Clarke: The Newark Museum was founded in 1909 and is what I would characterize as a hybrid museum. Its origins are rooted in a particular museum model – the industrial design museum – that developed in 19th century Europe along with other types of museums, specifically “picture galleries” and encyclopedic museums. Following the precedent of the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum), the Newark Museum was dedicated to “art, science and industry” and its collections reflect these origins. A champion of the “art of the everyday,” the Museum assembled diverse collections and mounted exhibitions that challenged distinctions between art, craft and industrial design. Works from Africa, while categorized as part of a larger collection of ethnology until the 1990s, were collected as examples of “good design” as early as 1914. Now into its second century, the Museum’s core collections include American art, arts of Asia, arts of Native America, and Decorative Arts, in addition to arts of Africa. And we define ourselves as a museum of art and science with an emphasis on education.
Within this complex institution, contemporary African art is displayed as part of our broader representation of African art. Some contemporary works are installed alongside historic examples from our collection in a thematically organized long-term gallery. An adjacent gallery has offered a space for rotating exhibitions, which I have used to introduce our audiences to modern and contemporary arts of Africa and thereby expand the conceptual, temporal and geographic boundaries of “African art.” In addition to the 2003 exhibition My Ethiopia: Recent Paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof (discussed in a previous thread), other exhibitions have included Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke (2006), a focused look at works by one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent modernists spanning the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Also in 2006, we mounted Expanding Africa: New Art, New Directions which featured our growing permanent collection of contemporary art and asked our visitors, through interpretative panels, to consider the constructed category of contemporary African art and its representation in museum spaces (their comments filled three books!). In 2010, this gallery became a dedicated space devoted to our permanent collection of contemporary African art (the first such gallery in the US, to my knowledge). Present Tense: Arts of Contemporary Africa currently features works by nine artists.
The Newark Museum is unusual in that, in contrast to most art institutions, we do not have a stand-alone department devoted to Contemporary Art nor a single curator responsible for its institutional representation. Several curatorial departments in the Museum – African, American, Native American, Asian and Decorative Arts – acquire contemporary arts, building collections that speak to varied departmental interests and reflect different areas of expertise. Rather than reinforcing these territorial boundaries in exhibition practice, my colleagues and I have often collaborated on projects that transcend curatorial categories based on genre or geography. In this way, contemporary African art has been presented outside of the galleries devoted to African art.
For the Museum’s Centennial in 2009, for example, I invited Yinka Shonibare to create a major site-specific installation in the Ballantine House, an 1885 Victorian mansion that is part of the Museum’s campus. I collaborated on the project with our Decorative Arts curator, Ulysses Grant Dietz, who provided important historical and cultural background to the artist. The result was Party Time: Re-Imagine America, a fantastically realized sculptural tableau of an opulent late 19th century dinner party gone awry, staged in the mansion’s dining room (you can check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5sRd-Z-IZ8 — it’s now part of the museum’s permanent collection, though not on view presently). Also in 2009, the Museum mounted the exhibition, Unbounded: New Art for a New Century, which situated the work of contemporary African artists alongside that of other artists whose works have entered the museum’s collection through the departments of American Art, Arts of Asia, and Decorative Arts. Adopting a cross-departmental curatorial model, the exhibition was organized by four Museum curators: Ulysses Grant Dietz (Curator of Decorative Arts), Katherine Paul (curator Arts of Asia), Beth Venn (Curator of American Art) and myself.
Unbounded featured works by 40 artists from around the world in an installation organized into three broad themes. The thematic organization dissolved boundaries between departmental collections and allowed the artist’s works to be seen outside of geographic frameworks. The multiple curatorial perspectives that informed the exhibition, and attendant conceptual tensions, were apparent in the podcast at the introduction to the exhibition, which featured the four curators offering their diverse reflections on contemporary art (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFmpQbI2Naw). In the exhibition itself, select works of art had label copy jointly written by two curators. These interpretative strategies prompted our visitors to consider how specialists from different areas of art look at, think about and analyze works of art. The institutional paradigm proposed in this exhibition is a hybrid approach to the representation of global contemporary art, intended to reflect the plurality of artistic practices today. Looking ahead, my colleagues and I hope that it will be a model for a future permanent gallery space devoted to global contemporary art.