Transforming Communities through Art

by Judy L. Larson, R. Anthony Askew Professor of Art and Director of Reynolds Gallery Adapted from a lecture delivered in January 2009 for her installation in the Askew Chair

A story in the Washington Post in 2007 described a social experiment the D.C.-based newspaper conducted. Testing people’s perceptions, taste and priorities, they engaged world-class violinist Joshua Bell to play incognito in a metro station during a busy weekday rush hour. A handful of passengers dropped dollar bills into his case and hurried on. Children seemed fascinated, but they were pulled on by busy parents. The question the Post asked was, “In a commonplace environment at an uncommon hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it?”

It’s a question we could also ask about visual art as well. Through artists’ eyes we often learn to open our own eyes with insights and clarity to beauty — and to suffering and injustice. Art exhibits help us with new ways of seeing that mirror our own experiences or unlock different perspectives on the world we share. Are we as viewers willing to open our eyes?

Our mission at Reynolds Gallery is exactly that: to present art that helps us open our eyes and develop intellectual capacity, critical thinking skills and avenues for self-discovery.

Let me pose a question: Is Westmont a place where creativity flourishes? Scholar Arthur Holmes, writing about the value of a Christian liberal arts education, believes: “Too often God-given imagination and curiosity are stifled in early education or thinking is regarded as an impious spectator sport. The first task of liberal education is to fan the spark and ignite our native inquisitiveness.”

I believe a college art museum can create the spark that kindles a lifetime of enthusiasm for the arts.

The visual arts are receiving more and more recognition for the full range of what they can bring to a well-rounded liberal arts education. The arts nurture imagination, awaken curiosity, and foster a special kind of mental flexibility and intellectual respect that challenges not only our students, but our whole community, to think and see in new ways.

James Wagner, president of Emory University, launched a Creative Campus initiative several years ago. At a school with students among the brightest in the nation, faculty noticed that too many of them were playing it safe and choosing courses in their own fields, perhaps worried that a class in art, music, theater or creative writing might ruin a perfect grade-point average! President Wagner encouraged professors and students alike to use their imaginations, take risks and push their personal boundaries of comfort.

Creativity and the arts,” Wagner said, “play a critical role in sustaining free societies and in confronting oppression. Even as the health sciences push the boundaries of our understanding of what it means to be biologically alive, we must ask the arts and humanities to help us define what it means to be fully, humanly alive, to live in community, to understand our souls and to express ourselves.”

Something happens to an artifact when museum professionals isolate the work from its context; we place it on a pedestal under a vitrene, and it’s suddenly an object to be admired and appreciated for it artistic qualities. The statesman George Washington is the subject of a classical bust by the French sculptor Houdon. Draped in Greek classical costume, the sculptor links Washington to ancient Greek civilization and the origins of democracy

"Passing By" by Mary Lee Bendolph is a recent Westmont acquisition.

"Passing By" by Mary Lee Bendolph is a recent Westmont acquisition.

How quickly the message changes when an art object is paired with another object. The artist Fred Wilson mocks the seriousness with which museums isolate artifacts, thus creating idealized images. Wilson’s pairings impart a whole new and powerful message. On the reverse of busts of American founding fathers, Wilson places slave manacles, a poignant reminder that democracy in the new nation did not include everyone — many of our founding fathers were, in fact, slave owners. Wilson’s pairings are intended to be jarring — he is seeking ways to shock museum visitors into opening their eyes as informed viewers.

When any two objects are paired together, a dialogue ensues. If curators can thoughtfully install galleries so that the works speak in new ways, I believe visitors will see art differently and find new meanings.

One challenge all art museums face is the dismissive attitudes that many visitors have toward contemporary art. Typical comments include, “It was shocking, disturbing, ugly”; “I don’t know what it’s about”; or “This cannot be serious — the artist is making fun of me.”

How do we help viewers to open up and embrace contemporary art, especially those works that are not readily accessible? At the High Museum in Atlanta, we tackled this issue with an experiment: we took down the whole permanent collection and re-hung it not by nationalities or chronologies but by themes such as the human body, urban life and the power of symbols.

Transcendence was one of these themes, and we compared the 19th century American painter John Henry Twachtman’s landscape “Along the River” and a late abstract work by the contemporary New Mexico painter Agnes Martin. The reductive simplicity of Twachtman’s landscape is painted in whites and grey blues, with quick slashes of brown to suggest a muddy pathway. This simple and subtle landscape, a favorite of High Museum visitors, appeared with Martin’s abstract bands of soft color. Close scrutiny of her canvas reveals unmistakable traces of the human hand: small flaws in her application of paint and tiny waves in her straight lines. Martin’s colors, like Twachtman’s, are nuanced and subtle. While these two paintings are very different, pairing them invited a discourse, an exchange of ideas, so the viewer might see that each artist uses paint in a gestural manner with compositional simplicity as a vehicle for meditation. As a result, the starkness of Martin’s minimalist canvas might take on new significance for our visitors.

The pairing of exhibitions can also offer a meaningful exchange of ideas. At the Women’s Museum we presented an exhibit of Amalia Amaki, whose works reference the great women of American jazz. Unsure if all visitors would be familiar with the names or images of these female musical protegees, we organized a pedant exhibition of publicity photographs of 45 of the best known American female jazz singers. Each exhibit complemented the other, and I believe each enhanced the visitor’s appreciation of art at a deeper level. This kind of interdisciplinary thinking can be a valuable tool for museums in the 21st century, especially on campus where we can tap into the expertise of faculty and their ability to bring multiple viewpoints.

Another criticism of museums in the 20th century was our overuse of an authoritative curatorial voice in interpreting art objects. Even worse, art museum professionals have been accused of dismissing the visitor’s experience, striving instead to interpret objects in scholarly ways that may or may not be understood or appreciated by the average gallery visitor.

When I worked with a curatorial team on an audio guide for the High Museum, we looked for quotes from literary authors and cultural critics that might shed light on historical objects. We also asked a wide range of gallery visitors to comment on works of art. Two of the most poignant came from a museum guard and a child. The guard chose Jean Michel Basquiat, a New York City street artist who died at 26 of a drug overdose, as the artist who most engaged his attention. He spoke honestly and eloquently when he said he didn’t know anything about the person who painted the work, but that he could see deep pain in the painting — a pain he felt he shared in his own life. We asked a 10-year-old about his favorite work, a Mark Rothko, and he said he liked the work because it seemed to float on the wall and every time he looked at it, he saw something new. Both responses were direct, powerful, and sincere — proof that contemporary art can and will speak for itself without curatorial mediation.

Not every exhibition needs complex installation to be successful. We can also look to simple, single-artist exhibits that draw attention and critical acclaim. At the High Museum, Mineko Grimmer created an installation of a small vat of water strung with piano wires; suspended above on wire was an inverted pyramid of small pebbles frozen in water. As the ice melted, the pebbles fell onto the wires, making a random musical note before plopping into the water. Visitors entered the gallery with hushed reverence. Many stayed for 10 to 20 minutes sitting quietly. Others returned multiple times. A gallery with a quiet, meditative atmosphere carries a strong appeal. It also offers an excellent example of how art can provide a moment of quiet in our busy lives. Or it can inspire meaningful dialogue among friends.

The harsh realities of the economic downturn we are experiencing has, unfortunately, brought tangible change to museums in the 21st century. With fewer resources than ever, museums are struggling to meet a need for solace, comfort, or just plain entertainment for stressed-out audiences. On a national level, museum attendance is up — but the ticket price usually provides less than 10 percent of operational funding.

Art professionals often complain that neither their communities nor their government leaders fully appreciate the value of a museum to the community. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a terrific example of how a museum can stimulate neighborhood revitalization. Originally a Masonic Temple, the building became a pornographic movie theater when the Masons abandoned it in the mid 20th century. When the founder of the Women’s Museum purchased the building, Washingtonians thought it was the worst location possible. After the museum opened, other businesses moved into the neighborhood, and today it’s the vibrant heart of downtown.

Another bright example of a building changing a community is the Taubman Museum. This stunning facility with its contemporary design has energized the downtown of Roanoke, Va., creating community pride and increasing tourism. Investing in museums is just good business. I firmly believe this will be true for Westmont’s art museum as well, which will be the Montecito community art museum, offering a rich litany of cultural opportunities. We will schedule quality exhibitions and market them aggressively to our community and beyond.

Another trend in the 21st century museum is planning exhibitions or collecting art in unexpected but emerging areas. The High Museum hosted a large retrospective of Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first professional and successful African American artist in American art. When I gave our docents a tour of the exhibit, they asked, “Why have we never heard of this artist before?” This was a question I frequently got at the Women’s Museum as well. Racial minorities, women artists and other marginalized groups of artists often have been written out of art history. It’s our job to reclaim them in the 21st century.

Outsider art is another good example; it emerged as a rich field for interpretation in the last decade of the 20th century. We still are not sure what to call it — folk art, naïve art, outsider art, or primitive — but it’s now a mainstream area for collecting around the world.

What will those areas be in the new century? As we explore trends in the news headlines, artists will be there to interpret them. For example, two women designers from Iceland responded to creative ideas for recycling by using codfish skins to create lighting fixtures. Josephine Ingram, who teaches as an adjunct instructor at Westmont, is certainly in touch with the changing tastes of American youth with her designs of skateboards. In next season’s exhibition schedule at Westmont, we will feature a new generation of Australian Aboriginal artists. These Dreamings, as the paintings are called, are a brand new art form developed in the 1980s.

Finding new meaning in museums in the 21st century will result from a willingness to open our eyes to new experiences. We can build upon many of the things we learned in the last century; quality and excellence will always be the starting point for art museums. We also need to think globally in planning exhibitions and programs, addressing issues that engage our students. It’s refreshing that college students come to us with open and creative minds fully expecting that change can and will happen in our world. At the Women’s Museum I had the opportunity to interview Ruth DeGolia. As a student at Yale University, she started Mercado Global, a company that finds U.S. markets for handmade goods by women in Guatemala and Mexico. MIT graduate student Zehra Ali and her team spearheaded the Ghonsala Project, seeking new building materials in cold, mountainous regions like those of Pakistan or Peru. They invented a new insulation product made with indigenous plants. This product not only makes life more comfortable, it creates jobs for local residents who manufacture the insulation. These are only two examples of students using the arts as a form of social activism. Seeking social justice through the arts is a challenge to Westmont’s art department, our students and our art museum.

"Flamingo" by Sean Keeley '09 showcases student work.

"Flamingo" by Sean Keeley '09 showcases student work.

Adams Center fits in well with Westmont’s commitment to developing all its arts programs and facilities. John Blondell has brought an international perspective to theater, and the Lit Moon Theatre Company, which he founded, has enriched theatrical offering with cutting-edge, avant-garde performances. His World Shakespeare Festival in Santa Barbara is the first of its kind in the nation and one of only seven in the world.

In music, thanks to the generosity of Westmont’s good friends, Stephen and Denise Adams, Michael Shasberger has become Adams professor of music and worship. In the three years he has been at Westmont, he has transformed the music program by securing grants and a special donor to make Westmont one of only two undergraduate colleges in California to become an all-Steinway campus. He has led the department to achieve accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music.

Our visual arts program has likewise undergone significant growth. The college created Reynolds Gallery 23 years ago, and enthusiastic patrons founded our Art Council, a 38-member organization of appointed community leaders who support the department and the gallery. Professor Emeritus Tony Askew spearheaded the endowment of a faculty chair for the art museum that bears his name. Westmont was most fortunate to receive leadership gifts from Walter and Darlene Hansen, Parker and Carolina Montgomery, Harold and Annette Simmons, and Stephen and Denise Adams, as well as numerous other gifts from a wide range of patrons and art enthusiasts.

When Adams Center for the Visual Arts opens in 2011, Westmont will grow from a single gallery exhibition space to a fully professional art museum. The new building moves the art department from its lower campus location into the heart of the campus. We will have a sleek, modern, green building, a growing, quality art collection, and a schedule of vibrant exhibitions and art programs.

"Resting" by Kiyoshi Saito was a gift from Ted and Dorcas Hatlen.

"Resting" by Kiyoshi Saito was a gift from Ted and Dorcas Hatlen.

The new facility has stimulated interest among our supporters, including a promised bequest of 700 old master prints from Westmont alumni Dewayne and Faith Perry. “We had thought about giving the collection to Westmont, but with no formal facilities for caring for works on paper or cataloging them, we were not sure it was the right place,” they told me. “When Westmont announced the new museum project, it all fell into place for us.”

One of my goals is bringing visibility to our growing art collection and offering access to the collection for students, scholars and the public. Due to our limited art storage space, Reynolds Gallery has never mapped out a collections policy for the art collection. We take care of 800 works, which are spread out in offices, administrative buildings and a small storage room. As we plan for a move into the new facility with a well-appointed storage vault, it’s vital the museum gain intellectual control over collections by creating policies and procedures for the collection’s management and by conducting an inventory of our art collection, cataloguing it, grading it, and creating a database for easy access for students, faculty, and our community.

Our strongest area is works on paper. Noteworthy pieces include works by Marc Chagall, Mary Corita Kent, Joan Miro, and Cristo. Ted and Dorcas Hatlan made a generous gift of 20 Kiyoshi Saito prints, and the Perrys, beyond their promised collection, give an annual cash gift to purchase works for the growing print collection.

Santa Barbara artists have also been a focus of Westmont’s art collection. They range from early 20th century artists who came to the region when Santa Barbara was a popular artist’s colony to those who live and work here today, including Channing Peake, Howard Warshaw, Leonardo Nunez, Ed Inks, Susan Savage, Martha Ensign Johnson, Tony Askew and John Carlander.

Experiencing the art of our time is important for students as well as a specific point of interest for our local community. Examples of contemporary artists in the collection include: Creighton Michael, Makoto Fujimura, Timothy Lowly and Hanne Brenken. Berry Berkus, a well known local architect and collector of contemporary art, donated many of the most significant contemporary works to Westmont.

Judy L. Larson joined the Westmont faculty in 2008.

Judy L. Larson joined the Westmont faculty in 2008.

Our historic and early modern paintings and sculpture collection is small and varied. We own seven works by Stephen Sacklarian, a Bulgarian artist born in 1899 who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and later taught at Notre Dame University.

The Latin American art segment includes 200 molas that President Roger Voskuyl donated in 1999. The Tule Indians of Panama’s San Blas Islands created these colorful appliqué panels.

Three outstanding gifts have added to our Asian art: an 18th century Tibetan bronze Buddha, an 8th century Japanese gilt wooden carved Buddha, and a Ming Dynasty bronze, Three Buddhas Standing. Jan Sturr donated all three in 2001.

Under Tony’s tenure, Westmont can proudly boast a strong and varied exhibition schedule, which have set a high standard for excellence. Noteworthy exhibitions include Mary Corita Kent (1986), Cristo: Drawings and Collage (1992), Kiyoshi Saito: Japanese Printmaker (1996), Richard Diebenkorn: Channel Island Foundation Collection (2005), Cort Savage (2006) and George Rouault: Miserere et Guerre (2007). Our audiences have come to expect the highest quality art when they come to the Reynolds Gallery — it’s a tradition upon which we can build.

Art museums in the 21st century can transform communities by opening our eyes. I hope Adams Center for the Visual Arts will be a locus where artists present their new ideas, where curators interpret their avant-garde ideas, and where visitors take away new meanings that enhance our lives.

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