This exhibition uses The New School Art Collection to explore the relationship between art collections and their institutions. At the most pragmatic level, the exhibition looks at what we have defined as the collection cycle, the nuts and bolts of collections management: acquisition, cataloguing, storage, conservation, exhibition, and de-accessioning. (re) collection offers a snapshot of the daily lives of objects.
At a deeper level, the exhibition addresses institutional memory. It is an examination of the shifting intellectual and creative landscape within the university and its relationship to a dynamic global environment. Implicit in the collection is a tension between the need to conserve history and perpetuate a legacy and the need to sustain a relevant dialogue with the present. Ideally, works cycle through the collection as it evolves to reflect current artistic practices and the changing needs of a community distinguished by innovation, critical discourse, and civic engagement.
Finally, above the everyday problems of logistics, bureaucracies, legacies, and even missions, the title refers to the question of meaning. What does it mean to be an institutional art collection at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
Curated by Silvia Rocciolo, Eric Stark, and John Wanzel
NSAC: A User's Guide
The mission of The New School Art Collection, in recognition of its historic commitment to art as a vehicle for sociopolitical change, is to advance the importance of art as an agent for personal and collective transformation. As a curricular resource for all areas of study, the role of the collection is to conserve, interpret, and present works of art to the students, faculty, and greater community. New acquisitions support the vision of the university as an environment for innovative thinking and artistic experimentation.
The objects in The New School Art Collection are part of the university’s cultural capital. Unfetishized by their informal installation and display, they are viewed as ordinary co-inhabitants within the broader New School community. As artworks and artifacts, they serve as witnesses to the history, legacy, present and future aspirations of this institution.
Prospective acquisitions (whether by purchase, gift, or loan) and deaccessions are governed by three sets of criteria. The first involves the evaluation of the objects to determine their ongoing relevance. This is one of the primary roles of the curators who use their subjective knowledge of artistic practices to support the institution’s evolving educational needs. The second criterion is the changing tastes and artistic sensibilities that are embodied in a complex web of institutional gatekeepers, including advisory committees, trustees, donors, and administrators. The third set of criteria is the established protocols that frame the governance and procedures for acquisitions and deaccessions. These protocols take into account all these constituencies and institutional imperatives and codify a process by which objects can be impartially evaluated.
This is a selection of recently acquired works that are the end result of this extended process. Do these acquisitions serve the overarching mission of our institution? Do we find in these works opportunities for dialogue? Do they tell your story?
Disruption, Deaccession, Dislocation
The paths of José Clemente Orozco, Thomas Hart Benton, and Camilo Egas intersected in the early 1930’s when all three artists were commissioned by The New School for Social Research’s president, Alvin Johnson, to create murals for the university’s new International Style building designed by Joseph Urban. Johnson sought artists whose practices were contemporary, international in scope and spoke to the school’s humanistic and socially progressive ethos. The trajectory of these three artists’ commissions, from the 1930’s to the present, with their tales of disruption, deaccession, and dislocation, address the shifts of institutional identity and memory as well as transitions in art historical and pedagogic perspectives.
When the building was inaugurated, the murals were met with mixed reviews. Orozco, the great Mexican muralist and most famous of the three, was panned by critics. Orozco chose to depict contemporary revolutions in the East and West and utopian ideals of universal brotherhood. The enigmatic murals surprised critics who expected a less abstract and more “readable” Orozco, in keeping with American perceptions of Mexican muralism.
Thomas Hart Benton’s audacious, jazz-age, pro-labor America Today murals were an immediate hit. They were accessible crowd pleasers, positive and celebratory at a moment when the grim realities of the Great Depression were beginning to surface. New Yorkers loved Benton’s vivid, colorful depictions of bustling industry and contented workers engaged in a full-throttle dance of activities.
Camilo Egas, the first director of the Fine Arts department at The New School, conceived Ecuadorian Festival for the wall facing the dance studio where Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham collaborated in the building’s basement. The mural received positive critical reviews. When initially asked about the subject, Egas stated that his intention was to depict a celebratory moment of a generic indigenous dance festival, and focused solely on the theme of cultural identity. Art historian Michele Greet, however, asserts that it was Alvin Johnson who promoted a highly subjective and politicized interpretation of the mural, placing Egas in the context of a larger avant-garde movement that blended a radical social realism with Pan-American indigenismo.
What happened to the murals in the intervening years?
Orzco’s murals suffered neglect and disrepair, as well as periodic reassessments of their artistic and sociopolitical relevance. During the McCarthy period, the university administration covered the panel depicting Lenin and Stalin with a yellow curtain. Sympathizers both inside and outside The New School repeatedly waged passionate campaigns for their preservation. In 1987, New York Mayor Ed Koch personally intervened to stop the sale of the murals to the Mexican government. Soon after, a significant conservation effort was mounted to restore the murals to their original condition.
The New School sold the Benton murals to the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1984. They can now be seen in the lobby of AXA Equitable at 1290 Sixth Avenue. As part of the negations, Equitable funded a grant toward the restoration of the Orozco murals.
Ecuadorian Festival languished in the basement after Egas’ death. At one point, a wall was erected in front of the mural to “protect it” from damage. Recent scholarship, in particular the illuminating work of art historians Michele Greet and Anna Indych-Lopez, and various museum exhibitions on the impact of Latin American artists in New York during the early twentieth century, have resuscitated Camilo Egas’ career and placed him in the context of a greater global discussion on modernism and contemporary art.
At the closing of (re) collection, Ecuadorian Festival was reinstalled in its original home at 66 West 12th street.
Given the many claims on the university’s resources, what is our responsibility for the preservation of its artistic legacy?
Ecuadorian Festival, A film by Daniela Merino
Camilo Egas, Ecuadorian Festival, 1932
Ecuadorian artist Camilo Egas came to The New School for Social Research as an art professor in 1929 and soon after became director of the Art Workshops, “a series of interdisciplinary studio courses in the visual arts.” He would direct the Art Workshops until his death in 1962, hiring numerous talented teachers (Berenice Abbott, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Lisette Model, amongst others) and establishing The New School’s reputation as a center for international modernism. Egas received his education at the School of Fine Arts in Quito. He traveled to Rome, Madrid and Paris where he first came in contact with the European avant-garde movement, before arriving in New York in the mid-twenties. Egas was considered to have played a pivotal role in shaping the art movement called pictorial indigenism. It was at The New School where Egas’ practice, both as an artist and as an educator, flourished.
In 1931, Alvin Johnson, the director of The New School, asked Camilo Egas to paint a mural to hang in the anteroom of the dance studio (lower level) where contemporary dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey would later collaborate. The commission was part of Johnson’s initiative to integrate contemporary art into the school’s new modern building designed by Joseph Urban. Egas’ mural would complement works already completed by José Clemente Orozco and Thomas Hart Benton. In accordance with the theme of dance, Egas created Ecuadorian Festival, a multi-figural composition depicting ceremonial dancers. Egas’ palette consisted primarily of earth tones, which he claimed evoked ancient Incan art. Rather than attempt to document a specific indigenous festival, the work depicts a generic celebration that integrates dancers in native costumes from various regions of the country - a kind of cultural “sampler,” thereby privileging national unity over regional specificity. The mural is a flurry of movement, with figures swirling around three open central areas, as if expelled from the center by an invisible force. Egas further divides the composition with two extraordinarily tall ceremonial hats, or cucuruchos, balanced with forked sticks on the heads of masked dancers known as almas santas (holy souls). In indigenous Ecuadorian culture, these hats, derived from the cone-shaped hats worn in Spanish Holy Week processions, often took on a form of their own.
To a North American audience the scene would have been breathtakingly exotic. Ecuadorian Festival was favorably reviewed in the American Magazine of Art, Art News, the New York Times, the New York Sun, and the New York Evening Post. Perhaps because of The New School’s progressive orientation, Alvin Johnson, in his discussion of Egas in Notes on The New School Murals, made cultural identity a specifically political issue, identifying the hand in the lower left corner of the image as “the hand of Spain suppressing the Indo-American spirit.” Johnson’s interpretation seems a bit implausible, given Egas’ own description of the scene as “something that reflects the moments of happiness into which the natives of Ecuador immerse themselves, so colorful and simultaneously so solid; strong in body yet anxious to enjoy their festivals.” This description indicates that his work was not intended as a form of social protest, but rather as a celebration or a moment of escape and enjoyment. Johnson’s interpretation of Ecuadorian Festival reveals more about the then-current trend toward political content and social commentary in works of art.
- Michele Greet, 2011
Author of Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920–1960
Waiting for Superman
In 1989, Michael Clegg and Martin Guttman, two artists considered to have a visionary understanding of the shift in American socio-corporate culture, created this work, Assembly of Deans. It is an invaluable portrait of the times, and a shocking affront to our institutional self-image. This homogeneous and stark portrayal of the assembled deans casts them as a detached deliberative body. The dark theatrical setting combined with the deadpan expression of the deans intentionally strips away any semblance of nurturing educators. Did these artists have a prescient understanding of our future? Does this work still resonate with the mission of the collection?
Curators make decisions based on a limited, complex, and shifting body of knowledge. Complicating matters, they overlay this information onto missions that are also continually being revised to keep up with ongoing pedagogic and philosophical changes within the institution.
Ideally, we would find a balance between an evolving mission that reflects pedagogical growth and the need for an identifiable institutional legacy that unapologetically accepts how we have gotten here. We are entitled to our “what was I thinking?” moments, because it means that we are capable of change and that we understand and appreciate the dynamic nature of our visual culture.
Bicycling in Barcelona
The New School Art Collection is exhibited throughout the lobbies, halls and offices of the university. This approach has its benefits (daily interaction with art) and its pitfalls (nondiscretionary engagement). Balancing the freedom of expression, the pedagogical mission of the collection and the rights of individuals is a challenging task.
As much as art has the power to please, it has the same power to offend. Our reaction to art can be visceral and cathartic. It is not unusual for an offended public to ask for the removal of a work of art. The works assembled here have been removed from public view at one time or another over their history at The New School, often at the request of a single individual. Does a single individual have that right? Does the majority? What would be a fair way to mediate these inevitable challenges?
The digital age has changed our relationship to material objects. Immediate and open access to ideas and images has radically altered the need for tactile connectivity. Paradoxically, this has led to a greater sense of community but also a greater sense of alienation. This shift has been felt in every segment of our society, from the corporate boardroom to the university classroom to the artist’s studio. It has led to new art forms that are global, transient, interdisciplinary, and collaborative.
What does it mean to be a collection of objects in the beginning of the 21st century? How can artists, curators, audiences, and institutions embrace new modes of artistic production and reception? Does this new partnership demand a different kind of participation on the part of both the viewer and the curator? Does this activism change both what we collect and how we collect it?