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



“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

by Emily Peikin

Last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course. Our assignment for the week asked us to critically examine how art museums convey the significance and value of their permanent collections to visitors. Since our readings for the week discussed two examples of collectors’ museums—the Frick Collection and the Freer—the Hirshhorn Museum served as a good case study. Although the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is part of the Smithsonian Institution, it originated as the collection of Joseph Hirshhorn. A block of informational wall text outside of the entrance to the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection,” which presents a small but impressive sampling of the institution’s holdings, informs visitors that Hirshhorn “was a passionate and knowledgeable collector” who “amassed art by some of the greatest figures of modernism, from Auguste Rodin to Willem de Kooning.” Visitors subsequently learn that the collection includes works that “are considered masterpieces by art historians.” This ensures that even if they lack knowledge of modern and contemporary art, they will feel obligated to be impressed by what they see. This introductory information primes visitors to view the art they are about to encounter in a positive light by invoking the discerning eye of an individual collector and the approval of an unnamed body of experts. Furthermore, its verbosity contrasts with the sparse wall labels displayed next to individual works. It is also important to note that there is no audio guide for this exhibition, which would have made its contents more understandable to the general public.

When one enters the galleries of this exhibition, the first major display is a selection of works by Willem de Kooning and Alberto Giacometti. This gallery presents narratives of individual greatness, including the greatness of Hirshhorn as a collector and the greatness of de Kooning and Giacometti as artists. In addition, the works throughout the galleries of this exhibition are all spaced far apart from one another, and many of the sculptures are displayed on pedestals or within glass vitrines. This emphasizes their individual significance and presents them as objects worthy of contemplation. Most of the wall labels in the galleries contain little descriptive information. Instead, they include the artist’s name, his or her nationality, his or her years of birth and death, the title of the work, the year(s) of its creation, the medium, and the work’s origin, which is often listed as “Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.” There are one or two works within each gallery that have extensive wall text, but their selection seems completely arbitrary. This series of galleries combines works that Hirshhorn himself acquired with ones that the museum has recently added to its collection, and this juxtaposition suggests that the museum continues to pursue Hirshhorn’s original vision.

One architectural element that encourages visitors to consider the importance of the collection is the shape of the building itself. The galleries on each floor connect to form a large ring, which forces visitors to circumambulate in an almost devotional manner. This is a striking example of scholar Carol Duncan’s model of the museum as a ritual space and site of secular devotion. This configuration also engenders feelings of suspense and excitement; the visitor is unable to see the contents of the next gallery due to the fact that it is not immediately ahead of him or her, nor is it framed by a doorway. Ultimately, the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection” presents a uniquely temporary arrangement of a mere sliver of the museum’s holdings. An exhibition like “Masterworks” is thereby far from representative of the institution’s holdings as a whole, but instead presents a shiny and sanitized “highlights reel” of sorts. However, the overall lack of informational materials arguably renders this exhibition incomprehensible to individuals with little background in art history.



Alberto Giacometti, Dog, 1951

Commercial Culture in the Museum

As part of Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course this semester, students are asked to write a short weekly response paper in which they think critically about the musuem as a physical space, a cultural institution, and as a political, economic, and social entity. Below, first year MA student Samantha Rhodes shares her analysis of commercial culture in the National Gallery of Art and the Louvre:

The National Gallery has been the sight of many joyful and encouraging visits, however, one aspect has always been a little unsettling. The location of the Museum Cafe, also known as the Garden Cafe, within the middle of the museum is an interesting, yet somewhat problematic feature. Leanne McTavish’s essay “Shopping in the Museum? Consumer spaces and the Redefinition of the Louvre”, which analyzes the relation between the Louvre museum and the underground shopping mall Carrousel de Louvre, gave me some tools to analyze my previous experience at the National Gallery. As she points out the Carrousel de Louvre is located on the lower level of the museum under the galleries. By noting the lower level and separation, McTavish analyzes the tension between ideal attendees associated with the exhibitions, and the other attendees, who are associated with the more physical pleasures of consumerism. Essentially her argument assumes a class distinction and ideal viewership between the two areas located within the Louvre. After reading McTavish’s analysis, I began critically thinking about not only the Garden Cafe located in the NGA, but the Cascade Cafe, which is a glorified title for a general food court. Although I do not have much of an issue with food spaces within a museum, there is a question of the differences between the Garden Cafe and the general food court. I would argue that there are social distinctions between the two spaces. The Garden Cafe is located on the Western side of the museum and is tucked in the middle of exhibits. A viewer who enters through the 7th Street side of the building must also pass the cafe on the way to the East Wing and the general food court. The prices of the Garden Cafe run high, with entrees being above 20 dollars. While in the food court prices are more economical. Not only do the soaring prices denote a difference, but the location of the Garden Cafe amidst, not separated from, the rest of the museum recalls similar questions found in the McTavish article.

The Carrousel du Louvre (the food court and shopping center) was separated from the rest of the museum on a lower level, thus signifying the status of the structure in comparison to a more “civilized” culture located in the exhibitions on the upper levels. The National Gallery has made this observation even more obvious. The Garden Cafe not only caters to more elite individuals, but it is also located close in proximity to the exhibits. Thus one can have a pleasant, expensive meal while also being encouraged by the general splendor of the NGA. The Cascade Cafe, or the food court, was built for a mass amount of people, thus the architecture is not as grand, nor are the reproductions of pantings that feature food products. These paintings were situated on simple columns, and their quality is less than ideal, thus adding even more of an inferior air when compared to the pristine Garden Cafe. McTavish makes an argument that there is tension between two museum ideals, one that is meant to attract a more diverse public, and one that worries that this public will consist of people that museum officials have long sought to exclude. (184) Although the argument does not directly translate to my observation, I do believe the tension between the two cafes exist, and I believe this tension is noted by numerous guests to the museum. Even upon my first visit to the NGA, I was disturbed by the location of the Garden Cafe, it was as if the visitors having lunch were themselves a spectacle, an ideal to live up to. Until that ideal is fulfilled, I must go to a lower level where food is more affordable and the exhibits are far away. The intriguing tension between consumer and exhibition space proved an interesting analysis inspired by McTavish’s example from the Louvre in Paris.


First year MA student, Samantha Rhodes, poses in front of Frederic Church’s Niagara.

Faculty Focus: Andrea Pearson presents her research in Belgium.

Over the semester break, Dr. Pearson presented aspects of her project on Netherlandish besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens, in triptych form) at a three-day international conference called “Imaging Utopia: New Perspectives on Northern Renaissance Art.” The conference took place in Belgium. It brought scholars together to discuss varieties of utopianism in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the initial printing of which was achieved in Leuven. The first day of the conference focused exclusively on besloten hofjes; attendance was approximately 200. Dr. Pearson’s presentation explored utopianism in a hofje (illustrated) from a hospital in Mechelen, then the governmental seat of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Dr. Pearson argued that the work helped to mediate contentious positions on female and male monastic enclosure that were taken up by the hospital’s personnel. This hofje is among seven works of the kind that are undergoing conservation after their designation as Vlaamse Topstukken (Flemish Masterpieces), a term that designates works of the highest artistic and cultural value for Belgium (Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is also on the list). Dr. Pearson’s presentation led to an invitation to contribute to a major publication celebrating the conservation project and the permanent reinstallation of the hofjes in the newly renovated Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen in March of 2018.

In a forthcoming article Dr. Pearson argues that another hofje from the Mechelen hospital was commissioned by the parents of a blind nun, with whom they are portrayed in its painted wings. The hofje asserted meritorious status in piety that claimed salvation for all three members of the familial triad, by invoking pious practices tied not to sight but to the other senses. Such assertions were crucial, for the daughter’s visual impairment rendered her and her parents spiritually suspect. The essay, therefore, redefines sensory piety as socially persuasive. This approach departs from previous investigations on religion and the senses in this period, which focus primarily on interiority. Check out the article after its publication online this spring, in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (www.jhna.org)!


Mechelen, Crucifixion Hofje, ca. 1525-28, polychromed wood, silk, paper, bone, wire, paint, and other materials in a wood case, 42.9 x 35.3 x 7.7 inches. Musea & Erfgoed Mechelen, inv. BH/3, on long-term loan from the Augustinian Sisters of Mechelen.



Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Juliet Bellow to give two presentations in London in the upcoming week.

Dr. Juliet Bellow will be giving two presentations in London this upcoming week. On Monday, January 23rd, Dr. Bellow will give a paper for a study day at the Courtauld Gallery titled “Hand Dance: Drawing as Choreography in Rodin’s Cambodian Dancers.” This paper follows the approaching closing of the Courtauld Gallery’s recent exhibition “Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement.” Dr. Juliet Bellow’s previous catalogue essay for the Courtauld Gallery exhibition was called “groundbreaking” by Apollo Magazine, citing her suggestion that Rodin’s admiration for dance dovetailed ‘with the most radical dimensions of Rodin’s sculptural practice.’

On Tuesday January  24th, Dr. Bellow will give a talk at the Center for the Study of Dance at the University of Roehampton.  In this paper, titled “Beware of plaster: Auguste Rodin’s drawings of the Cambodian Royal Ballet,” Dr. Bellow considers why Rodin chose to privilege the pencil over the chisel to convey his perceptions of the Cambodian Royal Ballet, and how that choice affected Rodin’s carefully constructed public image.