While there are a number of images of Teenie Harris’s family events in the collection, there are just a few without people in them. One December in the late 1940s or early 1950s, he took a picture of their Christmas tree in a corner of his living room. The room is dim and cozy, the tree is lit, and the presents beneath opened and in slight disarray (pictured above).
Carnegie Museum of Art has a lot of different audiences, and one of the biggest is groups of K-12 school students. So far in 2014, we’ve seen almost 11,000 of them for guided gallery visits. It’s important that we offer programs that complement what teachers and students are doing in schools. This happens somewhere between the art content (from contemporary to classical antiquity, architecture to photography) and the 21st-century skills that students practice during these visits (like observation, interpretation, making inferences, and backing up their reasoning with evidence).
As museum educators, we strive to provide something valuable and motivating to prompt teachers to sign up for a guided gallery tour or workshop. This is why we have an application-based teacher advisory board. We carefully select teachers who come from a variety of disciplines, school districts, and grade levels. This interdisciplinary approach has been important to our school programs for years.
When an artwork enters a museum’s collection, it usually has an extensive paper trail, and possibly an electronic trail, but that documentation doesn’t stop after acquisition.
Museum staff, volunteers, and students often do additional research into the artwork’s history, provenance, or significance. All of that knowledge generates tons of paper-condition reports, loan agreements, conservation treatment reports, photocopies of auction catalogs, scholarly articles, incident reports, the occasional MA thesis rough draft, magazine articles, bibliographies, sticky notes, letters, copies of letters, deeds of gift, wills, acknowledgements of gifts, and, prior to the adaptation of electronic collection databases in the late 1990s, card catalogs. Yes, catalogs plural.
All of this paper gets sorted and copied into curatorial files, donor files, and meeting minutes as a way of creating a structured story of an artwork’s existence prior to its arrival at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) and the mechanism by which we assumed stewardship of it. Some files are huge and stuffed full of handwritten letters on heavy official paper, with mounds of photocopied articles. Others are svelte, and contain only the trusty catalog document, lovingly typewritten by registrars long ago (and not so long ago, as the typewriter at CMOA still gets weekly use). But each of these paper breadcrumbs helps build a compelling narrative.
In December, Jonathan Furmanski, a media conservator at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, will be coming to Carnegie Museum of Art to present The CRT Canvas: Television and Materiality 1969-1983, a program dedicated to the first generation of video artists and early experimentation in the medium. He will give a talk on the cultural circumstances that gave rise to these pieces and he will address the challenges of preserving works with strong technological dependencies. As part of the program, he will be screening select pieces by Bill Viola, William Wegman, Alan Kaprow, Wolfgang Stoerche and other video artists. He will also be showing a fragment from Dan Grahm’s 1974 installation Continuous Present Past(s) and a rare gem from Cynthai Maughan.
His upcoming visit prompted us to start thinking about the history of video art at Carnegie Museum of Art and about the integration of this relatively new medium into the museum’s film department, which was known in its earliest years as the Film Section, and later as the new medium became more established, the Section of Film and Video and the Department of Film and Video. Curators at CMOA installed the first video artworks in the galleries in 1981 but had been gradually introducing it to museum goers in Pittsburgh for nearly a decade. As part of the Time-Based Media Project, we have been working to piece this history together, and in the process, we have found some fascinating information and made some exciting discoveries in the archive.
I find it ironic—and more than just a bit curious—that this month’s This Picture photograph, chosen because it went viral just a year ago, netted a record low in public responses on nowseethis.org. Figuring out what’s going to go viral is a billion dollar industry, full of experts well-versed in the latest trends and sporting the technological skills to build The Next Big Thing. But, as history has shown us time and again, the public is fickle. Companies that spend millions to draw the public’s attention and set the world on fire with something sparkly or snazzy end up losing out to someone’s home video of a cat playing a piano.
This month’s photograph of First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2013 unveiling of the White House’s Christmas Decorations was a surprise entry into last year’s most-viral-photographs competition (I’m pretty sure I made that up, but I’m just as sure that all those well-versed and skillful experts keep tabs on things like that). As Marco Bohr discusses in his featured essay response to this photograph, an unexpected, unscripted moment in an otherwise carefully choreographed and staged event can sometimes equate to solid gold, as it did for photographer Charles Dharapak and the Associated Press.