((Musings about my first year of learning about museums with help from heygirlmuseums.tumblr.com and the lovely and Ryan Gosling. This is, by no means, and exhaustive report of things. Just a few blurbs accompanied by a beautiful face.))
I’m approaching the end of year one of my Fellowship. I had initially planned on one gap year between undergrad and graduate school but like any good experience, this fellowship has changed my perspective on a lot of things. Although my love for and fascination with museums has grown so much, I’m not quite sure that the museum realm is for me. Coming from being trained in public school art education to being immersed in a world of museums has opened my world so much and exposed me to so many new and exciting people and experiences.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting and attending a phenomenal lecture by Wanda Jones Corn, Professor Emerita at Stanford University. Wanda Corn is not only a nationally recognized historian of American art, she has been blessed with the gift of being an amazing teacher. She has a studio art and teaching background (similar to mine!), and also works with museums (click the image of her for her full bio). Wanda has curated (or organized) exhibitions and written books about some of the greatest American Artists including Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe, and Grant Brown (you might be familiar with his piece, American Gothic, shown below)
Here is an account of Wanda’s interview with the legendary artist, Goergia O’Keefe:
“Wanda Corn, perched on a small stool at the foot of the icon, could hear the ticking of a nearby clock. She had been granted a 30-minute interview but it was stretching into an hour.
Suddenly O’Keeffe stood up, signaling that the questioning had come to an end. As they walked to the door together, the 93-year-old artist nudged Corn.
“She had a twinkle in her eye,” Corn recalls. “And she said to me, ‘You didn’t learn anything today that you didn’t know before, did you?'”
Corn had read everything she could about O’Keeffe and had to agree that she hadn’t heard anything new or startling.
“But I said to her, ‘You know what? It’s all in the teller, and listening to you make choices about which stories to tell me and what to emphasize has made all the difference.'”
Wanda’s lecture was composed of a few anecdote-filled stories about the aritsts she has worked with on various projects over the years. She spoke about extremely complex concepts in plain English (not “art speak”) without sounding pretentious, and simplified without dumbing things down. Like she said to Georgia O’Keeffe during her interview, it really is “all in the teller”. There have been so many differences between teaching in the classroom and museum contexts. I continue to struggle with finding threads that connect these two contexts even after doing this for a year, there are more differences than you would think. This element storytelling is definitely one of those threads, and attending Wanda’s lecture was a great example of how it’s done!
Below are Grant Wood’s sister and dentist who were models for American Gothic. Apparently Wood promised to make his dentist unrecognizable in the painting…I think he might have been telling a lie and his dentist was still mad about it years later in this picture!!!
2. Show business:
The lecture also touched on the many components that go into organizing an exhibition. (If you want to get into the nitty gritty, you can read about more here!) It was kind of like a mini crash course about the inner workings of a museum. As I sat there with the Director of my museum, light bulbs were going off left and right. She spoke about so many things that I didn’t understand a year ago (and no one ever explained to me), but made so much sense to me now. There’s a lot more involved than hanging something on a wall or plopping it on a podium, that’s for sure. My position as a Museum Educator involves being a docent, teaching outside the museum, and various other things, but doesn’t overlap with much of the execution of the actual exhibition,
but I do get to be an active lurker and fly on the wall, watching it all come together.
Wanda spoke about how pulling off a museum show being similar to pulling off a theatrical performance. It feels a lot like show business! There are so many people involved behind the scenes, the phones are always ringing, there are always meetings happening, schmoozing to be done. You have to find the works of art that you want in the show. If they come from private collections someone many need to track them down and sometimes convince people to lend the artwork for your show. Grant writers help find money to support the show,a graphic designer works on the catalogue, and a printing company prints it. Someone has to help with maintaining the gallery space, patching up holes in the walls from the previous exhibition, painting, building additional walls, replacing burn out light bulbs and adjusting them to light the work properly. Then, you might have some high maintenance works of very high value that must be accompanied by courier (basically a babysitter) while in transit. (If you wan’t to read more about what courier-ing..? is like, read this blog post that I found! ) These works often need special treatment to conserve them, which may include humidity controlled boxes and careful lighting.
There are labels, essays, speakers, project managers, exhibition designers, and so many other things involved, this (too long) paragraph is only scratching the surface. When you’re coming from a place, like I am, more passionate about how works of art can be used to teach, the behind the scenes part of things can be interesting, but overwhelming at times. Here‘s an interesting blog post from the Getty Museum in LA about installing or “hanging” an exhibition.
Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself and my career. In the past year I’ve had the opportunity to hear so many successful people speak. I’ve had conversations that have opened my mind and encouraged me throughout this journey. I know that whatever comes next, whether it’s another year here or a different adventure, I’ve learned to celebrate the mini victories that have come from this giant leap of faith. Now I can say that I know how to grant write, I know how to organize a curriculum and lead gallery tours, I know how to schmooze (there really is an art to it!), and I’m the first person to hold and define the position that I have. I was chosen to do this from a nation-wide search and I couldn’t be more thankful. If I knew last June, what I knew now, I’d tell myself to practice my writing, focus my energy on trying to make connections, not to be scared, and to be ready for a huge life change. Not sure what’s on the agenda next (A possible migration back down south!? 🙂 ) but I feel a little more confident about whatever the future may bring.