Earlier this semester, I asked the students in my Art History Theory and Methods course to visit and review the current exhibition at the OSU Museum of Art, “Invited.” I also extended the show’s invitation to them—which artwork from the permanent collection, I asked, would they have chosen to include in the exhibition? Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll share their thoughts: first, their collaborative review of the show as it is, and then each of their additional objects.
This month the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art is celebrating its five-year anniversary with an exhibition curated by a selection of contributors essential to its existence. These individuals were invited (har-har) to select works from the permanent collection of the University; the goal of this exhibition was to honor the major contributors to the OSUMA and showcase the University’s permanent collection.
The heart of the exhibition uses a method of artwork selection rooted in communal activity. By inviting individuals who operate in the periphery of the museum to help design an exhibition, the museum is effectively showing that it is positioned to reflect its community.
This unique, yet fun and intellectually evocative form of interactivity highlights that the OSUMA values and thrives off the people who support it. An exhibition designed by the museum’s supporters also underscores the prominence and importance of these patrons, who often go underexposed.
Donors are one of the factors that enable the museum to serve the community with such dedication. Invited illustrates this community service and highlights the donors, board members, and trustees of the museum by allowing them to participate. This exhibition is made of carefully chosen pieces from the University’s permanent collection.
Also, by utilizing this collection, the museum gives the guest curators a view into how their contributions are helping the Oklahoma State and Stillwater communities. The position of guest curator allows these individuals to take an active part in the museum rather than being a name on a thank you list.
The guest curators brought in by the museum have different levels of art education and each have their own interests, and this has resulted in a diverse multimedia exhibition for the museum guests to enjoy. The exhibition features sculpture, furniture, paintings, and jewelry, giving visitors a small glimpse into the massive collection currently maintained by the University. This variety in the exhibition appeals to the larger diverse community that is the population of Stillwater.
By collecting guest curators from different walks of life, visitors to the exhibition are able to see differing points of view on what others would consider ‘good art’. For example, a guest curator with an affinity for Native American art might find the works of Benjamin Harjo Jr. particularly compelling, while another might have a passion for photography. This is smart on the part of the museum since the larger the assortment of items, the more likely it is that a viewer will find one that they can relate to personally.
The labels are designed in a clear manner that successfully accommodates the unique curation of the exhibition. They indicate the basic information of each work, allowing the viewer to explore and form their own ideas and opinions while also providing an accessory to the exhibition literature; a stack of booklets can be found on the bench in the center of the gallery.
There is, however, a lack of clarity concerning the organization in the gallery. Why were the works hung the way they were? What level of agency did the guest curators have?
Firstly, the works are arranged in a typical white cube-esque hanging, which is uninviting to many people not familiar with art or art spaces. Even a relatively seasoned museum goer might feel somewhat uncomfortable not knowing where to start, what work to approach first, or what direction to take.
Secondly, why does the exhibition branch out into the next room, the Art Lab? The two spaces clash and perpetuates the feeling of not knowing where to go, or if one is even welcome to go into that space.
The exhibition is called Invited, which prompts the idea that any group of people could’ve been “invited” to contribute to the exhibition; however, in reality it is quite exclusive. We are given no clear, outright explanation of who the guest curators are, and why they were chosen. Why wasn’t the museum staff invited, for example? Their input might have been highly relevant to the final look of this exhibition. Elaborating on this problem of exclusivity, it’s ironic how an exhibition which calls for inclusion in its very name can seem so uninviting. Who decided who to invite?
The OSUMA is an invaluable resource to the community of Stillwater; beyond serving the university and acting as a home to its extensive permanent art collection, the museum serves the local population of Stillwater by providing a free and public art space. The Museum also provides educational resources in the form of the Art Lab, largely funded by donors such as George R. Kravis II.
The purpose of Invited is to showcase the breadth and depth of the OSU Museum of Art’s collection, but does it do so successfully? The collection has grown from 800 to 5,000 objects since 2010, an amazing feat! In the show colorful, geometric, abstract works are certainly well represented, but there are marked absences when one considers the range of the collection.
Art of the ancient world is missing, as well as Asian and African art. As Dr. Louise Siddons explains in her introduction to the Museum catalogue, Sharing a Journey: Building the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art Collection (2014), the collection’s strengths include American and British painting, works on paper, African art and design, and the material culture of the Mediterranean ancient world. However, the lack of diversity in geographic regions and variety in media represented in Invited would leave the average museum-goer, with no inside knowledge about the museum, unaware of the vast amount of African art, or the strong photography collection. Instead, one might believe that American painting and Native American art are all that the institution has to offer. While the show claims to represent the breadth of the OSUMA, what is on view is certainly not proportional to the overall collection.
The layout of the show also leads to problems. The Native American art is largely separated from the main gallery space, and is placed in the Art Lab, in a corner, which leads to confusion about whether or not it is part of the show. Rather than feeling encouraged to wander the space freely, the viewer is left questioning the confines of the space, and the limits of their access. The difficult task of creating some cohesion amongst the varying pieces was approached through separating the Native American objects and landscape paintings from the bright, geometric pieces in the main gallery. While a rhythm of color in the two spaces helps create a sense of unity, the show feels disjointed overall. A possible solution might be to limit the exhibition to one room, so it’s clear to visitors what’s part of the show and what’s not. Further, a temporary wall could be installed to allow for a demarcation of the space and a division of the styles which makes sense. Invited seeks to create a diverse museum experience, but the different points of view create more confusion than clarity regarding the OSUMA’s permanent collection.
The exhibition Invited: Celebrating Five Years will be on view at the Oklahoma State University of Museum of Art until January 25, 2020.
— Dr. B J Bartlett
“Dr. B J Bartlett” is Landes Bauter, Lovisa Broberg, Hayla May, and Ariel Reimbold. BJ Smith was a faculty member in the Art Department at Oklahoma State who passed away in 2012; our seminar room in the Bartlett Center for the Visual Arts is dedicated to his memory. The students’ writing has been lightly edited for readability and length, but their content has not been altered.