Expanding the canon at the Brooklyn Museum

Marilyn Minter's Pop Rocks (2009) on display in Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty at the Brooklyn Museum / Photo: Meg Slater

Words by Meg Slater

Part of my role as a curatorial planning and programming intern at the Brooklyn Museum is to take notes during meetings. While it may not seem like particularly riveting work, I really enjoy going to meetings, because it provides insight into the structure, function and purpose of the institution. At every curatorial content meeting, messaging meeting and installation meeting that I have attended, the staff have engaged in discussion and debate to devise new ways to implement the Museum’s mission - “to create inspiring encounters with art that expand the ways we see ourselves, the world and its possibilities”. These meetings are therefore crucial, as they directly inform the end product - a host of different initiatives that broaden the art historical canon by highlighting alternative narratives. Three such initiatives that I have learned a great deal about are the feminist art center, public programs, and collection displays and interventions.

The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is arguably the Museum’s main drawcard. It is the first of its kind in America, and was established in 2007 through the financial support provided by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. The Center is located on the fourth floor of the Museum, with Judy Chicago’s renowned Dinner Party (1974-79) on permanent display, which provides an apt centerpiece for the Herstory galleries. Chicago’s monumental work takes the form of a large ceremonial banquet, consisting of 38 intricate place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history. The names of 999 other significant female figures are also inscribed on the tiled floor beneath the table.

Susan B. Anthony's place setting at Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79) / Photo: Meg Slater

The Center’s curators, Catherine Morris and Carmen Hermo, in collaboration with the Museum’s public programs curators, Alicia Boone and Lauren Zelaya, are responsible for developing exhibitions and events intended to educate audiences about feminist art, theory and activism. By hosting exhibitions that celebrate lesser known or seemingly controversial female artists, such as Beverly Buchanan and Marilyn Minter, Morris, Hermo, Boone and Zelaya complicate and extend the construct of feminism to promote a broader understanding of larger social justice issues. A particularly important exhibition that achieves this goal, which is currently on view, is We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985. This landmark exhibition closely examines the art and activism produced by women of colour during the emergence of second wave feminism in America. The exhibition’s curators, Morris and former Brooklyn Museum Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, Rujeko Hockley, who now works at the Whitney Museum of American Art, have thoughtfully researched and selected art by black female creatives who existed outside of the middle-class mainstream feminist movement, such as Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson and Lorraine O’Grady, to reorient conversations around race, politics, society and feminism during this important period in the later part of the 20th century.

Dindga McCannon's Empress Akweke (1975), currently on view in We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum / Photo: Meg Slater

We Wanted a Revolution is a part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum - a set of exhibitions and public programs that have been a coordinated celebration of the Center’s tenth year of operation. A Year of Yes will be carried out over the course of 2017, and will wrap up in 2018. The goal is to deconstruct the notion of feminism and critically evaluate its meaning, in order to break it open and consider broader social-justice concerns.

Public Programs

A second key area for which the Museum is renowned is its public programs, which are intended to reinterpret content, activate spaces and acknowledge the emerging talent within the greater New York area by bringing audiences together and starting conversations. The public programs department falls within the larger curatorial department. This has been highly convenient for my purposes, as it has allowed me to gain experience in a new and crucial area of the arts. I have been laying the groundwork for future programs, working with curators and education fellows to deliver programs, and having conversations with staff throughout the Museum about broadening the scope and accessibility of programming.

Since starting my internship a couple of months ago, I have planned, attended and helped implement a number of programs, including Breaking the Canon: Collecting African and American Art and Brooklyn Comedy Marathon: Fierce, Funny and Feminist. Breaking the Canon consisted of a series of rapid-fire conversations between Hockley and five contemporary artists who selected African American works from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection that have influenced their practice in some way. The comedy marathon was hosted by comic Erica Watson, and showcased the talents of 37 of the fiercest female-identified and gender-nonconforming stand-up performers the city has to offer. These programs demonstrate how public programming can be utilised within art institutions to re-interpret and present complex content in a clear and unintimidating way that encourages members of the community to come together and talk about art.

Rujeko Hockley in conversation with Jack Whitten for Breaking the Canon: Collecting African and American Art / Photo: Meg Slater

In addition to one-off programs, the Museum has many ongoing program series, including the monumental First Saturday lineups. On the first Saturday of each month, Museum admission is free from 5pm til 11pm, and visitors are invited to see the exhibitions on view and attend a host of special events related to the exhibitions on display. First Saturdays are made possible through funding provided by Target, and the tireless efforts of an incredibly understaffed public programs department. On March 4 and April 1, I assisted the Museum’s education fellows in overseeing the delivery of live music performances, curator-led gallery tours, film screenings, scholar talks, poetry readings, educational programs for children, panel discussions, and dance parties. Each program is intended to take what is on the walls and further develop its meaning by engaging the public, thereby allowing alternative interpretations of content to surface.

Buscabulla performing as a part of the programming for the April First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum / Photo: Meg Slater

Collection Displays and Interventions

Another significant, less recognised measure taken by the Museum’s curatorial staff to challenge dominant interpretations of art historical content is through collection displays and interventions. As a part of the programming for A Year of Yes, Yekaterina Barbash, the Museum’s Associate Curator of Egyptian Art, reconfigured content on display in the Egyptian Galleries to present A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt. This collection display draws attention to recent feminist scholarship on the topic of gender transformation in the Ancient world. According to contemporary scholars, male and female access to the afterlife in Ancient Egypt was considered to be radically different. It was believed that women faced a biological barrier, which prevented them from crossing over to the other side. In order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to first be transformed into a man. These confounding ideas are reflected in the objects on display, such as the red coffin of an unidentified female mummy. Though it was originally thought that this colour was reserved for men, it has since been discovered that the coffins of female mummies were often painted red to transform the deceased into a man in order to create a fetus. By revealing new truths like this one, A Woman’s Afterlife allows visitors to view Ancient Egyptian art within a different, more critical framework, and facilitates a broader understanding of the history of both sexism and feminism.

Kehinde Wiley’s Passing/Posing (Assumption) (2003) on display in the contemporary galleries at the Brooklyn Museum / Photo: Meg Slater

One floor above the Egyptian Galleries are the Museum’s Period Rooms, which display entire houses from the 17th Century. Visitors are invited to walk through and peer into elaborately decorated rooms in these houses, which, despite their pristine appearance, are symbolic of colonialism and the resulting racial inequalities and tensions in America. Bearing this in mind, it is no coincidence that in the adjacent gallery, Kehinde Wiley’s Passing/Posing (Assumption) (2003) is mounted on the ceiling. By referencing portraiture and ceiling painting, modes of artistic production typically associated with the renaissance and the Old Masters, and replacing European aristocrats with contemporary African American subjects doned in sneakers, loose-fitting jeans and hoodies, Wiley challenges how images from the past have recorded history. He also actively questions and critiques the accepted version of American history written by white men, to acknowledge the experiences of black people, which are largely absent from this narrative.

I think the initiatives I have discussed demonstrate why the Brooklyn Museum, as an encyclopaedic Museum, is ahead of the curve. By actively listening to what is being said within the community, on both a local and a global scale, staff are able to escape the expectations attached to traditional art institutions, and successfully lodge the 19th century Museum in the present. Despite financial uncertainty going forward, particularly with the threat of funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a core source of support to public institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, being slashed by the Trump administration, there has been no cutting corners. No shitty shows or programs intended only to draw in the masses and raise revenue have been pitched. There are only forward-thinking, socially conscious exhibitions and events as far as the eye can see. It’s a beautiful thing to witness first-hand.