Saturday, April 25, 2009

By any other name exhibition

I was delighted Thursday evening by the opening of the exhibition, "By any other name: A social and cultural history of the Rose Art Museum," organized by eight of my students in the Museums and Public Memory class (Anth 159a). The show, tracing the history of the Museum from 1961 to the present moment, is cleverly organized around a large graph of the Dow Jones Industrial average, showing its upticks and downticks over nearly five decades. Interspersed along the way are documentary materials and commentaries on the museum's successive directors, exhibitions, and moments of triumph and peril. In contrast to the common tendency in the art world to relegate matters of finance to the shadowy background, this show puts economic matters front and center; when the market was bullish, we see, art prices were elevated and accession funds soared; in turn, in bear markets university administrations have looked covetously at their collections and pursued, with various degrees of success, deaccession policies. The Museum lent the students catalogues of diverse Museum shows over the decades, which hover above and below the stock market graph line.

Drawing on their archival research, the organizers frame this timeline in terms of student protests: the October 1961 opening of the Rose Museum building, they show, was occassioned by student complaints that the funds expended on it could better have been spent on scholarships or faculty salaries; in the past three months of course the campus has seen multiple student protests calling for the preservation of the museum in the face of administration attempts to close it. A monitor plays looped videos of protests by students, faculty, staff and others calling for the museum's preservation. The red line of the stock market culminates in a splotch of red splashed across a "Save the Rose" T-shirt.

At the opening reception, Cultural Production grad student Claire Mauro provocatively suggested that the red line of the Dow Jones could be read as a "blood line," tracing out the varied forms of symbolic kinship and descent associated with the museum, from the founding bequest by Edward and Bertha Rose, to the labor of successive directors, curators, artists, donors, and art lovers over these many years. I was put in mind of Francis Perket's extraordinary commentary at the recent Museum symposium, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis." Francis, a Rose family member, noted that Edward and Bertha did not have children of their own, that the paintings were in a sense their offspring and that each moment of artistic revelation within the museum could be understood as their "Jahrzeit" celebrating Kaddish, a prayer of life. [Her commentary is available on YouTube.] Claire's reading perhaps helps account for the deep sense of anguish felt by so many in face of the Museum's current predicament; the Museum is more than the sum of the contents of its extraordinary collection; it has emerged as the embodiment of a vast extended family, and its current crisis can be interpreted as a life or death struggle for lineage and for its posterity. (One student compared the jagged ups and downs of the red stock market line to the sputtering EKG lines of a patient on life support.)

The show is also framed by students' artistic responses to the current crisis, including a large painting by graduating senior Danielle Friedman based on multiple iterations of the word "Rose." Students energetically mined, as well, the university archives and the public record to chronicle, in displayed materials, the twists and turns of the Museum's fate over the years, with particular attention to media coverage since January 26 of this year.

The exhibition concludes with a lovely children's book, "Beatrice visits the Rose Art Museum," created by Gail Goldspiel in happier times, when she took Robin Dash's course, "Looking with the Learner." The book chronicles the visit to the Rose by Stanley School elementary school students in the company of Brandeis undergraduates, pondering contemporary art and engaging in art making of their own. (One of the joys of the Rose under Michael Rush's leadership has been the Museum's willingness to allow visitors of all ages, on special occassions to make art in the Foster wing and the Museum's stairwell.) The children are accompanied by "Beatrice the Butterfly" who delicately floats above the proceedings and tries her hand (wings?) at making art as well. I was put in mind of the daemons in Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the animal avatars of the human characters, who embody their human's dreams and anxieties; Beatrice registers the children's excitement and fear over engaging with the art and in that respects is a stand in for the children themselves; but I also read the butterfly as an embodiment of the museum itself which similarly seems to float and flitter delicately over the campus: beautiful, playful, intensely curious, and terribly vulnerable.

Exhibition organizers: Ronya Gordon, Yarden Abukasis. Brian Friedberg, Emily Leifer, Sarah Stephenson. Penelope Taylor, Igor Zhukovsky, Will Burnett/

The exhibition is in the Shapiro campus center student art gallery (third floor) through Wednesday, April 28 I believe.

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