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Thinking Outside the Lines: Contemporary Art in Historic Settings

The Perception of An Historic Setting

Static as defined by Merriam-Webster is something, “characterized by a lack of movement, animation, or progression.” And this is a word often used to describe museums – especially historic houses or heritage sites. Visiting in June might yield the same, or similar, experience as you had in January with either a self-guided, or staff/docent led tour of various rooms designed to showcase different time periods in the site’s history. You might hear about the various important dates pertaining to the site, the notable people who lived there and some “fun” anecdotes or gossip from the docent.

For those of us who have been history nerds from an early age all this might suffice to have a positive museum experience. I for one was down at Colonial Williamsburg with my Felicity American Girl doll from the age of seven marveling at the reconstructed colonial houses and eagerly playing along with the educators dressed in historic clothing and pretending we were in 1776. Not until adulthood would I learn that Williamsburg was not as historically accurate as I once thought. Also as an adult, as I was waiting to tour the Governor’s Palace, I overhead a teenager say to their parent when the guide was speaking as if we were in 1776, “Doesn’t she know it’s 2015, why is she talking like that, this is stupid.”

Above: Detail of Morris Jumel Mansion (Image: Trish Mayo)

Although this might be a semi-extreme example, it does illustrate the fact that historic sites are losing their “wow” factor. No longer are guests, of any age, content to only see where George Washington slept or marvel at original eighteenth century furniture. Again, full disclosure, as someone who used to be Director of a historic house I was thrilled when through fundraising and a generous bequest we were able to initiate a comprehensive five year reinterpretation plan to refresh the rooms throughout the Mansion and dig into the stories we wanted to tell. However, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that all museums are underfunded at this juncture and the question remains how do we, as museum professionals, make these sites relevant to audiences to ensure not only the longevity of the site and it’s mission but perhaps more importantly it’s relevance to people today.

What Can A Site Offer?

With that thought in mind what is the way forward for historic sites? Is the answer to bemoan the loss of audience and funding. Ring our hands and stay in the sphere of staticness and see who comes to us?

I would say the answer is no, in fact it needs to be no. Any of us in the business of museums, and let’s never forget it is a business, need to take responsibility for making change happen and that should echo from the largest encyclopedic museums to the smallest historical societies of individual towns. Museums will never be able to sustain on grants alone, and let’s not even get started on a conversation concerning government funding.

The solution, in my opinion, is to look both inward and outward, to expand the mission of a historic site to explore what is literally beyond its walls. Wasn’t it Jerry McGuire who said “Help me help you,” the return phrase of “show me the money” would be music to the ears of museum professionals, but again money is only part of the equation and I would theorize comes as a result of expanding your scope.

While working at my previous position I was fortunate to work with Franklin D. Vagnone, who was then the Executive Director of the Historic House Trust. It was thanks to him that many of the contemporary art installations I’ll discuss later were approved and funded. He, along with Deborah Ryan a Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, wrote a book entitled The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. A provocative tile to say the least, and I would highly recommend it to any museum professional, especially if you are in a smaller museum or historic site setting. Don’t get scared away by the term “anarchist,” what Frank is prescribing, something that he and I still have conversations about on a regular basis, is how to break down the norms of how a historic site operates and think outside that proverbial box.

One of the major tenants of the book is something called a “reverse affinity group,” a concept I continue to espouse and use at my current position as Director of One River School, an art school and contemporary art gallery. This means for a museum to look within its community (more on what that is defined as in a second) and think about what does the community need that the museum can offer. Community is a tricky and nebulous word, used in grant applications and meetings to check a box on how many people a museum gets through their doors. In this instance a community can be a geographic location, a group of people, or both. I would preoffer that not all museums can be all things to every community, and trying to do so will only water down your attempts to make yourself more relevant and purposeful, or what Vagnone calls a “bait and switch.” It’s ok to accept that there might be groups that will not connect with your mission or programming, if someone wants to go see dinosaurs no matter what I do as the Director of a historic house they most likely will not come to me. That being said, that is where the reverse affinity group has the power of collaboration behind it, and to get new audiences in the door. One example amongst many is a local theater company (People’s Theatre Project) who didn’t have their own space at the time, I had a porch and Octagon room both of which were perfect for theater productions. Allowing the theater group to use the space not only brought new people into the space, that would never have walked into a historic house before, it also allowed me to set up the museum as receptive to the community, and a welcoming space.

Something that can not go unsaid is that museums are still considered intimidating for a large segment of the population. I go into museums on a weekly basis, on my day off from my art related job you’ll find me looking at more art. However, for a variety of reasons museums are not the go-to leisure activity for most people. This intimidation can be economic (the majority of museums charge some sort of entrance fee), it can be social (nothing in the museum relates to someone’s personal experience) or it can simply be, as I heard often as a museum educator, people find museums boring.

So how can it become less boring?

Contemporary Meets Colonial – A Case Study

The Morris-Jumel Mansion holds the distinction of being Manhattan’s oldest extant house and one of New York City’s oldest museums. Witness to 254 years of history and perched on Manhattan’s second- highest natural landform, the house stands as a testament to eighteenth-century design, nineteenth-century high-style interior decoration, and twenty-first-century preservation. Operating as a private nonprofit museum, the house is owned by New York City, under the auspices of the Historic House Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Boy Doing a Headstand

Boy Doing a Headstand by Yinka Shonibare (Image: Trish Mayo)

The Mansion has seen various interpretations and was saved, almost single-handedly, by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early twentieth century. Over the course of it’s time as a museum the focus and mission has been to “present American life from the colonial era to the present by preserving, collecting, and interpreting history, culture, and the arts to engage and inspire diverse audiences.” The ending of the mission statement, “diverse audiences,” is similar to the word “community” I discussed a bit earlier. How does Manhattan’s oldest house keep itself relevant and appealing to a diverse range of ages, ethnicities and demographics? Over the last few years, the museum has made a concerted effort to examine and assess the permanent collection, its interpretation, and the place the museum holds in the community—all with the goal of transforming it into one of New York’s leading American art institutions. This new vision is guided now by an ambitious five-year reinterpretation plan, begun in January 2016, with the first phase completed in December 2016 and with the goal of all five phases completed by the end of 2020.

In conjunction with the reinterpretation of the historic period rooms, there was a renewed focus on developing a changing exhibition program in two second floor spaces, as well as within the period rooms themselves.

Begun in 2010 the series Contemporary Meets Colonial was presented in conjunction with the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “cultivate, support and promote the works of artists and arts organizations in northern Manhattan.” Each June NoMAA hosts the Uptown Arts Stroll, where artists open their studios and local organizations, restaurants and museum present exhibitions. The Mansion had participated in the past, with exhibitions in a central gallery space, but never in the period rooms themselves. Having seen the retrospective of the work of Yinka Shonibare at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009 with his works in their period rooms my thought was to bring the art fully into the rooms and integrate it with the house itself.

This integration would hopefully turn a static space into a more activated one. Always keeping the goal that the contemporary pieces aligned with the mission of the Mansion, and also continued the story of the inhabitants of the house, and the specific rooms the pieces were placed in and created a dialog with what the viewer sees on a daily basis. These exhibitions served again to have the Mansion become a center for the “reverse affinity group” sphere as artists who didn’t have a place to show their work not only created site specific works for the museum, but also the constituents of each artist were brought into the Mansion. The added bonus was artists knew other artists and it allowed for a continual stream of artists who were interested in showing at the Mansion. The eventual goal was to take these exhibitions to the next level – not only be doing more per year, but also to create compelling solo exhibitions.

Above: Andrea Arroyo - Women Unbound (Image Trish Mayo)

Above: Andrea Arroyo – Women Unbound (Image Trish Mayo)

Beginning in 2013 these solo exhibitions kicked off with The Loves of Aaron Burr. This exhibition demonstrated how an artist, Camilla Huey, could combine extensive research with her business (creating corsets) and develop a rich exhibition that made viewers think about the eight women whose lives intersected with Aaron Burr. Connecting to the history of the Mansion was the fact that Aaron Burr was married to the longest resident of the Mansion, Eliza Jumel, and the sculpture of her and her dress too pride of place in her bedroom. In Huey’s own words “fashion and history collide” in her works. This exhibition was also the first case of the Mansion receiving funding for a specific exhibition, and through positive press from outlets like Vogue it helped the Mansion double its attendance in 2013.

Felipe Galindo – Washington revisits Washington Heights (Image Trish Mayo)

The following year the Mansion continued to expand it’s contemporary art offerings by showing three solo exhibitions throughout the year. Artists Pete Hoffmeister, Andrea Arroyo and Felipe Galindo all looked at the history of the house in very different ways and with different goals. Galindo’s exhibition George Washington Revisits Washington Heights used his New Yorker cartoon style to envision George Washington returning to modern Washington Heights. The Mansion has the distinction to be the only surviving Washington’s headquarters on the island of Manhattan, so seeing him sitting in his office was both fun and a touch point to start conversations about the Revolutionary War. Andrea Arroyo focused on the strong female presence seen throughout the history of the Mansion with her signature style of colorful, dancer-like female portraits in Women Unbound. Arroyo also placed many of her pieces either around or in historic artifacts from the Mansion’s collection, to create a literal dialog between the old and new art. Lastly, Pete Hoffmeister created the exhibition Unpacked to round out the year. Hoffmeister’s exhibition consisted of large scale installations in each period room, and challenged the viewer to address issues such as GMO food production, prison populations and the environment. Hoffmeister stated, “For this exhibition, I viewed the Mansion as an artifact, and a silent witness to the founding of the United States.” For example the installation in the Mansion’s Front Parlor was entitled Ball and Chain (Per Capita) and for Hoffmeister “The front parlor’s ornate furniture, carpeting and wallpaper speak to the wealth of New York’s 19th century merchants. However, comfort and elegance came at a price. The Atlantic trade economy that made such wealth possible was dependent on the Atlantic slave economy, and on the unpaid labor of millions. Today, there remains a direct correlation between states that formerly had high slave populations, and those that now have high per capita incarceration rates.”

Above: Girl on Scooter by Yinka Shonibare (Image: Trish Mayo)

The Mansion continued its focus on the “contemporary meets colonial” theme for it’s 250th anniversary in 2015. Throughout the year the museum partnered with a then unknown musical, Hamilton, for a benefit performance (that story is for the next article), a replica of Lafayette’s ship for a July 4th weekend celebration and hosting a community arts festival for Halloween. In the summer of 2015 the Mansion launched its most extensive contemporary art exhibition, Yinka Shonibare: Colonial Arrangements. Shonibare was the inspiration for the contemporary art initiative all those years ago, and the idea of hosting him for the anniversary was on my bucket list. This is a case where having no fear can be a positive trait, cold emailing the New York City gallery which represents Shonibare, the James Cohan Gallery, paid off as one meeting led to not only the ability to have an exhibition but also the Mansion commissioning a site specific piece. The Ghost of Eliza Jumel consisted of two pieces – one of Shonibare’s signature sculptures in Eliza Jumel’s bedroom plus a piece inspired by the nineteenth century concept of Pepper’s Ghost to create her ghost in a reproduction mirror. The other pieces in the show consisted of loans of the series Mother and Father Worked So I Can Play, children partaking in games but placed in the Mansion’s setting as Shonibare states, “Historically, that wealth-gathering was somewhat controversial—in that wealth was acquired through the enslavement of others,” said Mr. Shonibare. “And the children are enjoying the fruits of that colonial power relationship.”

Ghost of Eliza Jumel by Yinka Shonibare (Image: Trish Mayo)

Ghost of Eliza Jumel by Yinka Shonibare (Image: Trish Mayo)

Building on Successes

Over the course of my tenure at the Mansion there were many more exhibitions I could have included in this article. The ones I called out were touchstones which helped move the mission and goals of the institution forward. The Loves of Aaron Burr and Colonial Arrangements were the first exhibitions which received major corporate support, both from Estee Lauder, they doubled and quadrupled the attendance at the Mansion, brought in new sources of earned income from gift shop sales and public programs, but perhaps most importantly allowed the Mansion to become known as a site for world class exhibitions. And to go back to one of my first points they allowed new audiences to discover one of Manhattan’s hidden treasures.

Creating contemporary art exhibitions in a historic setting can be challenging – securing funding, board support, the press to make sure people attend and developing your own curatorial vision. But at the end of the day the rewards outweigh those challenges, and the success that comes from thinking outside the box will lead to more options and avenues to build your institution into the future.


About the author – Carol S. Ward

Carol S. Ward has over 15 years of collaborative leadership in both for and non-profit management. She is currently the Director of One River School in Larchmont, NY – an art school and gallery dedicated to showcasing the work of emerging contemporary artists and teaching art making practices through the lens of artists of the last 50 years. She also recently launched her own arts consulting firm, Outside the Lines Consulting, to assist artists and non-profits with strategic plans, marketing and connecting with community. Previously she was Executive Director of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City, with past positions at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT and the Ridderhof Martin Gallery in Fredericksburg, VA.

Ms. Ward is an art historian with her BA from Mary Washington College, and two Masters Degrees, her first in Museum Education from the College of New Rochelle, and her second in Art History from Hunter College.

Articles she has written have been published in The Magazine Antiques, The Historic House Trust journal, the American Alliance of Museums Magazine, Antiques Weekly and catalogs for the Bruce Museum, Morris-Jumel Mansion and Keno Auctions. Her book “Visions of America: The Morris-Jumel Mansion” was published in 2015 and she has recently appeared in the documentary on the making of the hit musical “Hamilton.”

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