Students and Prof. Rebecca Zurier in front the of the 59th Street Bridge, the subject of a George Bellows painting The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island, around which the class curated an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art. View the slideshow here.
By Alison Reed and Judy Su
Professor Rebecca Zurier’s History of Art 479: George Bellows and the Ashcan School will most likely be one of the most memorable courses in art history for many of us. It provided our class the unique opportunity to curate an exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art while learning a considerable amount about New York in the early-twentieth century, a fascinating period for American art.
Our exhibition, George Bellows and New York: 1900-1940, February 14th to April 16th, 2013, is based on Bellows’ The Bridge: Blackwell’s Island, held at the Toledo Museum of Art. Our exhibit is open concurrently with George Bellows, a major retrospective that started in Washington D.C. and moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during the fall of 2012. Because of conditional issues, The Bridge: Blackwell’s Island could not leave the Toledo museum, and so is not included in the retrospective. This provided the perfect opportunity to create an exhibition in nearby Toledo focused around this painting while the retrospective is on view in New York.
One of the most exciting aspects of the class was our interaction with the staff at the Toledo Museum of Art. Many of us who had only been learning about art and museums in an academic setting had our first opportunity to experience what working in an actual museum is like. We met with several of the staff at the museum, including Carolyn Putney, the chief curator, and Tim Motz, the media specialist, who helped us learn how to create a strong exhibit. Tom Loeffler, curator of works on paper, assisted us in collectively choosing the prints and drawings to supplement the focal painting of our exhibit.
In curating the exhibit, we divided into groups, each one having a contact at the museum to help guide us through the process. We all learned a lot about how much goes into an exhibition, including times when our hopes couldn’t be met because of the constraints of museum work in practice as opposed to theory. In addition to our group work, we each wrote a label for one of the pieces that we picked out as a class, working with Paula Reich, the museum’s curatorial project manager. Working with the Toledo Museum of Art staff was incredible informative and fun. They really helped us improve our work, and had a lot of great stories to tell.
Our class was also fortunate enough to go to New York City to view the George Bellows retrospective and to do more research on our exhibition topic. We also visited many spaces that Bellows and his peers depicted of their New York lives.
Our first stop once we reached the city was the 59th Street Bridge itself, the subject of The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island. We tried to find the angle from which we imagined Bellows was looking at the bridge when he made the painting, and took some photos that came pretty close. We then made our way to the Met, where we viewed the retrospective and afterwards gave group presentations about a chosen Bellows painting, using what we had learned throughout the semester about the artist and early-twentieth-century America. After our presentations, Lisa Messinger, one of the exhibition curators, and exhibition designer Michael Langley showed us the layout of the exhibit and answered all of our curatorial questions. We left with a better understanding of what it takes to put on an exhibit, and with plenty of ideas for our own.
The next day, we visited the proposed location of Bellows’ New York (1911) and tried to figure out if the corner of Broadway and 23rd, near the Flatiron Building, was where he painted this famous piece. After deciding that he must have taken a few artistic liberties in his depiction, we went to the Woolworth building for a quick look at the beautiful architecture and decoration inside, then trekked to the Tenement Museum and the Lower East Side. There we took two tours to learn more about immigrant life in the early 1900s, since Bellows made paintings of tenement neighborhoods. Afterwards we went to see Bellows’ and artist Robert Henri’s houses in Gramercy Park, a huge contrast to the immigrant neighborhoods. Finally, we walked to Grand Central Terminal, another example of what made the “new” New York in that time period.
Curating an exhibit, first-hand exposure to artwork being studied in class, visiting sites depicted in the artwork. All of these factors, together with the incredible knowledge of Professor Zurier and the many museum staff with whom we interacted, gave us a greater depth of understanding, and an academic experience of a lifetime.