The narrative is now familiar: the museum closes during the pandemic, takes stock of itself during its closure, reopens with a new MO. And that didn’t just mean cleaning the storeroom or painting the walls. Museums around the world have embarked on a major review of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as how they host exhibitions and events both physically and virtually.
The Middlebury College Art Museum closed to all but essential staff in March 2020. A year later, it opened its doors to faculty and students – after all, its primary mission as a university museum is to serve its academic programs. Earlier this month, the museum finally reopened to the public with modest fanfare: a press release and advertisements in local media.
This likely explained the low number of off-campus visitors to the museum on a recent weekday. They did not see, on the surface, a radical transformation of the place. But some presentation changes are significant.
“The gallery invites you to consider the choices artists make when expressing ideas through visual language,” reads a very large sign at the entrance to the first room. Then, a telling sentence: “Other interpretive frameworks – particularly considerations of how gender, race and class influence the production as well as the reception of art – have informed how the works of art are exhibited throughout the museum.”
This sign is titled “Creation and Interpretation”. Other panels of this type stand as imminent guides in each of the gallery spaces: “In the eye of the beholder”, “People and the planet”, “Interconnected worlds”. The texts not only offer thoughtful commentary, they signal that a viewer will be invited to think as well as look.
Without the explanatory panels, the curatorial approach could seem incoherent. The standard exposure parameters that help our brains categorize things are missing – specific time periods, genres or places of origin. Among the offerings in one room, for example, are a graphic painting of Andy Warhol in black and white; a living abstraction by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui; and delicately painted pottery from ancient Greece. In another, two paintings – one by Norman Rockwell, the other by Kehinde Wiley (who would paint the official portrait of President Barack Obama) – hang side by side, seemingly with little in common.
Each of these paintings, sculptures, shards and relics — and each of these artists — has a story. A story. The museum essentially encourages viewers to make their own connections.
Museum director Richard Saunders, who offered a tour of the galleries last week, said staff took advantage of the pandemic downtime to reconfigure their display. “It was the same for a long time,” he said. “We thought a lot about our choices.
As a group, they came up with a number of themes – alternative ways of conceptualizing and displaying the objects in the permanent collection. Like other museum staff, they looked closely at representation — that is, the work of Black, Indigenous, female, or LGBTQ artists — not just in exhibitions but in acquisitions.
Saunders pointed to two ways the museum has also taken into account the views of visitors. Each gallery offers a “Label Talk” dialogue about a specific artwork, where visitors can use a QR code to leave their own comments. The other consideration is from a physical point of view: “We hung the works a little lower for people in wheelchairs,” Saunders said, “and we increased the font size” of the wall text.
He acknowledged that all of these efforts are “a work in progress.”
A substantial pandemic-era achievement for the Middlebury Museum is a beautiful volume titled simply Collection Manual. Although it was planned before 2020, Saunders said, the museum’s closure gave staff time and focus to complete the project.
The ManualThe striking cover of is a close-up of a Damascus tile, in rich blues and greens, from the late 16th or early 17th century. Inside are photographs and brief explanations of works selected from the more than 6,000 objects in the museum’s collection.
Multiple copies of the book are available for viewers to peruse in a second-floor seating area adjacent to the “Contemporary to Classical: Highlights From the New Collections Handbook” exhibit. As its title suggests, it features works that are described in the book.
As Saunders noted, the Manual has a somewhat unusual organization: reverse chronology. In other words, more recently acquired elements precede older ones.
The first object photographed is a slender bronze sculpture, titled “Sentinel IV”, by American artist Simone Leigh. Although minimalist in design, its elegant contours convey the “subjectivity of black women’s identification and African and Diaspora African traditions” that the artist explores, according to the description. At 20 inches tall, it’s a mini version of Leigh’s 10-foot sculpture of the same name. (Last weekend Leigh was one of the two winners of the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice Biennalethe first black women to receive the event’s highest honor.)
This work and others represent the museum’s latest acquisition: global contemporary art. In his introduction to Manual, Saunders concedes that this is “a broad category that is open to interpretation”. Admittedly, it is also a rich vein to exploit; Category considerations are designed to achieve a broad geographic range, gender equity, and socio-economic diversity among the artists represented.
The museum’s acquisition mechanisms, although invisible to viewers, are complex. In addition to the institution’s own purchases, the Friends of the Art Museum group selects new works each year, and the Art in Public Places Committee oversees the purchase of outdoor sculptures. Alumni active in the art world populate the Middlebury Museum and Visual Arts Council, which advises and helps with funding. (The latter group subscribed to the Manualnotes Saunders in his introduction.) In total, the museum benefits from 11 funding entities, not to mention individual donors.
As with all its acquisitions, adds the director, the first consideration is “Who will use this object in their teaching? For the museum’s public visitors – some 15,000 a year before the pandemic – the museum is nothing less than a classroom of continuing education.