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An artistic makeover: Mead Art Museum offers refurbished galleries, fresh look at its collection

  • ”Pronghorn Antelope,” 1917, bronze sculpture by Paul Manship courtesy of THE Mead Art Museum

  • ”Indian Hunter,” 1917, bronze sculpture by Paul Manship

  • ”The Great White Hope,” 1921, lithograph by George Bellows David Dashiell/THE Mead Art Museum

  • ”The Approaching Storm,” 1902, oil painting by Thomas Moran Stephen Petegorsky/THE Mead Art Museum

  • “Mao Tse Tung,” 1972 silkscreen by Andy Warhol. STEPHEN Petegorsky/Gipe/THE Mead Art Museum

  • “Spring in Priluki,” 1967, oil painting by Oskar Rabin STEPHEN Petegorsky/Gipe photo/Courtesy THE Mead Art Museum

  • ”Jazz,” 1928, collage by Solomon Telingater Courtesy of THE Mead Art Museum

  • A collection of objects including "Sky Boots (Sunday)," a 1992 painted bronze piece, are displayed at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pop art paintings, including an "Untitled" piece by Robert S. Moskowitz, bottom left, "I Like Blue" by Ulfert S. Wilke, top left, "Cumberland" by Jack Youngerman, center, "Odette/Odille" by Mary Weatherford, bottom right, and "Odile," also by Weatherford, top right, are displayed at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A collection of objects are displayed in glass cases at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pop art paintings including "Untitled" by Robert S. Moskowitz, bottom left, "I Like Blue" by Ulfert S. Wilke, top left, "Cumberland" by Jack Youngerman, center, "Odette/Odille" by Mary Weatherford, bottom right, and "Odile," also by Weatherford, top right, are displayed at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY


Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

If you have 19,000 items in your collection, but only enough space to display a few hundred of them at a time, what to do you?

If you oversee the Mead Art Museum, you take a fresh look at your collection, put some new items on display, reconfigure your gallery space — then plan on doing it again some months down the road.

At the Amherst College museum, several new exhibits this fall — almost all based on the Mead’s own holdings — are part of what director David Little says is a broad plan to “engage visitors in a new way, to make this more of an interactive experience.”

That plan has included significant structural changes to three of the five principal galleries, most notably the Fairchild Gallery, the Mead’s main exhibition space and the first place visitors encounter. What was previously the domain primarily of early-American (and some British) landscape paintings and portraiture, with partitions setting off specific areas, has been repainted and opened up to make an expansive space full of contemporary art.

Two other spaces have been reshaped to serve as a specific forum for the Mead’s considerable holdings in American art; much of the work now on display there, from paintings from the Hudson River School, to boxing lithographs by George Bellows, has not been exhibited in several years, Little said.

“This is the first part of a series of changes we’re planning to update our look and kind of rethink our approach to the collection,” said Little, who came on last year as the Mead’s director with the goal of finding new ways in particular of getting students involved with the museum.

He notes that some students do use the museum for courses in which study of specific parts of the collection is a key part of the curriculum. But today, Little adds, museums face tough competition from video and other digital stimuli and so have to think hard about how they can freshen their overall appeal to visitors, particularly younger people.

One key, Little says, will be to rotate exhibits more regularly and bring more of the Mead’s collection into view.

“We’re a teaching museum, but we also need to think about ways to attract the public. … The changes we’ve made, and the ones we plan to make on a regular basis, are really all about engaging students, the public and faculty in new ways.”

Cultural conversation

That approach is probably best defined by the new look in the Fairchild Gallery, where a potpourri of contemporary art, as well as some older items, is now on display. From an oversize Andy Warhol silkscreen of Mao Tse Tung, to a 1969 oil by abstract Dutch painter Karel Appel, the room is dominated by modern works, including photographs and furniture.

The exhibit, “Accumulations,” also offers a distinct sense of humor, notably with a quirky collection of objects — “Useless, Useful and Found” — that span hundreds of years. A pair of pink-painted work boots from 1992, for instance, sits side by side with an Aztec sculpture, an even older Japanese vase and a 1970 porcelain sculpture from Communist China with a cartoonish illustration of a Red “Woman Warrior” capturing a skulking “landowner.”

Photographs on exhibit feature a similar eclecticism: a portrait of Gertude Stein, another of a young African boy, and a picture of a shattered watch from Nagasaki, Japan, stopped forever at 11:02, when the atomic bomb exploded above the city on the morning of August 9, 1945.

The overall thrust of the Fairchild Gallery exhibit, Little said, particularly the display of seemingly random objects, is “to provide a sense of how varied and idiosyncratic a museum’s collection can be — objects come from all over and from many different sources.”

When you put those items together in different ways, he added, “it starts a conversation about culture, about the passage of time, about a lot of things.”

While Little put together the “Accumulations” exhibit, Mead staff and guest curators made the selections for the other shows. Bettina Jungen, the museum’s curator of Russian art, assembled “From Russian With Love.” It’s a series of (mostly) 20th-century paintings, collages and prints donated by 1937 Amherst graduate Thomas P. Whitney, who served in the former Soviet Union with the U.S. Foreign Service during World War II and later married a Russian woman.

There’s a certain irony in the exhibit’s title, given some of the artists featured in the show were not exactly showered with affection by Soviet officials.

Consider Oskar Rabin, whose dark oil painting “Spring in Priluki” from 1967 was meant to evoke the drabness of life and culture under Soviet rule; the artist glued a label from a can of condensed milk to his painting to underscore that point. In turn, exhibit notes say, Rabin was harassed for years by Communist officials and finally stripped of his citizenship in 1978.

On the other hand, Solomon Telingater (1903-1969), a graphic artist and book illustrator, enjoyed a long, successful career in the Workers’ Paradise, despite pieces like “Jazz,” a 1928 paper collage that seems to celebrate the decadent West with its images of glittery urban night life, radios, and flashy cars and clothes.

American art

For the exhibit of American art, assembled by Mead curator Vanja Malloy, one gallery previously divided by a partial partition has been completely opened up, like the Fairchild Gallery. That allows room not only to hang rich landscapes by several Hudson River School painters — Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Thomas Moran — but to install two hefty bronze sculptures, of an antelope and a Native American, by Paul Manship (1885–1966).

The exhibit moves roughly chronologically into another space that’s also been reconfigured by adding a partition. About two-thirds of the room is given over to late 19th- and early 20th-century American art: drawings, lithographs and watercolors by the likes of Grant Wood, Winslow Homer, George Bellows and others. But the new, smaller section of the room takes visitors back to colonial America, with work such as portraits by John Singleton Copley and James Peale.

Fascinating objects

Guest curators have also added exhibits devoted to African art, such as masks and wooden sculptures, and one titled “Precious: Finding the Wondrous in the Mead’s European Collection.” The latter, with items such as an ornate, 17th-century Dutch ebony cabinet and some allegorical oil paintings, looks at how, as exhibit notes put it, “European princes, scholars and merchants gathered objects that fascinated them [and] from these private collections, museums as we know them today emerged.”

The Mead is also hosting an exhibit of abstract art by New York artist Amanda Valdez, and Little says other outside shows, in cooperation with specific museums and institutions, will continue at the Amherst museum. And, he notes, the Mead now plans to rotate its own shows, beginning in January, to put more of its collection on display.

“We want this to be a place where you can walk into the present and then move into the past,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazette-net.com.

For more information about the Mead Art Museum, visit www.amherst.edu/museums/mead.