Curating … The Passion of Displaying

Written as part of my participation of The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C

Three different exhibitions, three different arts spaces in Washington DC, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating …


“WE ARE THE EVIDENCE”, with this fleshing sentence and its big white characters printed in a black wall, Paul Chaat Smith, curator and Art critic, starts the exhibition of “Our peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories”.
The black wall impressively ornamented with all the names of the disappearing peoples, installed in an intimate and indirectly lighted room, leave a strong impact on the visitor.
The entire exhibition does not display any art pieces; it displays an idea passionately and creatively illustrated. The exhibition is one of three exhibitions—“Our Universes,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Lives”— held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, offering the visitors a unique perspective on lives of Native peoples.

P.C. Smith addresses the controversial untold history of the Indigenous American Indians by an image of words. Since he joined the Museum curating team since 2001, Paul Chaat managed and maintained the Museum collections. Although belonging to Indian tribe himself, he insists that “… curating has nothing to do with Identity. It has to have relation with knowledge and experience”.

Bending her head to one side, her two hands joined in front of her chest, with her closed eyes and her little dreamy voice, Mary ends up her story by “… and everybody lived happily ever after”. In front of the eager group of audience, She finds a real pleasure to tell the story behind every painting in the Kelly’s house, lovingly and passionately displayed. Touring the house, the visitor will have enjoyable glimpses from many famous original works from the early days of America’s great illustrators: a collection that, the curator Richard Kelly started to collect by early 1990. Three hundred and thirty pieces represent the American popular culture and the “Golden Age of American Illustration”. Big names of the movement can be recognized: Howard Pyle, Joseph Clement Coll, Dean Cornwell, Jessie Willcox Smith, Mead Schaeffer and others. With stuffed pets, Pokémons and other toys thrown in corners, family pictures displayed in every room, the house is far from being a cold art museum, this is a place where people do live. Every piece of painting is well organized and integrating with the family house. Paintings of famous illustrators are hung side by side with the babyish drawing of the Kelly’s kids.

On dark purple walls, the seven paintings of William Tryon (1849-1925) are displayed in the Freer Gallery of Art. The paintings (the decorations) as Tryon called them were made specially to decorate the interior of the house of Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit. Although some of the paintings were occasionally exhibited separately, Freer and Tryon always regarded them as an “ensemble.” They were conceived to be matched with the whole interior, but even their periodical absence was calculated, the space behind the picture was paneled in oak so, as the artist explained to Freer, that when the pictures are removed (for exhibition and other uses) the room will appear complete.

Freer was not just an art collector and patron, chaperoning the artists of his time. He didn’t just buy the pieces of Art to decorate his main hall, he created for these pieces the space and the environment where they can be shown and appreciated. This explains the distinctive large frames of the pieces, made by Stanford White. White designed the large golden frames with their exotic motifs to be part of the whole decoration, architecture and furniture of the room. An interior that curators knew about through the correspondence between Freer and the artists, which give the running project of designing a digital tour of the house, valuable dimension.
Three different exhibitions, three different places, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating. Curation has not to be limited to displaying arts piece in a certain space, it’s the passion and the vision behind the art of creation.

The concept behind curation (having a managing person arranging arts works in a certain way to communicate the artist’s ideas and inspirations) is something relatively new, not really developed nor needed in the historically rich Egypt with arts works, crafts and monuments dated back to more than 7000 years BC. In the stuffed with valuable pieces, not well lighted or ventilated National Egyptian Museum, the curator role is remarkably missing. Although, this art is raising and expending in small arts space and galleries spread in Down Town Cairo and Alexandria.

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