The Study Gallery – A Window onto Teaching and Research

Portions of this essay were originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 13 August 2015.

MelancoliaThe start of a new academic year is always invigorating, and my thoughts are on the return of our Study Gallery on the second floor, one of the Ackland’s extraordinary programs. Over the course of the academic year, the Study Gallery will contain 36 short-term small exhibitions that accompany curricular teaching happening all across this wonderful University (six new installations reinstalled every six weeks).

There are always surprises in store here—from little-seen works to unconventional juxtapositions. You can see a socio-critical image by contemporary photographer Danny Lyon next to Albrecht Dürer’s masterpiece print Melancolia (part of the installation supporting a course on “Abnormal Psychology”). Also on view in the Gallery are nineteenth-century photographs of Turkish subjects (amongst the works for a course on “Gender in the Middle East”), a captivating ancient Egyptian cat amulet—surely, at only 1 centimeter tall, one of the smallest works in the Ackland collection (one of about two dozen works on display for “Egyptian Archaeology”)—and many other interesting pieces of art. Continue reading

On “Refreshment”

This essay by Peter Nisbet was originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 16 March 2015.

Today’s word is refreshment.

Over the past several months, I have been thinking especially about a project that might be called “Ackland Refreshed”: imagining and implementing ways to make the art on display look even better and our museum visitors feel even better. After rearranging and reinstalling the collection, as well as switching to LED lighting (enhancing the visibility of our art, all the while saving money and energy), we have just finished repainting our galleries, adding carefully-chosen, art-enhancing colors to the walls. I have had many visitors tell me that the galleries have never looked so welcoming and elegant, and I invite you to experience these refreshed spaces for yourselves.
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Thoughts on Museum Success V: Survival and Persistence

Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 23 December 2014, this is the fifth and final in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

Dear Ackland Members,

I write this just as the days are beginning to get longer again and the New Year is in sight — a good moment to think about survival and persistence, the theme of this last reflection on how to think about the success of art museums. The other installments on this topic are now all available on this blog.

Survival can, in itself, be a measure of success for an art museum, for two reasons. Continue reading

Thoughts on Museum Success III: Numbers We Are Thankful For

Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 25 November 2014—the Thanksgiving editionthis is the third in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

In my considerations of how art museums should measure success, it is surely time to think about directly statistical criteria. But I don’t want to distract from the joys of Thanksgiving with extensive reflections on this, so let me just give you an appetizer of the kind of impressive numbers I’ll address in the next Member E-News in two weeks:

  • The Ackland is currently on track to see a 10% increase this academic year in the number of students and faculty incorporating visits to the Museum into their coursework, compared with last year’s record of 11,121which itself was a 10% increase over the year before.

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Thoughts on Museum Success II: Loans and Collection Relevance

Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 13 November 2014, this is the second in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

As I sit down to write the second of these musings about museum success, I find myself in Manhattan preparing to visit an exhibition of portraits by Egon Schiele, to which the Ackland has lent its splendid drawing of a woman (right). Indeed, at the moment, Ackland works are in special exhibitions in Essen, Germany; Los Angeles; Princeton, New Jersey; Jackson, Mississippi; and elsewhere. On my desk in Chapel Hill is a letter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art asking to borrow what is perhaps our greatest painting: Valentin de Boulogne’s St. John the Evangelist (below), and I anticipate soon receiving a request to send our Cleopatra and the Peasant by Eugene Delacroix to Minneapolis and London.

Each of these loans is, of course, unique in its circumstances. Each is evaluated on its own merits. But in the aggregate, can we not see the level of loan activity as a rough measure of success? It reflects the extent to which the Ackland has built a collection that can resonate with the current interests of art publics in many different contexts. We preserve art for posterity, but we also want our collection to engage with contemporary concerns in as many ways as possible. Statistics on loan traffic can signal the current relevance of the collection (as can the number of times in any one Continue reading

Thoughts on Museum Success I: Museums Nurturing Artists

Originally published in the Ackland’s Member E-Newsletter of 3 November 2014, this is the first in a series of ruminations on how museums measure success.

Those who work in and around art museums often turn their minds to the thorny question: how do we measure our success? It is a challenging and stimulating question which can lead off into unexpected avenues. I thought I’d share with you some of my own brief ruminations on this question. I do hope that I hear from you with your comments and ideas on this. Feel free to e-mail me at peter.nisbet@unc.edu — I hope to report on interesting ideas. Collectively, we may come up with some good answers!

Let me begin with a simple anecdote. The very first exhibition of my professional career was a show of drawings by the radical and experimental German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an artist I deeply admire. The details of the show aren’t relevant here; I want to focus on a dinner party conversation shortly afterwards. I found myself seated next to a sculptor, who, without knowing who I was, spoke movingly and at length about how this exhibition had Continue reading

“America Seen”: Sneak Preview (the intern’s favorite)

This semester at the Ackland, I’ve been conducting research and writing interpretative text for the exhibition America Seen: The Hunter and Cathy Allen of Social Realist PrintsThrough this process I’ve become very familiar with the prints in the show and wanted to share one as a first impression and in advance of the opening reception this evening.

Subway

Fritz Eichenberg, American, born in Germany, 1901–1990: Subway (Sleep), 1935; wood engraving. Ackland Art Museum, The Hunter and Cathy Allen Collection, 2013.21.13.

America Seen features 38 prints from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s by American artists. The majority of the artists represented in the exhibition lived and worked in New York City. They were inspired by the scenes of everyday urban life they witnessed around them and the subway was a popular theme. One of my favorites prints, Subway (Sleep), falls into this category. Although the print depicts a rather unremarkable moment in the daily life of any New York City subway rider, I’m drawn into the composition through Eichenberg’s use of strong contrasts between light and dark, as well as his careful attention to realistic details inside the subway car, such as the straps, signage, and advertisements.

I can empathize with the occupants of this train car, from the weary, young couple at the far end to the child sleeping in her mother’s lap. I have also been on the subway, tired after a long day, and eager to get home. But where are these people going? What were they doing before? Perhaps the proud and poised woman in a stylish hat is headed to a party or to church. Is the man to her left her companion or a stranger? With a souvenir balloon as a clue, I suspect the collapsed child is returning home from a fun day at the park. While it is impossible to know for sure, the artist, Fritz Eichenberg, invites us to look and speculate about the lives of those pictured. Continue reading

Fear Not the Blue Border: Mix and Mingle at the Nasher!

Though Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have a long-standing rivalry, students are coming together at the universities’ respective art museums to go “beyond blue borders.” Two collaborative parties—designed for students from both universities—are upon us, hosted by two world-class art museums in the Triangle area.

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Carolina Students: Make the Ackland YOURS!

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Carolina students at the opening reception for “The Sahmat Collective,” September 12, 2013. Photo: Briana Brough

As the Ackland Art Museum’s director of academic programs, I’m blogging to tell you that because the Ackland is the University’s art museum, it’s your art museum. This is a great time to check out all the ways that you can be involved with the Ackland, making memories, meeting great people, enjoying art, and having fun! Continue reading