Art Matters by Samuel Shapiro, doctoral student, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University

Samuel Shapiro. Photo: Kristina GiasiMy understanding of museum work changed when a curator at my college’s art museum told me that every gallery is an argument. I didn’t think that the paintings hung themselves—I just hadn’t imputed any significance to the manner of their hanging. It hadn’t occurred to me that the arrangement of a gallery was a proposal for how to interpret the artworks it contains. As a kind of essay in space, the gallery’s diction is artwork selection, its syntax is sequencing and spacing, and its grammar is lighting and framing. Once prompted, I began to recognize that while no curatorial decision can determine an artwork’s meaning, every such decision influences how visitors see the work and therefore understand it.

Academic museums have the luxury of pointing students to the neighboring art history departments when their epiphanies inspire a craving for knowledge. I learned in coursework that a previous model of the art museum sought to repress the fact of curatorial mediation. That model, the “white cube,” was described by the artist-critic Brian O’Doherty in 1976 as constructing a myth of neutrality in which the gallery space is made to seem “untouched by time and its vicissitudes.” Catalyzed by the institutional critique of O’Doherty’s contemporaries—artists like Michael Asher and Hans Haacke, whose site-specific artworks revealed the ideological functions of the museums in which they were shown—curators today increasingly consider strategies to render their work transparent. They argue that it is better for museumgoers to disagree with a proposed interpretation after testing it against their own experience than to think—as I had—that labels are simply put on the wall bearing the definitive meanings of artworks that always hung there.

As I began to work in museums, however, it became clear that the question of how best to make curatorial work (and its limits) visible has not been settled. If interpretive decisions are encoded in the curatorial language of installation, what responsibility do museums have to decode them for their visitors? Can the tools of curatorship be made to reveal their workings for an audience not already primed to see them? How do you introduce a museum’s methods? These questions have been on my mind while, as a graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology and a curatorial research assistant at the Princeton University Art Museum, I have had the privilege of supporting Chief Curator Juliana Ochs Dweck in planning the new building’s orientation gallery.

This will be the first gallery that many visitors encounter, and it is intended to serve as an introduction to the collections, values, and practices that distinguish the institution as a teaching museum. Given the diversity and contextual specificity of the Museum’s collections, we chose not to attempt a typical orientation in the sense of a microcosmic preview. Instead, the orientation gallery will offer visitors a conceptual toolkit with which to engage both the artworks on view throughout the Museum and the methods of curatorial interpretation that frame them.

Since this gallery is one of several in the new building that will display objects from across the Museum’s collecting areas, it has created the opportunity to consult with the curators responsible for those collections, leading to rounds of discussion exploring how to sensitively present works of art without the historical context that would otherwise be provided by an area-specific gallery. The arrangement now taking shape for the orientation gallery is a series of cross-collection installations—discrete constellations of artworks—each of which asks historical artworks to contextualize contemporary artworks and contemporary artworks to activate art historical traditions. Demonstrating how artists simultaneously break with and extend traditions by linking them to new concepts, forms, and materials, often drawn from other traditions, these constellations are intended to prompt visitors to consider artists’ agency in continually rewriting the narratives enshrined in museum galleries.

Preparing the orientation gallery has become a kind of unexpected fieldwork for my dissertation, which will examine the reception of institutional critique, how museums have (and have not) reconstituted themselves in response to artistic criticism of their economic and ideological models. Working at the Princeton University Art Museum to help realize a curatorial project guided by contemporary artists’ revisions of art historical narratives has helped me conceptualize how the artworks I study have functioned not only as contestations of existing museological practices but also as prompts to reimagine them. Having learned as an undergraduate to see galleries as arguments in space, as a graduate student I am beginning to see how galleries also function as arguments in time, departing from the proposals made by prior generations of curators and artists.

Samuel Shapiro
Doctoral student, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University