What if you could reorganize the objects in your museum’s collection in a series of poetic interventions, grouping them—not by geography, culture, or era—but rather by their relation to human lived experience, perhaps setting a simple, 12th-century white jade Chinese vase inside an ornate 18th-century French salon?
Or what if you decided to exhibit one single painting in your gallery—a very famous painting, perhaps—maybe owned by the Louvre—an impulse prompted by the coincidence of your gallery’s recent name change and its proximity to a cemetery? And what if the arrival of this painting was preceded by a series of tangentially related, preparatory experiments?
Or what if you decided to dispense with a formal display of objects altogether and instead created a clearing—a kind of scaffolding—for creative imagining on topics of common interest and concern?
What if you wanted to make a series of exhibitions that celebrated your museum’s history by pulling that history forward and molding into the shape of the present?
What if… what if…
Few people reading this would deny that curators have exciting, creative, stimulating jobs. It’s also true, however, that they operate under a great number of constraints—and here I’m thinking of two in particular: time and money. Money and time.
But what if… What if you didn’t have to worry about money? And what if you suddenly had oceans of time? Given those balmy circumstances, what exhibition might you organize then? What would be the exhibition of your dreams? And how would dreaming up such an exhibition stretch your daily, real world work in new directions?
These were the questions driving a program by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI), which recently invited six local contemporary art curators to participate in a year-long series of seminars and workshops. Led by the director of Independent Curators International, Kate Fowle, with appearances by special guests from around the world, this Curatorial Intensive offered new perspectives, an exchange of ideas, and a structure for reflection and fantasy.
Earlier this summer, the six—including ICA’s Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner—came together to present their wild imaginings to each other and an audience of their peers. Most of their projects were focused on their own home institution, almost as though they had all been asked to imagine an exhibition that would poetically express their museum or gallery’s deepest nature. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Adelina Vlas, for example, contemplated reorganizing her museum’s historical rooms via a contemporary sensibility, an idea that came to her while walking through them between her far flung office and the rest of the contemporary department. Arcadia University’s Richard Torchia has been dreaming of the gravitational force a painting like Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia ego” might have, drawing tides of passionate audiences out to suburban Glenside. Temple Contemporary’s Rob Blackson talked about how public programming is becoming a new form of exhibition-making, and he seems to be bringing the dream of turning his gallery into a space for conversation and interaction quickly to life.
ICA’s own Ingrid Schaffner took the invitation to dream as an opportunity to consider how to mark ICA’s 50th anniversary, which will—incredibly—be upon us next year. Wary of the dangers of nostalgia and self-congratulation common to such occasions, Ingrid has conceived a series of micro-exhibitions—new presentations based on or inspired by important exhibitions from ICA’s past. In this way the past becomes not a fetish but a springboard, a catalyst, a point of departure. For example, ICA’s exhibition of the work of Agnes Martin might lead to a mini-exhibition of designer Eugene Feldman, whose Falcon Press designed the soulful, unhurried catalogue for Martin’s show in 1973.
1977’s Improbable Furniture might lead to an exhibition of an artist working with furniture forms today. Another presentation might reassemble a few of the talismantic objects from “The Other Tradition,” the tantalizing 1966 exhibition hypothesizing an alternate road to Pop through Surrealism. A giant timeline of ICA exhibitions hangs in Ingrid’s office, studded with constellations of Post-it notes proposing possible projects.
Ingrid’s expansive vision has a place for the points of view not just of ICA curators, whose various handwritings loop across the Post-its, but of friends and collaborators as well. Curators who began their careers at ICA, or guest-curated a show, or came to participate in a public program—how might they see our history? What connections or associations might they make that would never cross our own minds? And what of Penn professors or students, or ICA staff who aren’t professional curators but who swim in the culture of the contemporary in their own ways? Or what if we engaged an artist to work with ICA’s archives to create new work out of this old material?
We haven’t engaged any artists yet, but we have chartered a young curator, Sarah Fritchey, a Masters candidate in curatorial studies at Bard, to spend the summer immersed in the chilly air of Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, combing through the archives and reporting back on what she finds. Every morning this hot summer she has plunged into the darkness of the unknown like a pearl diver, though with sweater, laptop, and camera rather than greased cotton in her ears and a stone to carry her down. Some of her finds, digitized, will be made public on ICA’s website in a year or so.
Back at PEI, Ingrid, still in dream mode, asks, “What if you started with an empty gallery and then kept filling?”
She turns to Arcadia’s Richard Torchia. “Your exhibition is a quest,” she says.
Richard smiles. “A crusade,” he suggests.
Maybe all exhibition-making is a quest—a crusade. A journey into the dark in the faith that enlightenment is waiting somewhere.
PMA image information: European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Architecture (including fragments), Grand Salon from the Château de Draveil, French c. 1735. Mirrors, carved and gilded oak paneling, and sculpted reliefs. Purchased with Museum funds, 19281928-58-1. Cup in the Form of a Flower, Artist/maker unknown, Chinese, Song Dynasty (960-1279). 12th century, Jade (nephrite), 2 x 2 ½ inches. Gift of the Far Eastern Art Committee in honor of Henry B. Keep, 1978.
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