Hacking the Museum
November 21, 2013
Last weekend, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened up its doors and its data to a group of enthusiastic hackers. We were looking for help re-imagining the digital interpretation in the museum's visible storage facility, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. The Luce Center displays around 3,000 artworks from the museum's collection in floor-to-ceiling glass cases. Visitors can currently access information about the artworks and artists through ten computer kiosks in the space. These kiosks are now several years old and in need of a refresh. They were developed before social media and mobile technology were widespread, so there are many opportunities for improvement!
The weekend began with a tour of the Luce Foundation Center and a demonstration of the existing kiosks. Then, after lunch, the hackers got to work. Museum staff and Smithsonian IT experts had created an API (application programming interface) that allowed the hackers to access and build applications on top of our collections data. Most participants worked in groups, combining programming skills with expertise in design and user experience to brainstorm and build prototypes.
Late on Sunday afternoon we asked everyone to wrap up and present their work to the group. There were nine submissions in total, and all of them were incredible! One team had imagined what the Luce Center would be like if every surface was a screen, and created an inspiring video that illustrated this idea. Several had built innovative mobile websites that searched the collection in unusual ways or allowed visitors to contribute their suggestions. Some groups had developed art-based games. You can explore all of the submissions and see the videos that each group submitted on our website, and see photographs from the event in our Flickr group.
The Luce Foundation Center plans to use some of these ideas to develop a new digital experience in the museum. Is there anything that you would like to see us do? Do you have a favorite submission? Let us know in the comments.
Clarice Smith Lecture: Richard Lacayo on the Art of Growing Older
November 13, 2013
Time magazine art critic Richard Lacayo spoke the other evening on the work and lives of aging artists as the second speaker in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art. In a lecture entitled, "Hurry Up Please It's Time: Artists in Their Later Years," Lacayo focused on the themes and techniques that mark an older artist's output: "how their art changed as they entered that period of life, how they used those years to distill and intensify certain aspects of their art, and how they used it as an opportunity to come to terms with mortality and end of life issues, and to report to us what they had learned."
Do artists in their later years exhibit what art historian Kenneth Clark referred to in 1970 as a "transcendent pessimism"? Focusing on works created by Titian, Matisse, and Hopper after the age of seventy, Lacayo makes a case for a creative efflorescence, finding in each artist's work, an affirmation of discoveries worked out over the course of a lifetime. For Titian, it was his use of pigment and "whiplash brush stroke," for Matisse it was the color in his "ecstatic cut-paper work," and for Hopper, the palpable light that can illuminate even the darkest moments.
Perhaps the most memorable quote of the evening belonged to the Japanese artist Hokusai, painter of the iconic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (better known as just The Great Wave) who said, "All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature. When I am eighty I shall have made still more progress. At ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At one hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am one-hundred-ten everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive." Hokusai lived to be eight-nine, producing much of his memorable work in his last decades.
The evening ended with an image of Sun in an Empty Room, one of Hopper's last paintings, an interior with two shafts of light, perhaps an elegiac representation of Hopper and his wife Jo, nearing the end of their lives. When asked late in life what he was searching for in his work, Hopper replied, "I'm after me." Perhaps, in thinking back to what Kenneth Clark said, one person may see a transcendent pessimism in this work, but is it possible that what's emerging from the painting is a kind of optimistic transcendence?
If you missed Lacayo's talk watch our webcast. And join us on November 20th for the third and final Clarice Smith lecture, when Barbara Haskell, scholar and curator at the Whitney Museum of Art, delivers her talk, "Robert Indiana: His Art and its Shifting Reception."
Symposium: American Art in Dialogue with Africa and its Diaspora
November 7, 2013
Kathleen Joyce, intern in American Art's Research and Scholars Center, recaps our symposium American Art in Dialogue with Africa and its Diaspora made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art. The symposium took place on October 4-5, 2013. If you missed it, view the webcast of the entire event.
Not even the government shutdown could stop our symposium American Art in Dialogue with Africa and its Diaspora from taking place on October 4th and 5th. Though the Smithsonian American Art Museum was closed, the National Museum for Women in the Arts saved the day by generously offering us the use of its auditorium. Museum directors Elizabeth Broun of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Johnnetta Cole of the National Museum of African Art welcomed an enthusiastic group of 175 scholars, artists, collectors, and students from across the United States, Europe, and Africa. Attendees filled the NMWA's auditorium to discuss Africa's influence on American art. The intimate venue encouraged attendees to mingle and actively engage with each other's work.
The speakers delivered papers on a wide variety of topics, from nineteenth-century portraiture to the influence of African textile design on contemporary art. While most speakers examined the contributions of one or two artists in context, Krista Thompson presented a new methodology she termed "critical fabulation"—postulating what might have happened to light artist Tom Lloyd in an alternate history of his career. Her unusual paper demonstrated an inventive mode of scholarship that could shed light on previously invisible artists.
There were resonances between many of the talks. University of Delaware professor Camara Dia Holloway spoke about photographer F. Holland Day's 1897 self-portrait posed next to an exoticized black male nude. She engaged both with the tonal and compositional details of this particular photograph as well as Day's oeuvre in its late nineteenth-century context, working on both micro- and macroscopic levels. James Smalls seemed to pick up where she left off, discussing the influence of Senegalese dancer and muse Feral Benga on the modernist imagining of the African male body. University of Maryland's David C. Driskell opened Saturday's talks by highlighting the role African artistic forms and practices have played in his own work, while Rebecca Keegan VanDiver turned her attention to former Howard University professor Loïs Mailou Jones' "routes to her roots."
The audience and the speakers made for a diverse group: scholars and students of American, African American, and African art from three continents were able to meet and compare notes. Amelia Goerlitz, the event's organizer, says that she could not have pulled it off without the aid of many museum interns, volunteers, fellows, and trust-funded staff members. The government shutdown, which coincided with the scheduled symposium, was quite a curveball, but in the end proved no match for the quick thinking and positive attitudes of the organizers and participants. Thanks to their hard work, everything went off without a hitch!
We had a great time at the Day of the Dead Family Day on November 2nd! Thanks to Bailes de Mi Tierra, for beautiful performances of traditional Mexican folk dances. Visitors got to enjoy lively music provided by El Zol from 107.9 FM, and craft activities including tissue paper flowers, papel picado, making memory books and FACE PAINTING! It was a fun day to remember friends and loved ones who have passed and celebrate with our families and community. Thanks to all who came to share it with us!
Our next Family Day will be our Holiday Festival, Saturday, December 14.
Five Questions with Handi-hour Coordinator Katie Crooks
November 1, 2013
Katie Crooks coordinates the quarterly craft program Handi-hour at the American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. The Renwick Gallery will close for renovation in December, so we thought now was a good time to catch up with Katie about the popular program and find out what will happen to it while the Renwick is closed. Before the Renwick closes we have one more Handi-hour coming up this coming Wednesday, November 6.
Eye Level: So, what's Handi-hour all about?
Katie Crooks: Handi-hour is the combination of "handicraft" and a "happy hour". It is an event open to anyone 21 and older who enjoys sitting down to craft and socialize with a cold drink (beer or soda). Guests pay an entry fee for two drink tickets, snacks, live music, and all they can craft. Handi-hour is about getting your hands dirty, getting creative, making new friends, learning new skills, and having a great time.
EL: Where did you originally get the idea?
KC: We had been searching for a way to serve younger audiences through our programs and learned about a popular program then being offered by the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (now closed) in San Francisco, called "Craft Bar." We carefully looked at their program model and adjusted it, putting our own unique spin on the event. And that's how Handi-hour started.
EL: You do different crafts at each event. Which has been your favorite and why?
KC: That is a really tough question! I spend a lot of time searching for crafts that are just right for Handi-hour, and I spend hours practicing them so that I can generate the tutorials that visitors use during the event. Looking back, I think the Handi-hours featuring hoop-art ornaments and needle felting were two favorites. Especially seeing our holiday tree fully decorated by ornaments made by our Handi-hour attendees —that was awesome!
EL: Tell us about the Handi-hour that's coming up on November 6.
KC: Our next Handi-hour will feature basket-making. I've been looking forward to this Handi-hour since the museum announced that we'd be exhibiting A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets, the generous gift of 79 baskets to the museum by the noted collectors Steven R. Cole and Martha G. Ware. I've always loved baskets for their beauty and function, and this exhibition finally gave me a reason to learn how to craft them. We are going to try to have a variety of different types of basket forms to choose from (reed, paper, yarn, etc.), so I'm excited to see what our attendees will create!
EL: And finally, what is going to happen to Handi-hour when the Renwick closes for renovations at the end of this year?
KC: Luckily, the Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and we're going to keep on crafting at the museum's main building at 8th and F Streets, N.W. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art on the third floor of the museum will become Handi-hour's home until the Renwick Gallery reopens. The first Handi-hour in our temporary location will be on March 6, 2014. I'm going to miss the Renwick's Grand Salon, but the Luce Center is an awesome and inspiring space to create in. We will also be offering "Pop-up Handi-hours" in various locations during the Renwick renovation. You'll find free crafting stations during this winter's Take 5! jazz concerts held in the Kogod Courtyard, so keep a look out for us!
In preparation for our next Handi-hour on November 6, watch videos of Katie demonstrating how to make paper and reed baskets!