On Tuesday, December 4, Art Nights participants were introduced to the new CAPE Lab. The night’s program began with Museum Director Betsy Bradley giving an overview of recent W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded art acquisitions and sharing the collection strategy used to inform the acquisitions. Monique Davis, CAPE’s new managing director, then presented the Lab’s purpose and process.
The Lab investigates new ways to create shared authority in exhibition planning, programming, and other curatorial projects between the Museum and its visitors. The Lab pairs the installation of one or more artworks with experiments in writing to generate fresh insights about curatorial voice and the visitor experience. Visitors are invited to respond, share, and participate in the Museum’s process of evolving as a cultural and public institution.
The inaugural Lab experiment was comprised of three phases, beginning with the solo exhibition of Titus Kaphar’s Darker than Cotton, sans any accompanying labels or wall text. Four questions prompted viewers to share their thoughts: How does this painting make you feel? and How do you (or don’t you) connect to this work of art? What questions do you have about the painting? What information might make this work of art more meaningful? Sample of viewer responses: “I feel like this is a breath of fresh air, truth and honesty can be cathartic.” “Who are the figures depicted? It makes me feel like I’m looking at hidden history. What is the story that the cut-out is revealing?” “There is always someone new behind a face…”
For Phase Two, two pre-Phase One labels written by Museum curators and educators and one post-Phase One label written by Museum curators and educators, using visitor responses, were mounted next to the artwork. Viewers were then asked to read each of the labels and respond to the question: How does it (or doesn’t it) contribute to your understanding of the piece? Viewers were also prompted to edit the labels using materials provided and again share what the artwork conveyed to them. Sample of viewer responses: “Reality vs. Textbook” “The search for morals and ethics never change.” “Our America”
For Phase Three, which was launched at the December Art Nights, the Kaphar was joined in exhibition by Thomas Sully’s Portrait of Mrs. Frisby Augustin Freeland, 1831-1905. Museums often display objects side by side so that the objects can “converse.” The resulting narrative can alter the way a viewer encounters a single work of art through its role in framing a story or introducing a potentially new idea. Viewers were invited to spend a minimum of three minutes looking at the Kaphar and take notice of the subject, the materials, the colors, the technique, and anything else striking about the work. They were then asked to observe the Kaphar and Sully in relation to one another, with the knowledge that Museum curators are considering exhibiting the works side by side in the Fall 2019 re-installation of its permanent collection, and answer the question: How does the story change and grow when these paintings are presented side by side?
Sample of viewer responses: “Both women are treated as objects.” “The man is almost rendered invisible.” “Ms. Frisby’s features are muted and soft compared to the extreme detail of the Titus Kaphar piece, which may reflect the depth of each woman’s experience.”
We would like to thank all who have participated. The insights and feedback gleaned from this first Lab experiment have been demonstrably impactful on the Museum’s planning process for the re-installation of its permanent collection. We invite you to stop by, learn more about the CAPE Lab, and add your voice to the conversation. Phase Three concludes Sunday, January 13, 2019.