Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial

The Curators’ Game: Collection Rotation

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu, 1990. Gelatin silver print. Purchase, Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation Acquisition Fund, M2001.154. Copy photo by John R. Glembin.

What happens when a group of curators following the Safer at Home order plays a game with works from the Museum’s collection? You’re about to find out.

The curators at the Milwaukee Art Museum—there are eight—have their own area of focus within the Museum’s collection, among them, photography and media arts, design, European art, American art, self-taught art, and design. The works in the collection provide us—the curators—with exhibition inspiration, opportunities for research, and context for future acquisitions. Continuing to work while complying with the state’s Safer at Home order, we decided to stay connected through a casual exercise based on the game cadavre exquis, or exquisite corpse, which the Surrealists used in 1920s Paris to create collaborative drawings. For the curators, the exercise helps us think about the collection in new ways; for you, it’s hopefully an interesting way to experience these works through our eyes, and to discover the many connections that can be made among seemingly disparate objects.

So what is the exquisite corpse game? One variation, a favorite of Surrealists such as André Breton and Yves Tanguy, can be played with words: a participant starts by writing a sentence fragment on a piece of paper, then folds it over, leaving only the last word exposed, and passes the paper to the next person. That person then composes another fragment, which starts with the exposed word. At the end of the game (or the piece of paper), it is unfolded and read aloud. The name of the game stems from one of the first rounds played by Surrealists, in which the result was “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.”

For our game, we picked the much less macabre name of “Collection Rotation,” inspired by the practice of combining works from the collection in smaller-scale displays throughout the galleries. Not quite exhibitions on the scale of those found in the Baker/Rowland Galleries, the Bradley Family Gallery, or the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts, such rotations (as these displays are called) serve as a testing ground for new ideas or to engage in focused research. The Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy, and Milwaukee, Experimental Ink: Nineteenth-Century French Prints from the Hockerman Collection, and Petite Posters: Jules Chéret and Le Courrier français, for example, are among some of the more recent rotations you might have come across in the galleries. But back to the point. 

Since we are an art museum, the chain of associations that we will explore through our game of Collection Rotation is one of images rather than words.

Ariel Pate giving a gallery talk in the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts. Photo by Kat Schleicher.

To begin the game, Ariel Pate (pictured here), assistant curator of photography, selected Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu by Hiroshi Sugimoto—the photograph that heads this post—and sent it, with a short reflection, to Nikki Otten, associate curator of prints and drawings. Nikki, inspired by the Sugimoto, selected Jules Ferdinand Jacquemart’s Chaos, and shared the image and a short reflection with Catherine Sawinski, assistant curator of European art, deleting the original from the email chain. Catherine then continued the game, sharing a painting and thought inspired by Nikki’s work—and so on.

The result is an associative tour through the Museum’s collection that you can follow along with on social media. We will start posting next week, each weekday at 3 p.m. CST, using the hashtag #MAMCollectionRotation. Travel with us across different areas, eras, and mediums at @milwaukeeart starting today. Enjoy!

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