Objects & Voices exhibition foregrounds Smart Museum’s collection and the craft of curation

C.J. Lind
Associate Director of CommunicationsSmart Museum of Art

For the second time in four months, the Smart Museum of Art is featuring artworks from its permanent collection throughout its entire space. Following the success of the fall show Carved Cast and Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways, the Smart galleries have again been transformed into a wide-ranging exhibition in honor of the museum’s 40th anniversary, along with this year’s campus-wide celebration of shared anniversaries, UChicago Artennial.

Like the previous exhibition, Objects and Voices: A Collection of Stories showcases the process of curation to illustrate the many ways the Smart’s permanent collection can be enjoyed and interpreted. The new exhibition will be on view through June 21.

“A lot of what we’ve tried to do is make the operations of the museum more transparent,” said Anne Leonard, curator and associate director of academic initiatives at the Smart Museum and lecturer in Art History. “We’ve tried to make that process—of choosing, selecting, interpreting art—something that in itself is being enacted in these projects, so that it is no longer mysterious to people who come to visit.”

For even the most seasoned museum visitor, curation can become invisible—to imagine that some august object simply is what it is and means what it means, regardless of context. Objects and Voices tries to shake visitors out of a narrow view of the artworks by displaying the objects in 17 mini-exhibitions. About 24 curators—including UChicago faculty members, students and alumni—formed teams to conceive new contexts and meanings for the objects they chose to feature in their small exhibitions.

“We’ve tried to get at the idea of the many ways that art can be experienced, interpreted, enjoyed, learned from and so on,” Leonard explained. “It’s very much about the collection—not just as a set of inert objects, but more as a set of possibilities, a set of narrations, really, that people can respond to in their different ways—and also the ways in which the collection has been used over the years to train, inspire and educate.”

Diverse collaborators

Kerry James Marshall is one of the few practicing artists participating in Objects and Voices as a co-curator. “He did not choose to curate any of his own work,” said Leonard, despite several of his pieces being in the Smart Museum’s collection. “However, another curator—[Professor of English] Ken Warren—is using a work by Marshall, Slow Dance, in his presentation. So visitors will perhaps be surprised to find that mix-up, and to find another commentator on the artist’s work when the artist is himself present as a curator.”

The exhibition’s other co-curators include UChicago faculty from a wide swath of disciplines, as well as what Leonard calls “Smart alumni.”

“These are former students of the University who have worked at the Smart Museum, and in many cases have gone on to make careers in the arts. So by their own admission, their formative experiences at the museum and at this university really shaped their choice of career path and what they’ve gone on to do.”

One such alumnus is Russell Bowman, a former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum whose work with the Smart Museum dates back to its founding in the 1970s. Bowman’s mini-exhibition, From Nature to Abstraction, focuses on the work of Color Field painter Mark Rothko.

Jie Shi, a current student and curatorial intern at the Smart Museum, co-curated a mini-exhibition, Signed and Sealed, which foregrounds “situations in which words and images interact with each other” in East Asian paintings.

Shi presents the texts, which include signatures, historical notes and poetic embellishments, as “indexes,” pointing toward information both inside the painting and outside of it. “It can be understood as a kind of intellectual play,” Shi explained. “It’s a game between the inscriber or the artist and the viewer. People are trying to hide something from you, but at the same time, to provide you with some clues, some hints.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Leonard continued, is a class of fifth-graders who worked with a teaching artist, the Smart’s education staff and their own teacher at the South Side's Beasley Academic Center. “They produced a really terrific project that responds to works of art in our collection and that arises out of a very sustained engagement with those works,” Leonard said.

Leonard and her diverse collaborators are aiming to give visitors a fluid experience, entirely non-linear and endlessly reconfigurable. “There’s no prescribed order,” said Leonard. “So there’s a great degree of freedom to design your own experience when you visit.

“This is one of the very few museum-wide exhibitions that we’ve done in our history,” Leonard said. “So despite all of the organizational complexities, it does seem like a worthwhile exercise—if only for that element of total surprise when people walk through the door and encounter a museum that they may think they know, but really can still experience in a new way.”

A Real Discovery

That’s not to say that the overall effect will be jumbled, or that every juxtaposition is surprising. “Some pairings are expected,” Leonard admitted. “We’ve put [Associate Professor of Music] Berthold Hoeckner and [University Professor] David Wellbery, who are both experts in German Romanticism, on a set of German Romantic prints. However, because they are not art historians, they are offering literary/musicological perspectives on works and really drawing out the media implications of those.”

“The visual arts are not just visual,” said Wellbery. “They have a musical component and they have a poetic component—and here we have, in this section of the exhibit, a remarkable interaction of these three. We felt that this was an excellent way of demonstrating what you might call the unity of the humanities, addressing the same objects but addressing them from different points of view that are mutually enriching.

“What I discovered here,” said Wellbery, “is that the Smart Museum is a great educational resource.” Through his participation in Objects and Voices, he found Hans Meid’s illustrations of Goethe’s Faust in Smart’s collection, and he has since brought his students to see those originals. “For me, it was a real discovery. We have this tremendous resource and I hadn’t known. But now I know, and I’m going to pursue that in the future. There’s something about being in the presence of works that really animates students, and that gives you a lot to talk about.”

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