A new show at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art presents an assortment of works given to the College over the decades by private collectors. These objects reside in museum storage for much of the time, but have now been assembled into a unique exhibition by student curators.
Students in Associate Professor Linda Docherty‘s fall art history class, “Private Treasures, Public Gifts,” curated the show as part of their semester-long study of art collecting in America from the 18th century to present day.
“Insight Out: Exploring Gifts of Art from Private Collectors,” which runs through April 15, coincides with another exhibition at the Museum, “Building a College Collection: Select Recent Acquisitions.” This show features works by Ansel Adams, Louise Bourgeois, Man Ray and others. Together the exhibitions celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of James Bowdoin III’s original bequest to the college in 1811. Bowdoin’s art collection featured copies of European paintings, master drawings, and portraits of worthies, some of which are currently on view elsewhere in the Museum. “By focusing exclusively on gifts, the student show highlights how subsequent donors have continued the tradition Bowdoin started,” Docherty explained.
To prepare for the task of curating “Insight Out,” Docherty’s class studied a number of American art collectors, including Bowdoin, Thomas Jefferson, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. They examined the purposes underlying collecting, and the role played by these individuals in instilling national pride, educating the public, and promoting social change.
At the same time, the 13 students in Docherty’s class went about selecting and researching the pieces they wanted in the show. Because the Museum of Art holds more than 20,000 objects, Docherty presented them with a short list of 75 pieces that she had pulled earlier from museum storage. The students chose works representing different subjects, media and time periods, and by artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, and Henri Matisse.
Once students had selected the final 39 objects, they were assigned to write both the interpretive labels that hang next to each object and the longer catalog essays that have been permanently filed in the Museum to aid future researchers.
“It took some showing off,” Clare Henry ’12 said about her short explanations of John La Farge’s Jinrikisha Boy and Carlo Maratti’s Sacred and Christian Rome. “I wanted my enthusiasm for the art to show through.” Henry, an art history and visual arts major, said that after graduating she wants to work in a gallery or do curatorial work. She credited the class with deepening her understanding of the process of creating an exhibition.
Docherty said she challenged her students to write object labels of under 100 words. “It’s a very difficult task. You can’t waste a word… and you have to be clear and eloquent at the same time,” she said. She advised her students to encourage viewers to take time to look at the work by drawing their attention to a significant visual aspect.
Students got a chance to include more of their research in the longer catalog entries. Anne Schember ’12, an art history major and Italian minor, said she appreciated writing a college paper that would be of use to someone else. She said she also valued the chance to do in-depth research on an original work of art, even though information was sometimes scarce. “A lot of the pieces aren’t well known, but that was part of the fun,” she said.
Chris Omachi ’12, an art history major who’s planning to work in a New York gallery next year, researched a Picasso print, The Crayfish, as well as a lithograph by Honoré Daumier and a gelatin silver print by Frederick Sommer. He said he enjoyed working collectively with the students and museum staff to create the exhibition and plan the opening reception. The reception was organized with help from a student group, the Student Museum and Art Club (SMAC), of which Omachi is a member.
Although the students researched their objects individually, they worked together to design the installation, juxtaposing objects to evoke both thematic and aesthetic considerations. “It made them think about how works of art fit together,” Docherty said. “In curating an exhibition the whole is as important as the parts.”
Photo Gallery: To kick off the show, the class planned an opening reception on Feb. 10, which drew hundreds of people from the college community. The students raised money from numerous sources to pay for refreshments, a DJ, and publicity. They also gave two gallery talks Feb. 16 and 17 at the Museum.