Posted: 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013
By Rosalind Bentley
If you could go through a museum’s permanent collection and pick your favorite painting, sculpture or video installation, what would it be?
You only get one choice. Would it be that sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett? That collage by Romare Bearden? That photo by Lorna Simpson? Are you sure? Remember, you can only pick one.
That’s what Spelman College Museum of Fine Art has done with its latest exhibit, “Multiple Choice: Perspectives on the Spelman College Collection,” which opens today and runs through May 18. About 50 alumnae, students, faculty and members of Atlanta’s larger arts community were invited to go through the museum’s collection of 350 works, and each pick one piece that moved them. Their reasons were videotaped or written down and accompany their selections in the show.
Think that would be easy? Chris Appleton is the co-founder and executive director of WonderRoot, one of the city’s most innovative new arts groups. Appleton walked into the archive pretty sure he was going to pick a lithograph by muralist Hale Woodruff, subject of last year’s “Rising Up” exhibition at the High Museum of Art. Sure, that is, until he walked past Spelman’s collection of ancient African masks and was intrigued.
“I thought, maybe I should choose one of those because that would cause me to do some research and learn more about my choice, because I don’t know that much about them,” Appleton said.
In the end, he did settle on a Woodruff, but not what he initially thought. Instead of a lithograph, he chose a bold Rocky Mountain landscape watercolor that reminded him of his time as a college student in Colorado.
“I try to connect art to social-justice issues, but this piece caught me off guard because I hadn’t seen any of his work that hadn’t dealt with the African-American experience,” Appleton said. “This didn’t speak to it ostensibly,” Appleton said.
Though each institution handles it differently, the trend of community curating has gathered steam around the country in recent years. It has provoked questions of who is qualified to judge what is fine art. At the same time it has been seen by some as a demystifier, of sorts, of the artistic process and institutions by giving a backstage look at how an exhibit comes together.
“What we’ve found is that there is a real curiosity about the collection and people want to know more about it,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the museum. “When we hear people’s assumptions about the museum, they always surprise us. For example, people think that it’s the Cosbys’ permanent collection because it’s in the Cosby Center, or that it’s only for students.”
Brownlee and Spelman curator Anne Collins Smith see this as a way to dispel some of those myths.
Mercy Michelle Johnson, a 29-year-old Spelman senior, saw the show as a chance to finally lay claim to a piece she has loved for years, “Groovin’ High.” The quilt by artist Faith Ringgold depicts an old-school Saturday night party where the playlist surely included Marvin Gaye on LP.
“I have a quilt that was made by my great-grandmother and if I look at ‘Groovin’ High,’ the squares along the border of it look like the squares on the border of my great-grandmother’s quilt,” Johnson said. “The beads on the squares of ‘Groovin High’ remind me of the old necklaces my grandmother would let me and my cousins wear when we played dress-up. And that scene in the middle of it made me feel like those times when we we’re all just full of joy.”
For a long time Johnson has wanted to take the Ringgold’s quilt out of the case. And though she can’t wrap herself in it as she did at her great-grandmother’s, it is now on display with her memories attached.
“Multiple Choice: Perspectives on the Spelman College Collection” a show curated by affiliates of the Spelman College community
Today through May 18
Expect the unexpected with pieces on view from Sheila Pree Bright, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and others.
10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; noon-4 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday; Free; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, 1st floor; 350 Spelman Lane, (College main entrance is 440 Westview Dr., SW, Atlanta; www.spelmanmuseum.org or 404-681-3643