Shortfalls and Opportunities at College Art Museums (museum review)

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA.

Art museums appeared to survive the general decline experienced by other types of museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as research universities surpassed museums as institutions dedicated to education.[1] Art museums maintained their status as cultural icons and remained important to art historians located in universities, precisely because of the requirements of studying art history: art history as an academic discipline depends on the availability of objects for study. Indeed, a number of undergraduate and graduate level courses make visits to local museums and collections central to coursework. The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (MHCAM), located in South Hadley, Massachusetts, represents one of many present-day art museums tied to educational institutions. At present, MHCAM has a range of special exhibitions on view, including the Yoshida family’s legacy in woodblock prints, a contemporary art exhibit, Ellen Lanyon’s series Beyond the Borders, and an exhibition in the Futter Gallery highlighting six thousand years of ceramics.  As an art museum and educational institution, a review of the MHCAM might yield suggestions for further exhibitions and programs in art, history, and education.

The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum features a number of galleries in which the museum displays its abundant collections. The entrance to the museum opens into the Futter Gallery, which leads to the Weissman and Garonzik galleries on the left. Rotating special exhibitions occupy these spaces. The N. Warbeke Gallery of Asian Art resides toward the right of the Futter Gallery. This collection contains a number of art objects ranging from Japanese figurines and Chinese ceramic camels to a massive human-sized ceramic vessel by a Hong Kong-born Canadian artist, to variety of coins produced throughout Eurasia over several centuries. From the Warbeke Gallery, the visitor can next travel to the Ancient art collection, which occupies the Evans Gallery. The Evans Gallery consists of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art and artifacts, including a model Roman domus of the “House of the Tragic Poet,” wall painting fragments, and a number of stone bust portraits. The Evans Gallery opens into the Medieval and Renaissance collection in the Hill Gallery, which is, as expected, dominated by European paintings influenced by Christianity. The Renee Cary and John and Norah Warbeke galleries follow the Evans Gallery, displaying the museum’s seventeenth- to eighteenth-century European paintings and eighteenth- to twenty-first-century European and American paintings, respectively. The John and Norah Warbeke Gallery then opens into the Garonzik Gallery, which brings the visitor back toward the museum entrance. Next to the Garonzik Gallery is the small Gump Gallery which contains the museum’s Ancient American collection.

The Garonzik Gallery currently contains a special exhibition titled The Yoshida Family: An Artistic Legacy in Prints. The collection features artworks, mostly woodblock prints, produced by six members of the Yoshida family, whose tradition of printmaking dates to the Edo period in Japan. The exhibit labels primarily arrange these artworks by both chronology and gender, beginning with Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950), whose prints combined the traditional images of famous landscapes and the modern print technique of naturalism. Following Yoshida Hiroshi’s prints appear those of his sons, Tōshi (1911-1995) and Hodaka (1926-1995). Tōshi’s prints embraced the techniques of his father, but experimented with semi-abstraction. In contrast, his brother Hodaka more fully embraced abstract design in both painting and printmaking. Next in the sequence appears artwork produced by the women in the family, which creates what resembles an unintended, gendered hierarchy of importance by those who designed the exhibition. Yoshida Fujio (1887-1987) and Yoshida Chizuko (b. 1924) are each primarily introduced as the wives of Hiroshi and Hodaka, rather than introduced as artists in their own right, as were the men in the Yoshida family. Fujio’s artwork focused on both oil painting and woodblock printmaking, and we see an example of one of her oil paintings in this gallery. Chizuko’s woodblock prints feature a similar abstracted design to those of Hodaka. Yoshida Ayomi (b. 1958), the daughter of Chizuko and Hodaka, continued the family legacy of printmaking and also embraced abstract designs in her artwork.

The Weissman Gallery houses an interesting exhibition titled Conversations in Contemporary Art: Director’s Choice. In this exhibit, the visitor encounters artworks from a range of styles, media, and eras. Mounted on one wall are several photographic portraits, three of which are silver gelatin prints from Zanele Muholi’s 2011 series titled Faces and Phases and one 2005 pigmented ink print by Alec Soth. Besides these portraits, the visitor also encounters a number of abstract oil and acrylic paintings on canvas, sculpture installations, and two large chromogenic color prints. The title of this exhibition reflects its origin: the idea comes from a statement made by the artist Joseph Cornell: “Who knows what one object will have to say to another?”[2] This follows an object-based method of epistemology, which prioritizes the idea that objects can speak to one another while on display, and can communicate knowledge to viewers. MHCAM has clearly adopted this pedagogy for the Conversations exhibition: this exhibit does not contain reading material beyond small exhibit labels, which contrasts significantly with the museum’s other special exhibitions. The only reading material that explains the relationships, or potential conversations, between these artworks can be found on-line at the MHCAM website. What might be useful for this exhibition is some sort of interactive display that might facilitate these potential conversations between visitors and the artworks, in order to effectively initiate the “conversations” that the curator has intended to produce.

The most successful special exhibition currently offered by the museum is The Potter’s Tale: Contextualizing 6,000 Years of Ceramics. The Potter’s Tale resides in the Futter Gallery just inside the entrance of the museum and highlights the museum’s ceramic collection spanning five continents and several thousand years of ceramics. The exhibit is accompanied by a useful visitor’s guide, and both are arranged by theme. These themes include: technology and production, ceramic containers as apothecary vessels, ceramic sculptures intended for devotion and delectation (humor), ceramics which display “text messages,” lustrous glazed ceramics, ceramics which inspired or were created by artist Mark Hewitt, enduring traditions in ceramic production, a global affinity for blue and white ceramics, miniature ceramics such as snuff bottles, and cultural exchange.

What is particularly interesting about this ceramics exhibition is its reliance not on chronology, but rather according to the themes outlined above. Each category contains ceramics from a range of locales and eras. The section titled “Blue & White: A Global Love Affair” places emphasis on the widespread love of blue-and-white porcelain, exported from China as early as the twelfth century. In “Blue and White,” we see a Kraak porcelain dish from Ming-dynasty China, an early eighteenth-century Spanish earthenware jar from Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, and a sixteenth-century dish from Ottoman Turkey. At the center of the gallery, the curator has emphasized the connective tissue of this exhibition: that containers – ceramic, earthenware, and stoneware alike – are universal to nearly every culture. This portion of the exhibit focuses specifically on the bowl, which is one of the most basic forms of containers. This section is the first part of the exhibit that a museum visitor sees, and yet it is the last section in the text of the visitor’s guide.

There is a fourth special exhibition at the MHCAM, which is unfortunately placed. This exhibit features a collection spotlight on Ellen Lanyon’s series of paintings titled Beyond the Borders, which focuses on the artist’s fascination with design, the natural world, and blending decorative motifs in antique wallpaper patterns with images drawn from nature. One such painting from this series features several running zebras accompanied by a grid design at the bottom.[3] This exhibit is not placed within the museum’s galleries, but rather in the lobby of the building, just beyond the front desk. The unfortunate placement of this exhibit might speak to the series title by locating Lanyon’s paintings beyond the borders of the museum gallery proper. However, this location unintentionally prevents the series from receiving its due attention. The museum might try to instead place Lanyon’s paintings within the Conversations in Contemporary Art exhibition.

Another unfortunately placed collection is the Encounters: Faces of the Ancient Americas collection in the Gump Gallery. The museum has relegated Ancient American art objects to a small, dark room in the corner of the building. While most of the museum follows a mostly-chronological path, the Ancient American gallery feels out of place next to the special exhibit which features the Yoshida family prints. This awkward placement might speak to a broader historiographical problem that many in academia encounter when faced with pre-Columbian art and artifacts from the Americas. In fact, its title, which references an “ancient” period, is misleading. A majority of the objects in the museum’s collection of pre-Columbian objects can be dated to anywhere between 100 B.C.E. to the fifteenth century. In this case, “ancient” essentially means pre-Columbian. This periodization is distinctly Eurocentric, with its focus on Columbus and European contact. Additionally, the color scheme of the Gump Gallery does not do the collection justice. The walls are painted in a vivid, dark blue, but its darkness seems to hide the gallery and adds an uneasy mystical quality to the objects, to which other collections in the museum are not subject. The problem that this collection – and many others – pose is that it highlights the awkward moments and distinct power dynamics of the collection and historiography of early American art and artifacts.

Additionally, the Norah Warbeke Gallery of Asian Art does not fit well with the chronological ordering of the galleries. MHCAM holds a number of astounding pieces in its collections from all locales and time periods in the Eurasian continent, and while the museum dedicates several galleries to European and American art, only one gallery is dedicated to the entirety of “Asian” art. This gallery contains objects from a variety of cultures Japanese, Chinese, Ottoman Turkish, Persian/Iranian (under several polities), Arab (mostly limited to Umayyad and Abbasid), Sogdian, Thai, and even a large vessel produced by a Canadian artist born in Hong Kong. This variety emphasizes a problem for the category of “Asian” art, and for “Asian” history at a broader scale, not only at Mount Holyoke, but most institutions as well. The designation suggests a homogenous intellectual and artistic culture consistent across several hundred years, while the objects themselves defy this designation. Despite the limitations of this small gallery setting, the museum’s curator for Asian art, a well-trained historian of Islamic art, has arranged the objects on display both thematically and aesthetically.

The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum’s audience is predominantly composed of students, alumnae, and faculty of Mount Holyoke and Five Colleges, Inc. The museum’s target audience, however, includes both the general public and the academic communities of the Five Colleges. Admission to the museum is free of charge and is easily accessible, with close proximity to handicap-accessible parking spaces and an elevator to reach the upper levels of the building, which lead to the center of campus. The museum’s acquisitions have been largely funded by contributions from or bequeathed to the museum by affluent alumnae of the college, in addition to numerous affluent donors. The museum itself is located within an academic building on campus which also houses the studio art, architecture, and art history departments. Therefore, these departments, as well as the history department housed in another building, have close ties with the museum which provide a necessary supplement to coursework. Departments on campus use the museum and its collections to provide hands-on experiences for undergraduate students, ranging from inspecting coins and ceramic fragments to completing research projects for accession files in the museum collections. Thus, while some of the museum’s exhibits suffer from poor placement and awkward encounters with non-Western art, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum offers valuable resources and opportunities for students of the Five Colleges and the local public.

[1] Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[2] Conversations in Contemporary Art: Director’s Choice, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (South Hadley: 2015), accessed March 22, 2015: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/artmuseum/conversations-contemporary-art-directors-choice

[3] Ellen Lanyon (1926-2013), Beyond the Borders Zebra painting, acrylic on canvas (United States: 1996-2007). Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA. Accession Number MH 2014.20.2

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s