Conversation Pieces: The Value of Dialogue in Art Museums
October 26, 2016
The deepest and most affecting experiences visitors have in art museums are those in which they share in the unfolding, unraveling, and translation of the meaning of artworks.
—Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee
Joanna Marsh, Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation, fills us in on the theory behind Conversation Pieces, a discussion-based public program that takes place monthly in SAAM's galleries.
What makes a meaningful museum experience? The objects on view? The stories that emerge? The coffee in the cafe? Everyone has a different measure for their ideal museum visit, but the common denominator is often the exchange of ideas —the conversations that occur and connections that are made. At the American Art Museum, we see this reflected in visitor comments month after month. The public praises their interactions with docents, security staff, and museum educators. The social encounters that take place in our galleries lead to a richer museum experience. Decades of research supports our anecdotal evidence: people learn from interactions with others. So, this June, the museum launched a new public program called Conversation Pieces, that fosters discovery through dialogue.
Modeled on the museum's Is This Art? series, which ran from 2012-2014, this new discussion-based program offers visitors the chance to slow down and spend an hour looking at a single work from the museum's contemporary collection. Why contemporary art? Very simply, many museumgoers find it baffling. They think contemporary art isn't "for them" because it's so often discussed in terms that obscure and alienate. That's the opposite of what most contemporary artists are trying to achieve with their work. Their purpose, and ours at SAAM, is to start an engaging conversation. That's the point of the Conversation Pieces series.
Once a month, visitors gather around a pre-selected artwork and exchange introductions. The session starts silently, as each viewer sizes up the artwork, looking closely, contemplating quietly, thinking freely for two minutes. Then the conversation begins. Some come to talk. Others prefer to listen. The dialogue is fueled by participant contributions and facilitated by a museum educator who judiciously shares information about the art work as it becomes relevant. No prior knowledge of art is needed. The conversation is fluid, open-ended and democratic. Everyone's voice is heard and perspective validated. Meaning is made together, not by one but by many.
The conversations taking place in our galleries during this series (and many others) are not unusual. Most art museums offer similar experiences predicated on the goal of bringing people together to exchange thoughts and observations. The increasing prevalence of programs like Conversation Pieces suggests their value, but the proof is in the intent gazes and animated voices of the visitors who participate. While it's impossible to predict how each conversation will unfold or where it will lead, the process of looking and learning together is empowering viewers and revealing the connection between contemporary art and contemporary life.
Luce Unplugged: Five Questions + Two with Hand Grenade Job
October 25, 2016
On November 4, Hand Grenade Job (HGJ) performs at our Fall Luce Unplugged Community Showcase in the Luce Foundation Center. We teamed up with Washington City Paper to present this experimental post-Americana duo from the D.C. DIY punk scene. With Beck Levy playing guitar and Erin McCarley on percussion, both women are vocalists and multi-instrumentalists. We chatted with Beck and Erin to hear how Hand Grenade Job takes a multidisciplinary approach to making music and creates dynamic performances using visual and performance art.
Eye Level: You define your band as post-Americana. How would you describe this type of music?
Beck Levy: We describe ourselves as "post-Americana" for a few reasons. I'm inspired by classic Americana like John Fahey, with whom we share a fondness for D.C. area waterways. I'm inspired by contemporary musicians like Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams. Our music is a departure from the instrumentation and style of those folks though, hence the "post." We're also fervently post-America in a futurist sense, in style, and in spirit. Utopias exist only in our hearts and in the future.
EL: Who are your musical icons? Where do you seek inspiration?
Erin McCarley: My inspiration lately has come from thinking about detachment and alienation from the natural world in modern life and how the distancing of our bodies, from a connection with the earth, impacts our human experience. Our senses are entrenched in a manufactured, industrial world our biological bodies cannot possibly have evolved to accommodate. What does it mean and how does it impact us to hear sirens, helicopters, airplanes, engines, and industrial sounds every day? The assault on our senses by chemicals, pesticides, and detergents; and the amount of manipulative advertising data we process in a day, passively or actively. We are adaptable, but what is the cost? This informs how I approach and think about HGJ as a post-Americana creative entity.
EL: Your live performances include elements of visual and performance art. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process when preparing for a show?
BL: We spend as much time talking about what mood we want to evoke as we do practicing. We construct a different habitat for ourselves for almost every show. There are live samples we've only used once. There are entire sets we have only played once, and entire songs that we only wrote or learned for a particular show.
EL: How has your music evolved since you both started playing together in 2012?
EM: It continues to grow as a creative partnership that encourages and makes use of a multidisciplinary approach.
BL: We played a show on the first night of Passover one year; it also happened to be the anniversary of the Iraq War. So we composed an entire anti-occupation set. It was the loudest we ever played. We also had the honor of a third companion for a few performances: Carrie Mumah. Carrie has a unique energy I love. Her focus and restraint is palpable and felt very compatible with what we try to do. During that anti-occupation set, she marked a piece of handmade paper with wine, carefully and thoroughly. During a Valentine's Day set, Carrie knitted a white textile into a bowl of red water on her lap. And for another show, she sanctified the stage of the Black Cat with vetiver (you're welcome, everyone who plays there) and sat facing us, doing reiki on us.
EL: What is your advice to aspiring musicians in D.C.?
BL: Ignore other people's reactions and opinions of your music. Focus exclusively on your work for its own sake. Play exclusively for yourself and for your bandmates. If you don't like any of the scenes that are available to you, create your own, even if it's an anachronistic little bubble in the midst of another scene.
EL: How can fans access your music and are you releasing any upcoming albums?
BL: In January, we recorded our first full length album, Devotionals. We recorded it in a cabin in western Maryland between two blizzards. The album definitely evokes the setting in which it was created. Some songs are really minimal, vocals only. In others, we use every single instrument we hauled out there: guitar, accordion, autoharp, cello, marimba, timpani, and field recordings too. Immediately after recording, I took up an unconventional artist's residency at the National Institutes of Health. For 7 months I participated in research on the psychological effects of Ketamine. So, in a way, Devotionals is an album book-ended by snowstorms and psychedelics—and it sounds like one, too. We can't wait for you to hear Devotionals. Sister Polygon Records will be releasing it in early 2017. You can listen to our current music online here.
Hear Hand Grenade Job play Friday, Nov. 4, from 6-8 p.m. following a performance by K A G. The concert, presented in collaboration with Washington City Paper, will include free tastings from Bold Rock Hard Cider as well as a cash bar with additional drinks and snacks. Check out more details on Luce's Facebook page. See you Friday!
Reenvisioned Galleries of Folk and Self-Taught Art
October 21, 2016
The Smithsonian American Art Museum's ground floor galleries of Folk and Self-Taught Art reopen today with a compelling, new installation that features more than 120 objects, including 59 new acquisitions. These include works by artists such as Emery Blagdon, Ralph Fasanella, Clementine Hunter, Eddy Mumma, and Achilles Rizzoli. These join visitor favorites by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Martín Ramírez and Jon Serl.
"The first-floor galleries for folk and self-taught art should have a powerful impact on visitors, conveying not only the museum's commitment to diverse American narratives and manifesting the tremendous quality, depth and power that art by untrained artists can have, but also affirming its rightful position in a museum of great art," said Leslie Umberger, the museum's curator of folk and self-taught art.
The artists in the exhibition grapple with themes both ubiquitous and personal, from the secular to the sublime. Emery Blagdon's Healing Machine is a display of more than 60 sculptures and paintings that represents his efforts to create an environment that harnessed energies from the earth to alleviate pain and illness. James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly has been reinstalled in an expanded presentation that includes Hampton's personal journal, written primarily in an asemic, or unreadable script, and a chalkboard still showing some of Hampton's sketched plans for the Throne. Both are on public view for the first time; the journal will be on display for a limited amount of time.
On Saturday, October 29, at 5:30 p.m. please join experts in the field of folk and self-taught art as they discuss the advance of non-mainstream art and the importance of fostering an appreciation for these complex and highly personal works. The folk art galleries will be changing periodically, so please stop by from time to time to see what’s new!
It's Throwback Thursday! And we at Eye Level have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting and relevant posts from the past. During this election season, Americans have been debating what it means to be American. So, it's fitting to consider what is American about American art. In October 2012, Adam Gopnik, writer for The New Yorker, spoke about this as part of SAAM's Clarice Smith Lecture series. Back here in 2016, join us for this year's final Clarice Smith Lecture by Edward Rothstein, Critic-at-Large for the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, November 2, 2016.
Taking a stab at what defines American art, Adam Gopnik, art critic at The New Yorker, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, as the second (of three) speakers in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture series in American Art. "Like most of you in this audience , I suspect, I am a museum goer, a gallery goer. I get no thrill as large as I do from simply setting foot in a museum and beginning to look," Gopnik told us at the outset. Neither a historian nor curator (though he did co-curate the Museum of Modern Art's influential High-Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture exhibition in 1990 with Kirk Varnedoe) Gopnik shared with us what he's learned in his many years of looking at American art.
Gopnik started by riffing on commonalities and differences in some of his favorite examples of American art, including examples by Homer, Bingham, Eakins, St. Gaudens, and Audubon, among others. At times, American art carries a lot on its shoulders and teems with subject matter, as in many of the confectionary works by Wayne Thiebaud. At other times, the desire to create is not about the many, but the one. For Gopnik, that push-pull between extremes is one of the sign posts that have defined American art over the centuries.
You can see it for yourself as you travel the many galleries of the American Art museum. Contrast a poetic, monochromatic Louise Nevelson sculpture in the Lincoln Gallery with an operatic Albert Bierstadt one floor below. For me, those contradictions brought to mind Walt Whitman (who walked through the halls of the Patent Office Building during the Civil War), the singular poet of Song of Myself was also the poet "who contains multitudes."
Watch an archived webcast of Adam Gopnik's talk.
Knock Wood: The Future of Furniture is in their Hands
October 14, 2016
Furniture. We interact with it everyday but we really don't give it much thought, unless we're buying something new, eyeing glossy catalogues from IKEA or Design Within Reach, or when our lower back starts to twitch from sitting in the "wrong" chair. Furniture "affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do though we don't always acknowledge that," said Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, in her introductory remarks at the recent Maloof Symposium, Furniture and the Future. A stellar group of experts, designers, artists, and makers looked closely at the changing role of studio furniture, in light of the brave new world of digital technologies and marketplaces.
Held in honor of the centenary of Sam Maloof's birth, the symposium began with an homage to Maloof, the first craft artist to win a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. He had a show at the Renwick in 2001, and his Low-Back Side Chair is currently on view in the exhibition, Connections: Contemporary Craft from the Renwick Gallery. From there, the morning was filled with talks on topics as diverse as keynote speaker Michael Prokopow's observations on hyperluxury and furniture built for the elite; a behind-the-scenes look at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with director Paul Sacaridiz; and esteemed author and architect Witold Rybczynski's deep dive into the history of the chair, stationary as well as rocking, from hand-made wooden chairs to the one-piece plastic chair that has become ubiquitous. As Rybczynski reminded us, "though chairs have changed over time, our bodies haven't, and we're only meant to sit for so long." Appropriately, on that note, the morning session ended and we rose from our seats for a lunch break.
The afternoon session, under the stewardship of independent curator Glenn Adamson, brought together an eclectic group that included Vivian Beer, winner of Ellen DeGeneres's Design Challenge, and Renwick favorites Christy Oates, a furniture maker featured in the 2012 exhibition, 40 under 40: Craft Futures, and Wendell Castle, whose great tromp l'eoil Ghost Clock is back on view in Connections. Castle kicked off the session by discussing the use of digital technologies and his studio's acquisition of a robot named "Mr. Chips" to keep things humming at a 21st century pace. The ABB6300 large robot, originally from the US Post Office and most likely used for "pick and place", is about twelve feet tall, and is used for carving. This extra hand enables Castle to create large pieces that can be assembled then disassembled precisely.
To conclude the afternoon, the participants came together for a panel discussion and lively conversation about their individual practices and their common passion for furniture and design.
In case you missed the symposium, we webcast it: