Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art

“Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art,” by first year MA student Victoria Proctor.

Two weeks ago, for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course, students were assigned a research project to investigate the corporate sponsorship of a temporary museum exhibition, and to consider the relationship between the mission or values of a business and the programming it subsidizes. Inspired by the theme of institutional critique found in several of the course readings, I decided to work on the recent exhibition Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art (April 3-July 24, 2016).  Held in honor of the institution’s 75th anniversary, the exhibition’s primary sponsor was the Altria Group. This tobacco conglomerate, which (according to the NGA website) funded twelve exhibits prior to this event, claims to be “especially dedicated to showcasing the work of American artists.” With this goal in mind, Altria maintains that it donated $3.2 million to the realm of American “Arts & Culture” in 2016, as a substantial part of its “Community Investment” campaign.

Given that the exhibition sought to highlight several American “masters,” the reason why Altria would choose to sponsor this specific event is fairly evident. However, upon further inspection of the company’s website and other related materials, I uncovered deeper thematic connections between the exhibit and the corporate “giver.”  Altria’s corporate identity, as described in its online portal, is constructed around its “American heritage,” including “some of the most enduring names in American business” and offering Americans “thousands of manufacturing jobs…for almost a century.” In addition, the primary product that this corporation markets is tobacco (accounting for “more than half of cigarettes sold in the United States”), a crop that has been fundamental to American social and economic life since the colonial era. Indeed, Altria situates its own historical roots in the business ventures of infamous nineteenth-century innovators such as George Weyman and John Middleton, both of whom revolutionized the tobacco industry and inadvertently began an empire.

Similarly, Three Centuries of American Prints highlights, as the title suggests, a series of iconic American works from 1710 to 2010, ultimately establishing a historical narrative of artistic and cultural progress. The viewer of this exhibit was exposed to some of the most quintessential scenes from American history, such as Paul Revere’s rendition of the Boston Massacre (1770). Meanwhile, other  images illustrated technological and engineering achievements, such as Frances Palmer’s A Midnight Race on the Mississippi (1860), which depicts a steamship, and John Marin’s Woolworth Building No. 1 (1913), an ode to the skyscraper.  Viewers were thus encouraged to translate the pride they experienced in witnessing American innovation—both scientific and artistic—into appreciation for the company that made this show possible.  In turn, by openly associating itself with this exhibit, Altria underscored the fundamentally American identity that it has constructed and maintained over the past 180 years. This is, undoubtedly, a clever act on the part of executives at Altria to bring positive attention to their business, especially in a cultural environment where smoking is acknowledged by public health experts to be harmful to individual consumers and to society at large.

The conglomerate’s decision to maintain (and perhaps improve) their corporate image through arts funding is ironic considering the contentious history of one of Altria’s primary subsidiaries, Philip Morris USA.  As brilliantly articulated by Hans Haacke’s sculpture Helmsboro Country (1990), Philip Morris made a substantial contribution to the foundation of conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1988—at an amount estimated by some news outlets to be $200,000. The work, a giant replica of a cigarette carton, draws attention to this reality through Helms’s portrait in the central medallion, as well as the notation “Philip Morris Funds Jesse Helms” on each five-foot long cigarette. Helms, widely remembered for his stance against federal funding for AIDS treatment during the 1980s crisis, was also actively engaged in a campaign against federal funding for individual artists on the basis of their purported obscenity. In 1989, Helms, backed by 100 of his Congressional colleagues, rallied against the National Endowment for the Art’s sponsorship of “The Perfect Moment.” An exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs scheduled to be held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, “The Perfect Moment” included works on “homosexual themes” that Helms and other opponents deemed taboo. At that time, many figures in the political establishment, including Helms, inaccurately characterized homosexuality to be a “threat to the public health,” given its arbitrary association with AIDs (hence, the original classification of the disease as GRID, Gay-related immune deficiency). As Haacke’s Helmsboro makes clear, Philip Morris’s financial contributions to the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center not only supported Helms’s censorship campaign, but also assisted in the construction of false narratives about homosexuality (as inherently “diseased”). The company thereby created a distraction from its own negative impact on public health as a large manufacturer of carcinogenic products.

This sordid episode in the history of Philip Morris conflicts with the supposed concern for “diverse communities” that Altria currently expresses on its online platform. Therefore, one must wonder whether, by using the funding of exhibitions as a public-relations strategy, Altria hopes to distract the public of today from Philip Morris’s substantial role in Helms’s discriminatory political activities of the 1980s and 90s. At the very least, we might note that Altria’s sponsorship of Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art does not match the grand vision of “diversity” it claims to uphold. The exhibition largely adhered to a canonical view of American art history, thus doing little to combat the general exclusion of certain groups—including women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community—from museum spaces.  In this view, what type of narrative about American art (and American culture more generally) is this syndicate attempting to construct through its endowments?


Hans Haacke, Helmsboro Country, 1990


Alumni Spotlight: Allison Leigh

Allison Leigh earned a B.A. in Art History from American University in 2005. She then went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History from Rutgers University with a focus on 18th and 19th-century-Russian art. In 2016, Allison was appointed an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  Below, she discusses her current projects and how her studies in art history at AU helped her become the professor she is today:

I remember my time studying art history at American University with such incredible fondness.  I had no sense of it at the time, but I was being honed and shaped by the amazing professors in the department in ways that would ultimately inform the way I teach now! The first art history class I ever took was to fulfill a General Education requirement and it was Helen Langa’s class – something with “Caves to Cathedrals” in the title, if I remember correctly. It changed my life. I had no idea that the field of study that is art history even existed when I walked into that room and I was enchanted from the beginning. Something about those old slide projectors with the little slides rotating around and the darkness of the room just got me hooked. I went on to take everything I could with both Dr. Langa and Kim Butler Wingfield. Both of them brought such intense depths of knowledge about their subject areas to the courses and the feminist analyses they introduced me to made me see the relevance of art history in my everyday life.

I sought Dr. Butler’s advice about pursuing a Ph.D. after I graduated and she was so candid about what it was going to take if I wanted to become an art history professor.  I’ll always be grateful that she was willing to discuss the various options with me and that she made suggestions about how to become a strong candidate when applying. It was Dr. Butler who supported my pursuit of a specialization in Russian art (I had minored in Russian and Slavic Studies at AU); we talked about how it was an understudied area among American scholars and that I stood to make a real contribution to the field by producing scholarship on works that are virtually unknown in the West.

I ultimately found wonderful mentors to study with at Rutgers University – one of whom, Susan Sidlauskas, had been the Ph.D. advisor of another very influential professor I had at AU, James Hargrove – and I received my Ph.D. after six years of intense study in 2014. I was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship to teach at the Cooper Union in New York City for two years and then I just started the tenure-track job at the University of Louisiana in the fall of last year.  Since starting, I’ve been very busy finishing three articles and working on a book manuscript.  One of the articles I completed recently was about 18th-century Russian portraiture and how dress regulations in the time of Tsar Peter the Great shaped the construction of identity in that period.  The others were for Slavic Studies journals and explored issues of the intersection between French and Russian painting in the 1830s and 1870s respectively.

The book I’m now completing, Superfluous Man: Masculinity and Modernity in Russian Painting, definitely reflects the training I received at AU for conducting gender analyses – though I have gravitated towards the emerging field of masculinity studies at this point in my career.  The book is an analysis centered on the so-called “crisis in masculinity,” but instead of an exploration of the French or American contexts, it investigates how several under-studied Russian painters sought to depict the lives of men as they grappled with the changes wrought by modernity throughout the 19th century. In addition to these research projects, I teach a range of courses on European art from the Renaissance through the contemporary periods. Right now I’m teaching a course on Orientalism and I’m planning a Russian and Central Asian art survey course for the fall semester. I hope to prepare a specialized course recalibrating the Renaissance through Modern survey for the spring that will cover only female artists – I dreamt that up over a decade ago while a student at AU and I feel like it’s a way of coming full circle back to my original training to teach it now.



Internal Framing in The Rothko Room

“Internal Framing in The Rothko Room”

by Elizabeth Cowgill

Our readings for “Museums and Society” this week centered around the changing conventions of hanging in museums and galleries, and the cultural ideologies that inspired these choices. From the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, display styles generally shifted from majestic assemblages that connote political power to arrangements that allowed each work to be viewed for its individual attributes. In the twentieth century, that emphasis on the singularity of the artwork developed into the now-familiar “white cube.”  This convention of museum display has been called neutral, sterile, decontextualized, and even masculine relative to the palatial or quasi-domestic arrangements common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Per our course assignment this week, I chose to investigate the way this installation style is applied in the Phillips Collection, where one relatively small room is set aside to house four paintings by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. If, as Carol Duncan proposes, the museum is a site of ritual akin to a cathedral, this room is a small side chapel, set apart both literally and philosophically from the rest of the museum. Dubbed “The Rothko Room,” the space is guarded by a museum attendant to ensure that it does not become overcrowded, creating an even greater sense that one is venturing into sacred territory. I was privileged during my visit to The Rothko Room in that I “experienced” it alone. Reflecting upon Brian O’Doherty’s chapter “Notes on the Gallery Space,” which first defined the “white cube” concept, I realized that the only corrupting body within the room was my own, creating a relatively unmediated encounter with the space enclosed within.

While arranged in the manner of the “white cube,” emptied of all possible distractions from the paintings on view, the room is small to the point of resembling a comfortable domestic setting. Yet the scale of the works, and the awareness they are meant to inspire, are far removed from the banality of the everyday. Each wall within the cube is punctuated by a single, unframed, and monumentally-sized Rothko painting. The room itself provides no educational materials, likely a purposeful avoidance of the didactic in order to provoke subjective experience in the viewer.  The room is also so intimately sized that it is impossible to view these massive paintings from afar. The result of this hanging schema is that the paintings are placed at such an overwhelmingly close distance to the viewer that one feels enveloped by them.

The white walls of the gallery space provide a stark contrast against the vibrant colors of the paintings, and each work is given adequate space as to not disrupt the optical experience of the others. The curatorial approach to hanging The Rothko Room therefore is quite different from eighteenth-century conventions where large-scale works would have been placed high on the gallery wall and tilted slightly downwards to optimize viewing. In that “Salon” style of hanging, works were installed directly above and alongside one another, indicating a greater emphasis on the overall view rather than a focus on individual works.

While each painting within The Rothko Room vibrates with its own inner tension, most people who have enjoyed viewing the artist’s work detect spiritual or meditative attributes that extend beyond the materiality of the canvas. This dual tension, as described by O’Doherty, is evident in the protrusion of the canvas from the wall, and counteracted by the paintings’ ability to transport the viewer through a “window” to a spiritual beyond.  Each of the paintings on view contains a distinct internal frame through the application a single color that outlines the canvas and separates its disparate planes of color. This framing mechanism pushes one’s view inward, into a spiritual void that evokes a world beyond the paintings’ flat surfaces. The containing walls of the white cube serve not only to neutralize the space, but seem almost to disappear altogether.


The Rothko Room in The Phillips Collection. Source: http://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/rothko-room