a later date.  Until then, I’m going to keep an eye out of a stickers of Dana Milbank.

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Community Artwork in Museums

I read an article today about a museum in Odessa, TX that is hosting an art fair type event called Art a la Carte this coming weekend.  There will be a sidewalk chalk art contest for children, after which families will have the chance to watch artist demonstrations and participate in many hands-on activities, such as painting, printmaking, origami and pottery.  This entire event is part of the community art projects that the Ellen Noel Art Museum sponsors every year.

One of the artists who will be present at Art a la Carte will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the museum.  And this is what really caught my eye: Joan Son will be teaching children how to fold paper butterflies throughout the day at the event, and these specific butterflies will be included in her exhibition, “Beyond Paper Folding: The Art of Joan Son.”  These butterflies will hang from the ceilings and walls in Joan Son’s exhibition, which will also include sculpture and other folded paper forms.

Doylene Land, curator of education at the Ellen Noel Art Museum, said,“The idea behind the community art project is, of course, people working together. Also it gives the students a sense of pride and being a part of the museum. They want to come back and see where their project is. This one will be part of an exhibition. We are very honored and pleased that an artist will allow this to happen in their show” (

This museum has found a way to connect the community so closely to its programming and exhibitions that the public itself has begun to take part in making the actual art that hangs on the walls.  Admittedly, I have not done a ton of research about community art in museums, and so I do not know how often this type of interaction occurs.  Also, perhaps I shouldn’t be that surprised about the public being so involved in creating the art, as this particular museum’s mission is to serve the needs of the community in which it exists.

I just find the entire idea incredibly interesting, that the public has a hand in creating the art that will be shown in their museum. In this situation, the people in the community are students of art (when learning to make these folded paper creations), they are the artist themselves (as it will be their handiwork hanging on the walls), and yet as they will have ownership in the exhibition and a greater understanding of it because of their first-hand experience with the art, they may be the best teachers for their peers.

I don’t know, maybe the whole thing is more like a renaissance workshop, where the master creates the design and the apprentices fill in the lines. But maybe not. I think that the professionals at the Ellen Noel Museum are creating a very interesting relationship with the community in which they exist, and their ideas are definitely worth considering.

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