Bank Street College:
Museum Education Students Collaborate with Guggenheim on Smith Retrospective
Spiraling up the ramp and into the tower galleries of the Guggenheim Museum last winter and spring, an exhibition of more than 120 welded metal sculptures by pioneering American artist David Smith gave visitors a unique sense of how complex and diverse, yet interconnected, his work is. The exhibit, “David Smith: A Centennial,” commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late artist, who is widely viewed as the greatest sculptor of his generation.
Arranged downstairs, in the gallery of the Museum’s Sackler Center for Arts Education, a complementary exhibition of photographs of the artist and his work, and quotations from Smith, art historians, and critics, offered visitors unique insights into who the sculptor was and how he created and viewed his art. The exhibition, “From Concept to Contemplation: David Smith at Work,” was spearheaded by Kim Kanatani, the museum’s director of education, with the help of four Museum Education students at Bank Street.
Bank Street’s Museum Education Programs place heavy emphasis on developing projects such as the Sackler exhibition, in collaboration with museums. One of the goals of the Programs is to prepare students to create exhibits that engage and resonate with museumgoers of diverse backgrounds, interests, and ages.
“Museums are realizing that they’re not going to survive if they don’t reach out to new audiences, and one way to do that is to make exhibits feel user-friendly, engaging, and accessible,” explains Nina Jensen, director of the Programs.
The students who contributed to the Sackler exhibit—Alison Cupp, Kathryn Daley, Ariel Feinberg and Cindy Furlong—were enrolled in the Museum Education Programs’ Exhibition Development and Evaluation class, a required course taught by Janet Landay.
Smith, who once worked on assembly lines welding cars, trains, and tanks, pioneered American Abstract Expressionist sculpture. Prolific and ever innovative, he created works that ranged from open, Cubist-inspired “drawings in space” to nearly Minimalist assemblages of highly polished, stainless steel geometric forms. He often photographed his works in the fields surrounding his Bolton Landing, New York, home and studio, taking multiple shots of works in progress, from various vantage points, to evaluate them.
Early in the process of creating the Sackler exhibition, the Bank Street students surveyed visitors and would-be visitors to the Guggenheim (friends, relatives, colleagues, schoolchildren), showing them photos of Smith’s work and asking what they’d like to know about it and about him. Midway through the process, the museum students did a follow-up survey, showing people the photos, sketches, and quotations they were considering mounting, to make sure these resonated with a wide range of potential viewers.
Kim, in consultation with the Smith Estate and her curatorial colleagues, made the final call on which photos and quotations would be included, and how they would be presented. “The final exhibit, though, captured the essence of what the students’ plans were—it had the same themes, and many of the photos and the quotations that the students selected,” Janet says.
In addition to insightful quotations, the Sackler exhibit included more than two dozen photos of the artist, many of them self-portraits. Some photos showed Smith arranging, on the floor of his studio, the often-massive metal pieces that would ultimately comprise a work; hoisting component pieces aloft; and welding one to another. Others depicted Smith’s sources of inspiration.
For Kristine Funk, a sculptor who teaches art at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, the exhibit struck a chord. “I really enjoyed seeing how he laid his work out and how he photographed it from different angles to help him figure out what worked best,” says Kristine, who saw the show last April. “I do that with my sculpture, too.”
To complete their coursework, Alison, Kathryn, Ariel, and Cindy developed an independent exhibit that was larger than the Sackler show and included several interactive elements. At the end of the semester, they and the other students in Janet’s class—who did similarly impressive projects for the Tenement Museum, The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and a proposed museum in Montverde, Costa Rica—presented their exhibits to their classmates and the museum staff with whom they collaborated.
“It was so wonderful to see some of our ideas realized,” says Cindy. “And I was very grateful that Kim acknowledged our work on the project.”
Barbara Loecher is a freelance writer.