In my last blog on the Allen Memorial Art Museum, I outlined some of my current experiences as a student and an employee of the museum. The print study room and the welcome desk are places I frequent as a student, and the object files are an especially useful resource when conducting research for class. My work as a museum attendant at the front welcome desk or a docent leading tours though the galleries are responsibilities I take on consistently throughout the semester. Though those jobs give me valuable insight into the logistics of museum work, I had a chance to delve more deeply into a museum career last spring when I took part in an internship at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.
COVID shifted our semester schedule drastically at Oberlin. The spring semester of my sophomore year became my pseudo summer before I began my next semester which spanned from June through August. During the spring I worked with five other interns at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The internship was centered around music accessibility and, similarly to the Museum Education Practicum, was initially structured by events and readings. The first two weeks were dedicated to an effort to better understand the debates around accessibility in museum spaces both historically and today. The Allen Memorial Museum app was about to be officially launched at the time of our internship, and part of our job as interns was to contribute voice-recorded audio descriptions to the app so that visually-impaired museum visitors would have a chance to visualize artworks in the Allen.
Writing and recording audio descriptions was something I had never done before. As an art history major, I had become confident in my ability to write formal analyses of artworks, but the audio descriptions required a completely objective view of each artwork. To observe and then write a short paragraph that encompasses the color, detail, and lines in a single painting or sculpture while remaining engaging is no small task. For instance, I wrote a description of Jean Hans Arp’s Château des Oiseaux, a small non-representational statue that ebbs and flows in organic curve shapes but is made entirely from stone. I became extremely well acquainted with the details in Horace Pippin’s Harmonizing and found that looking so closely at the objective elements of an artwork changed the way I led tours as a gallery guide and shifted the kinds of questions I initially posed to groups of museum visitors.
The structure of each internship was decided personally and individually. Though a certain number of hours of work needed to be completed and recorded each week, my work schedule was one I got to personally build. Over the course of four weeks I rewrote the audio description numerous times, edited and peer edited those of my fellow interns, and submitted the work to the curators and director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum for more feedback. Part of my scheduling also included meetings with museum staff to present my work and progress once each week and similar weekly meetings with my fellow interns. Finally, when my audio descriptions were approved by everyone involved in the museum’s app and the internship, I carefully recorded the four audio descriptions I had completed.
By far my favorite part of the internship, and an experience I’m sure I wouldn't have been able to take part in as an intern at another institution, was the acquisition proposal project. Acquisition proposal is the term used in museums to describe a work of art that someone (usually a curator) hopes to acquire for the museum’s collection. In order to choose a new work of art, the piece must be proposed to the other curators or museum staff. In terms of the internship, the interns were tasked with deciding on which artworks would be proposed to the museum staff and the Oberlin student body. None of the interns had ever written or presented an acquisition proposal before, but our task was to find an artist and a specific artwork that we believed would be a worthwhile addition to the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s art rental collection within a certain price range, medium, and size. With a set of parameters we began researching online galleries and contemporary artists we found intriguing. The art rental collection is made up of hundreds of artworks that are lent out to students each semester. For only five dollars, students line up once every semester in the cold morning air to select a piece of artwork. The materials to hang the work in a dorm room or apartment are included, and by the end of the semester each artwork is returned. To have the opportunity to potentially contribute to the collection was a huge honor, partially because there was a chance that if our proposed acquisition was chosen, we could one day put it up in one of our rooms.
The artwork we selected needed to be within a certain size limit and financial bracket, and the piece could not be made from oil paint or watercolor, for reasons related to conservation. As we began looking at artworks that would fit the given parameters, part of our motivation was a small competition with the other team of interns, who were simultaneously doing the same. As a group, we had to find two artworks and create a presentation for the public, the museum staff, and the college of Oberlin. Later, we would present to the student body, faculty, and staff of the college, and they would vote on which two pieces out of the four presented would be added to the Art Rental Collection.
Though most of my work had been individual to this point, the acquisition proposal project demanded teams. I was in a group with Alia and Nat. I really enjoyed working with other interns to find artists and artworks that intrigued us. Because the process was new to each of us, we spent a lot of our initial time comparing online galleries we found interesting, sending helpful links and databases of contemporary artwork, and meeting to discuss our personal progress and what we could be doing as a group to make our search for the perfect artwork more efficient. Over the weeks of brainstorming, scouring online galleries, and zoom meetings, we all became good friends. At first, we divided the work individually, and each began researching artwork we were most drawn to. Then, we’d host zoom meetings to pitch our top artists to each other. These meetings were some of my favorites because after presenting our small pitches, we often ended up having long conversations about our own experiences with art and art history and how they became visual patterns in the artworks we were each choosing. Finally, we hosted sessions on zoom that consisted of group researching. Together, we would return to the galleries and artists we were most drawn to, scroll though portfolios, and look closely at any contact information we could find.
The final step before deciding unanimously on a certain artwork was reaching out to the artist personally. The first work we all agreed would be a great contender for the Art Rental Collection was Brian Hoover’s The Changeling. We contacted Hoover, who got back to us promptly, and arranged a meeting. The Changeling shows a woman, blanketed by tendrils of color, treading through the snow. She cradled a baby in her arms, and as we began to unravel the folkloric history of the changeling, we grew more deeply entranced by the piece. By the time we had a chance to chat with Hoover about his career, his artistic process, and the concepts that accompanied his artwork, we had done a large amount of research on the painting.
By discussing the piece with him, we discovered that our original research on the history of stories attached to the Irish changeling lore did not align directly with Hoover’s original composition of the piece. With a chance to listen to the artist’s point of view, we consolidated how we had interpreted the work as a piece that would fit into the Art Rental Collection well and the original meaning Hoover had placed in the piece when he first created it in 2018. Our meeting with Hoover unraveled an interesting conversation on artists' intent versus viewers' interpretation. Ultimately, Hoover was thrilled that we had discovered so much in the small details of his piece, and was happy to explain further how his personal process as an artist was equally imbued in the colors and contours of the work.
With an arsenal of previously researched folklore and artists' statements, Nat, Alia, and I began putting together the proposal portion of our first acquisition proposal. It was at this time that Jill Greenwood, the main facilitator of our internship, revealed to us that if we were inclined, we had the chance to select and choose a second piece of artwork. Though finding and agreeing on Brian Hoover’s piece had been a huge amount of work, we began the process again, now with a slightly better understanding of what direction we hoped to take as a group.
Two weeks later, we selected Rachel Hayden’s Is Stress Causing My Adult Acne, or is Adult Acne Causing My Stress? as our second proposed artwork. Glassy and gray, the entire image is made to look like a mirror that the central figure looks into. She is entirely red, and directly aligns with Hayden's colorful yet extremely stylized work. Spots protrude from her face, some acne, some tears. The artwork immediately drew us in. Visually the work is striking, but what led to our unanimous decision to propose the piece was the stark difference between what we each felt when viewing the work. The image drew drastically different interpretations from Nat, Alia, and me, and we were curious to know what the artist’s intent was.
When we met with Hayden over zoom to discuss the work and her career, she alluded to the image being a self-portrait, but also drew a direct connection between her artistic style and her career as a curator of education at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. As she led children though the galleries she noticed that they were most drawn to repetitive shapes and vivid colors. Her work has since been imbued with the same mischievous faces, fruits, stars, and teardrop shapes. The enticing imagery is an effort to make her artwork accessible for people of all ages.
Part of our choice in including Hayden’s work in the Art Rental Collection was the emphasis her artwork places on accessibility and the universality of the symbols she repeats as she paints.
Our presentation of the acquisition proposals occurred over Zoom over the summer because of the COVID restrictions in place at the time. Nonetheless, it was an exciting event. The curators and directors of the Allen joined the online space along with our families, friends, and any Oberlin student who wished to join. As a group we pitched our acquisitions and eagerly answered all questions. Our weeks of research and meetings finally came to fruition, and we had a chance to finally see the same hard work the other group of interns had been dedicating to the project. By the end of the session, a voting poll was launched and we waited apprehensively to find out which artworks would be chosen. From our two proposals, Rachel Halyden’s piece was selected for the Allen Memorial Art Museum Art Rental Collection! Months later, when the piece was purchased from the gallery we had first contacted, we had a chance to view the painting in person. We arrived at the print study room as a group and all admired the work. Standing before an artwork we had spent so long formally analyzing was a surreal but gratifying experience. The same day, we reached out to Hayden once again to let her know that her work would now be in a museum collection. After weeks of working together to research and purchase the piece, Alia, Nat, and I were beyond thrilled to be able to interact with the work in person.
Working as an intern at the Allen Memorial Art Museum expanded beyond my work as a AMAM museum attendant and gallery guide. Though the internship focused more directly on museum accessibility and specific projects in comparison to my more general work as a gallery guide, the responsibilities I took on as an intern are certainly applicable to a wider range of museum tasks. Personal responsibilities such as creating my own work schedule, arranging meetings with supervisors and peers, setting personal deadlines in order to complete my work in a timely way, and consistently editing my written work are skills I will continue to practice in future jobs both within and beyond a museum space. The internship also revealed the large range of responsibilities and possibilities of museum work pertaining to curation and education in arts spaces. Moreover, I had a chance to work with other Oberlin students who were equally passionate about the work we were doing with the Allen Memorial Art Museum app and art rental collection. Finally, our completed projects--the recently acquired Rachel Hayden piece and audio descriptions--remain in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s collection and interactive app. The work we completed will hopefully have a lasting impact on museum visitors.
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November 29, 2022