Controversy Reigns!

This from the Somerville Museum’s Director of Exhibitions, in response to the recent Globe review. Could be an upcoming letter to the editor….

Cate McQuaid,

Thanks for your article on the Carolyn Wirth “Small Obsession” exhibition at the Somerville Museum. We at the Somerville Museum are so happy and grateful to have caught your attention, and I’m sure that more visitors for the exhibition will materialize as a result of the light that you have shown on this wonderful show.

The division between the work by artists and the collector-oriented work that you mention in your article is also an issue that came roaring to our attention as I helped guest curator Carolyn Wirth in planning and installing the exhibition in the museum. Once the exhibit was up on the walls, that break between the two kinds of work in the show stood out for me as the problem that most needed to be solved, and also as the most resistant to resolution without dramatically altering the final content of the exhibition assembled by our curator. After consultation with Carolyn Wirth, our solution was to add more information on the history of the Ginny Doll and its place in American popular culture, accentuating rather than diminishing the tension that you felt when you viewed the exhibit for yourself.

I have to admit that I am very sympathetic to the reading of the exhibition as spelled out in your article –what antique doll collector is going to also want to see Sinclair’s creepy insects, and what hip, urban artist hell bent on creeping us out with visceral, horror-show imagery is going to care about the sleepy historical, social, and cultural issues raised by the Ginny Doll? As a visual artist whose very cultural existence at times seems to hinge on maintaining and pointing out to others the difference between the “art experience” and “art history” I am exceptionally well versed in the two categories and the either/or nature of their mutual incompatibility .

On the other hand, after years of managing the exhibition program at the Somerville Museum, I have come to understand that the audience that we address is unlike that of a larger museum or a private art gallery, and the expectations placed upon the Somerville Museum are different. In assessing how the presentation of the two incompatible parts of the “Small Obsession” exhibition will impact that audience, I take into account how this kind of thing has gone over in past Somerville Museum exhibitions like “Lifting the Veil” and “Lost Theatres of Somerville” where historical narratives and contemporary art were intertwined. My view, in the final analysis, is that the either/or must yield to the both/and. Anyway, attempting and failing to combine the two kinds of exhibition material is so much more thrilling than not trying at all –the drama and brinksmanship of these weird, quirky presentations at the Somerville Museum are, truly, what have kept my interest in exhibition design alive for the past twenty years; the kinds of museum exhibitions that I see elsewhere (the voice in the back of your head should be saying: “Dale Chihuly”) are so predictable and dull.

I began my career as an exhibition professional installing blue chip art exhibitions at the List Art Center at MIT and at the ICA on Boylston Street in the late 1980s, but I never felt like an exhibition artist until I arrived at the Somerville Museum. The precedents for Somerville Museum exhibitions are not museum and gallery art exhibits, and they should not be compared to them. Somerville Museum exhibits are more like the exhibitions of the 1950s presented at the ICA in London by members of the Independent Group: Alison and Peter Smithson, Nigel Henderson, Richard Hamilton, John McCale and Eduardo Paolozzi. Like their exhibitions “Parallel of Life and Art,” “Growth and Form,” “This is Tomorrow,” and “Man, Machine and Motion,” the idea of Somerville Museum exhibitions is both something that you could not have expected and something that gently challenges your ordinary notions of what art is. By putting on the table a smorgasbord that appeals to an array of tastes (pop, art, history, social culture) and by engaging the spectator in the confused/confusing state of the jumble of historical and creative, as the “Small Obsession” exhibition does, it’s my hope that the Somerville Museum succeeds in eliciting an active response from the spectator as no ordinary museum exhibition can. I call this kind of exhibition design the “multiple points of entry” technique. There’s something for everyone and each viewer, essentially, must construct his or her own exhibition experience from the many possibilities present. Your own response to the “Small Obsession” exhibition is one defensible position, but others will come to see only one or the other of the two sides of the exhibition and simply ignore the rest –an equally rewarding response, and still others will be inspired explore heretofore unanticipated ways to encompass the incompatible dualities of the art and the collectible presented in the exhibit.

I don’t disagree with your assessment of the “Small Obsession” exhibition, but a) don’t think for a moment that the jarring nature of the exhibition wasn’t intentional (!) and b) there is much more at stake here. You’ve heard the phrase “state secrets.” At the Somerville Museum we’re dealing in “art secrets.” Don’t tell anyone; everyone thinks the Somerville Museum is just a history museum, we’ve lulled them into submission, and the shock might wear off. “Hello, Lissitzky? Are you there?”

Thanks again!

Michael O’Connell
Director of Exhibitions
Somerville Museum

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