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Monday, October 14, 2013

Boston, Salem, and the Fall so Far (part 2)

The first longer trip we took this semester (we'll be traveling to Charleston, SC, then Philadelphia and Delaware later this semester) was to Boston and Salem.  I should preface this by saying travel is a bit of an exaggeration, since we did an absurd amount of sitting in the train due to a system wide meltdown that affected all train traffic in Connecticut.  We were supposed to leave Penn Station just before 7:00 and arrive in Back Bay Boston by noon.  When we got to the hotel at 2:30, it was clear that students felt both annoyance and relief (are we there yet?), but we had lunch to eat, art to see, and we make the best of it.

Our first stop was the MFA Boston, and this is great museum.  We're especially lucky to have Gerry Ward (Senior consulting curator, and recipient of the first Wendell Garrett prize) teaching the first semester of American Decorative Arts and grateful that he takes us around the museum when we come to Boston.  Since he knows the collection so well, and since he teaches with many of the MFA's objects, the students get a chance to see them up close and personal, to ask questions about the objects that didn't occur to them during the lecture, and to physically confront objects.

This allows Gerry to continue to make connections with the objects, to talk about the impact of display and the choices made by the curatorial team, and to keep reviewing material with students in a manner that deepens their understanding and improves their learning outcomes.  We arrived at the MFA by about 3:30.  Three hours later, we had made it through about two floors.  He takes him time and we are always grateful for that.  

Additionally, and quite unexpectedly, Nonie Gadsden joined us too.  You may notice a strange, tricycle-like apparatus beneath her right leg.  Injured, but back at work, she spent time with the students talking through individual pieces (here we are in a silver gallery of sorts, and she's speaking about the influence of English design forms on American Colonial production), but also about the aesthetics and messages conveyed by display.  Those who haven't been to the MFA should go, because the aesthetic experience of the galleries (from the scale of the rooms, the mixture of paintings and decorative arts, the choices of wall color and even wallpaper) are a much different interpretation of museum context than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's.  In some ways, this also seems to reflect the organization of the respective departments, which seems to reflect more deeply held core values: the Met has a strong sense of specialization and the separateness of objects, the relative paucity of integrations seems to reflect this.  By contrast, the curatorial appointments at the MFA seem more broadly constructed, and the emphasis on integration of disparate media seems in line with a team of curators whose work extends broader ranges of media and time.

You may also have noticed by my annoying tendency to defocus things that in addition to traveling, I have taken a shine to instagram.  But I digress, the experience is what is important to convey, not my photographic aspirations.  Because of the train fiasco, we missed the Gardner museum on Wednesday, pushed it to Thursday, and all retired after twelve hours of art and travel.  There was probably dinner, but days like this (getting up at 4:00 to meet students by 6:30) are exhausting.

The next day was a bit of a chronological whirlwind, but it is not always possible to match the trip to the specific moment they are studying (in truth, it is always possible, but doing so would mean that they do not see things they should experience).  With that in mind, with some travel realted readings under their belt and additional resources, we made our way to the first stop: the Boston Public Library.  In some ways, it's useful to see this before the Gardner, because next to Sargent's masterful work in El Jaleo, the murals are frankly a bit dry and underwhelming.  While the controversy surrounding the installation of Church and Synagogue, and the backstory of the public reaction to these murals is interesting historically, there is a bit of gap between aesthetic and historical interest that is usually not present in Sargent's work.  Nonetheless, the library is a real testament to civic spaces, and the additional work by MacMonnies, French, and Puvis de Chevannes tells a story about the public decoration of buildings that is not always easy to accommodate in narratives of art and history.  To me, aside from the addition by Phillip Johnson, this is among the most successfully executed civic spaces of the period of the nineteenth century on.  There is a real sense of harmony in the parts--as disparate as they are--and a sense (not always evident in the study of American art) of the international tastes of architects, and the exposure to international art by the general public.

Here's an example of the type of imagery from Sargent's murals that I don't find aesthetically compelling.  Yes, in terms of technique, theme, and history one can make an argument for this, but truth be told, this is Sargent at his driest.

There are flashes throughout the cycle of the technical brilliance he is known for, but--and perhaps the long duration of the commission contributed to this--there is no real sense of cohesion to it.  Later artists realized that this was a problem, and thus Jacob Lawrence in completing the Great Migration cycle worked on numerous panels at the same time, so that there would not be a stylistic shift, even in a more compressed period.  

The grand staircase, with murals by Puvis designed to echo the collections holdings, is simply a stunning space.  From the BPL it was a quick jaunt across Copley Square, and soon we were treated to the best tour of Trinity Church I have ever received.

This is my attempt to make a contemporary view of Trinity Church resemble a period photograph, and again seems to exhibit my fascination with Instagram.  [Those desiring to learn about the travel we do can search #maafda (this program) or #sothebysinstitute (the school in general)].  In any event, whereas all of the tours I have taken in the last four years have begun inside, and relied upon my knowledge of the project to explain the exterior before we began, Trinity gave us an amazing guide who started with the exterior and explained to the students what was Richardson's work, and what elements were later additions.  

Here, we are standing between the old and new, looking at the space containing Richardson's initial exterior (behind the students, with the doors) and the later addition of this porch which provides a transitional space into the church's narthex.  What's exceptional (to my mind) is the manner in which Richardson varied the capitols on the columns, choosing all native species as the basis, but giving the church a real sense of sweep and motion that is both breathtaking and likely unnoticed by most visitors. Here's an artful shot of some of the capitols.

The exterior of Trinity is stunning, and yet it no way prepares you for the interior by LaFarge and his assistants.  It's quite honestly the type of space that makes me want to go to church.  Blending paintings, stained glass, text (some of it not even real) and decoration, it simply is one of the most beautiful religious spaces in the United States.  It's rare that in a slide, in a classroom, sitting in a standardized desk / chair, that students can ever get the feeling of a space.  They can understand the decorative scheme, but fundamentally--at a very deep and almost instinctual and pre-cognitive level--architecture is about the relationship of self to space.  If you want students to understand this, you need for them to experience it, to see how subtle shifts in natural light change dynamics of color and contrast, to be able to hear the difference in their footfalls in enclosed versus open spaces.  I'm lucky in this regard because the program I run allows for this to happen through travel.

Photographs and images of interiors, to my mind, are useful to the degree that they allow you to recall the experience of spaces, or to the degree that they prepare you with knowledge to understand the spaces you will visit.  They are not, however, a useful substitute for the experience of space, but remain instead a poor substitute for that.  Trinity Church is simply overwhelming and rewards close looking, frequent return visits, and time.

We then went from the sacred to the secular (after lunch, of course, these students demand food), and took a short T ride to the Harrison Gray Otis House, a stunning achievement by in architecture designed by Charles Bullfinch.   Unfortunately, the House does not allow photography inside.  To me, this is a mistake and something that house museums across the country need to rethink.  With the advent of social media and the interconnectedness of people across these platforms (facebook, instagram, and there are others I am sure) museums should be thinking less about their photography policies with a proprietary interest (if people take photos, they'll be less likely to buy the books of photographs we publish), and more of these an an effective means through which to market their properties to visitors otherwise impossible to reach.  In effect, the promise of social media promotion is that it allows museums to reach out directly to a client base in a manner more effective, and far less expensive, than direct marketing.  The benefit is that this marketing comes with a level of trust and recommendation that is impossible to secure through other means.  If a friend posts an image from someplace I have never been, it allows me to see it through their eyes, and--as an association with that image--I also (immediately, and likely unconsciously) form an empathetic relationship with the place through the connection I have with the person.  Now, to be sure, there is the potential for this to cut both ways (say, for instance, my friend Larry hates a place, I might be less enthusiastic to visit), but the point is, whether positive or not, the idea of visiting the site likely would not have occurred to me at that moment without the mention on social media.  Museums, especially many smaller house museums and local historic societies, need to find a way to leverage the potential these emerging platforms have, and that requires finding the language to convince their boards, who often retain a strong sense of precedent (i.e., "we have never allowed photography") but have little understanding of how these policies are suppressing the potential for visitor outreach and engagement.  

From the non-profit world, we dove back into the world of profits, paintings, and the process by which objects are brought to market (without which, I should note, we'd have little knowledge of them, and certainly few museums would have any indication what precisely to collect, because truth be told, the cultivation of collectors and donors relies upon the type of price discovery only available through a market).  Back to Copley Square we went, then it was a short walk to Vose Galleries  the oldest family owned art gallery in America.  Quite simply, if you look back at Vose's history, the links between markets, museums, and American art as we know it, are made clear.  Beth Vose and her staff were incredibly gracious hosts, and allowed the students to ask questions, examine works closely, and confront works directly.  The highlight for me was an exceptional Gilbert Stuart portrait on panel, with an exquisite cradle on the back.  It's great for students to be able to see objects from all angles, and in a proper frame, and something that slides will not ever quite convey.

Because it was only about 4:30, and because the students are young (i.e., they never tire or complain of all the walking) and because they need constant looking to foster constant thinking and critical engagement, and mostly because of the Amtrak fiasco, we departed Vose and headed to the Gardner Museum.  The Gardner Museum is at once breathtaking, frustrating, overwhelming, and full of incredible things which are poorly lit, horrendously labeled, and quirkily placed.  The Gardner is a bit like new love, an exquisite agony whose potential is glimpsed, frustrated, acknowledged, and unknown.  It's sublime, in the truest sense of the word, somewhat terrifying, breathtaking, beautiful, and magical.  Bound to the conditions that Mrs. Gardner laid out in the early 20th century, it also (to my mind) serves as a warning about donor conditions--we cannot know what the future will bring, and we should resist the hubris that causes us to believe that we can--and yet brilliantly resists the idea of the museum as a reified narrative.  That said, I wish I could take pictures.  I wish there was better lighting.  I wish that I could stand with students in front of an object and discuss it without incurring the wrath of what can only be described as amongst the surliest gallery guards I have ever encountered (seriously, if I have a question, is it too much to ask that you do not preface your answer with a long sigh that conveys your annoyance with me?).  Anyhow, it's a necessary experience for the students if they are to think broadly about installation, audiences, and objects.  From there, and after a long day, the students scattered like sand in the wind, and made their ways to dinner.

As this seems a bit long already, I should address the trip to Salem in part three, which will follow shortly.  

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