Monthly Archives: August 2008

Labels and Wit

L reminded me that Dario Robleto: Alloy of Love at the Frye Art Museum closes September 1st, so we stopped in this afternoon to catch it. There are several good reviews of the show so I won’t attempt to write my own, but will instead offer a few thoughts.

First, the labels are essential to the exhibition. Not only do they show creativity and wit (Shredded records of melancholy female vocalists I can believe, but powdered bones and ink from the letters of war sweethearts? SURE) but a regular match box or drum stick nestled in a velvet-lined box have no special meaning without the narrative Robleto weaves with his labels. Of course Robleto is playing with the controversial role of labels in art museums, should a pieces stand on its own and do visitors spend more time reading the label than looking at the art? To a museologist this push and pull is delicious, witty, and almost mind-exploding.

Second, the list of materials makes it fun to try to guess which might be true (shredded records, flowers made of human hair) and which are positively impossible (a woman’s powdered rib bone recast and carved into the form of a man’s rib bone). It’s a guessing game, it’s a lesson in reading and logic and possibility as much as it is a story.

None of this is particularly insightful, but these are the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition (in addition to L’s excellent company and her decoding of the drum stick title “Your Moonlight Is In Danger Of Shining for No One” (it must be a play on Kieth Moon of the Who, she pointed out)).


Sound Garden

Well, since the CBC shows Olympic coverage hours before NBC and I’m all caught up on swimming, I’ll take a break from watching the Olympics (I like anything that involves a race–especially swimming–because the rules are simple: whoever is the fastest wins) to talk about the NOAA Art Walk/Sound Garden. 

The Sound Garden has been a much fabled art Seattle art fixture (at least among our little group). It’s near Warren G. Magnuson Park but on NOAA land (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) so in order to see the sculpture you must pass through a security checkpoint. The Sound Garden is a collection of towers with tubes that catch the wind to create different tones, depending on the speed and direction of the wind. According to a Seattle website, “NOAA’s art collection includes six outdoor artworks by nationally recognized artists.” The NOAA website is either broken or off limits to lowly citizens because searching the website brings up a lot of error messages, but the Seattle Parks website assured me that visitors could enter through the NOAA main gate Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm.

L and I had some trouble locating the NOAA main gate (driving around Magnuson Park aimlessly for a while) bet eventually located it and told the security guards what we desired: to see the art walk. They took our drivers licenses and we waited maybe five minutes before they gave us visitors badges and a map.

We got a little excited and took pictures of a large (and rather poorly executed) mural and some upturned metal tubes as well as what appeared to be a weather data tower. 

Lame Mural

Art? Or Debris?

Art? Or Debris?

 Next we saw the Sound Garden. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It looks a lot like a cluster of weather vanes. And the sound? was almost non-existent. At one point we tricked ourselves into thinking it was letting off a nice, high-pitched squeal, but it must have been an alarm from a nearby building because it certainly wasn’t coming from the tubes. Perhaps it requires more wind, but there were several decent gusts, and nothing. Or, perhaps it needs some attention, as several of the towers creaked loudly when the arms rotated in the wind. Or, perhaps it needs a chorus of “Hands All Over” to get it warmed up (yes, that Soundgarden is named for this Sound Garden).


Sound Garden

Sound Garden

We wandered around looking for the rest of the “art.” A small footbridge with text (apparently from Moby Dick) is all that appears to remain of the “art walk.” And at the time I didn’t even know it was anything more than a nice little bridge. There was a platform that may have supported a long-gone sculpture, and some iron girders set into the lake that may have held the platform noted in a Seattle P-I article, but other than gorgeous views of the lake and lots of sun-warmed blackberries, there wasn’t much to see.

We went back to Magnuson Park to see the The Fin Project: From Swords into Plowshares. Fins from former US Naval Submarines rise out of the grass, and even though there was a large mound of cedar wood chips screwing with the visual line (and the path, we kept sinking into the piles as we walked) it is a beautiful and moving (I kept expecting the fins to start “swimming” toward the water). The fins are arranged to approximate a whale pod formation.


My picture does nothing to capture it.

My picture does nothing to capture it.

So, unless it is a particularly windy day, skip NOAA and the possible background check (why else did it take them so long to look at our drivers licenses?) and stick with the Fins. Or, better yet, head over to Volunteer Park to see Noguchi’s Black Sun (and sing Black Hole Sun! Do we know if there is actually a connection there, Alison?).

I really haven’t done any research other than read a few Seattle P-I articles on-line and look at the Seattle Parks website, so there may be more of a story. But since I’m working on more important things and watching the Olympics, that’s all you get for now.

Museums: Catering to the (uninformed) Visitor

So recently I have been doing the museum circuit in Detroit and Chicago. Upon visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), I had to check out the new interpretive vision instituted by their director Graham W. J. Beal. The DIA re-opened its doors this past November 2007 after renovating both the outside building and inside galleries. I have to say that having been to the DIA pre-renovation, I was quite impressed with the new galleries. The museum is absolutely gorgeous and gives me that feeling of reverence as I wander through the infamous artwork.  Amidst these newly renovated galleries the beautiful art is displayed in a revolutionary, user-friendly way. Beal seeking to “extinguish the deathly whiff of elitism” implemented a new interpretive plan for the artwork. There are now text panels, posted next to the paintings, on silver metal stands, nearly as big as some, white in color to provide information for the visitor.  These prominently placed panels have large type, a maximum of 150 words, and in simple terms, introduce the “broad idea” of the art works being displayed. I have to say originally I was all for this “new interpretive vision”. On the frontier in the museum profession is the idea of a user-friendly, community-driven, open door, anti-elitist, art-for-all-people museum. And, isn’t Beal trying to accomplish what museum professionals ascribing to the new, 21st century, re-imagining-the-museum thought process are all desperately seeking to achieve? 

Hmmmm….my jury is still out. The signs were a bit in-the-way, distracting when I was trying to meditate on the art and read the tombstone information about the piece. These white signs were almost like white neon signs screaming “READ ME!!!, READ ME!!!!!”  Although, I do think the information was helpful if you have never ever been to an art museum in your life, never picked up any literature on the subject and wanted to know more beyond the exhibit label. 


On another note, while visiting The Art Institute of Chicago, I noticed something. Something that caught me a bit off guard…In most of the prominent galleries throughout the museum were large white desks with Mac computers and a museum employee. All there to help you with anything that you may desire pertaining to the museum, to the artwork, the sky was the limit! And these persons were not just in the main entrance, they were in every major gallery! I was quite puzzled and shocked by this new change in the museum’s attempt to go above and beyond in its catering to the inquisitive museum visitor. 

Museums catering to the new, uninformed visitor, a new trend? I think so. Every museum seems to be jumping on the band wagon. It is yet to be determined if this new trend is here to stay. We, as museum professionals (or museum workers) will all have to wait and see. 🙂 

Franconia Sculpture Park

Hm, I promised a post about Seattle art this weekend, eh? Though L and I went to an opening at McLeod Residence (the entire time I thought we were at Howard House, oops) we only spent a grand total of 6 minutes there, so I can’t very well write a post about that. 

Instead, I will write about my July visit to the Franconia Sculpture Park in Franconia, Minnesota. It is a sculpture park set in “16 acres of restored prairie” in a self-proclaimed rural setting. Surrounded by trees, corn fields and prairie grasses, the park is dotted with sculptures of all sizes, from gigantic steel structures to tiny bronze and wood figures hidden in the grass. I went with my mother, the person who taught me how to look at art, and my fiance, who is just learning to look at art, so the conversation was mostly limited to deciding if a sculpture attracted or repulsed any one of us. So I will spare you from any critical analysis.


Noelle Mason

Noelle Mason

What makes Franconia unique is–well, I’ll give you their mission: 

Franconia Sculpture Park works to nurture the artistic growth, creativity and interaction between emerging, mid-career and established sculptors in an outdoor, rural setting. An integral part of its mission is to enhance the cultural life of our community and nation through a diverse program of education and experimentation.

This might sound like a very tall order, but it is easy to see this mission at work simply by walking through the park and reading the short labels near each sculpture. Sculptors represented nearly every continent, and many were noted as participants in the fellowship program or the intern artist program. Several sculptors were at work in an open-air workshop at the edge of the park, and signs were posted calling for applications to the intern artist program. Even in a relatively passive visit (we didn’t talk to anyone, the park is not staffed) it was easy to see the mission in action. As someone who prefers to get information on my own and not be bothered by museum staff, the free-wandering non-structure of the park was appealing. But for those who like more interaction and structure, FSP also has tours by requests, hosts workshops and classes, holds traveling symposiums, and has a art and music festival once a year.


Kari Reardon

Kari Reardon

So, yes, I liked Franconia Sculpture Park. Unfortunately we picked one of those cloudless, windless, hot muggy days that are typical of Minnesota summer, and wandering through the prairie grasses I began to wish for a sun bonnet. Thankfully, the park has a freezer full of ice pops and an on-your-honor payment (two for $1), so thoughts of sun bonnets faded as I enjoyed the taste of lime flavored ice.


Karl Friederich

Karl Friederich

All images from the FSP website.



Museums…keeping it real.

Not only is this my first post on Art Bitches, it is my first blog post…ever. It will be interesting to see where this thing goes and what it becomes. It has the potential to be a unique look at the U.S. art and museum scene through the eyes of burgeoning museum professionals. Or, as Amy suggested last night, if I post every Wednesday, it will just be a good way for me to keep track of the days of the week while in my jobless state.

(Side note: I still can’t use of the term “museum professional without thinking about the alternate term, “museum worker,” which was vetoed in class for sounding too proletariat. Anyway…)

Since this is my first post, I just wanted to use it as a reminder as to why I like museums in the first place. It’s easy to forget this when I get so caught up in job searching, not to mention the fact that after writing and defending my thesis, I needed a total vacation from all things museumy for a few weeks.

So why do I like museums? Probably for the same reasons all of you do- the access to art, the serene environment, the opportunity to be around like-minded individuals, just to name a few. I was reminded of another reason a couple weeks ago when I attended an exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison: the ability of museums to provide an authentic experience within a controlled environment (fixed objects in a fixed location). Of course, you always create your own authenticity in whatever uncontrolled environment you happen to be in, from riding the bus to attending a party. But a museum sets it all up for you, so you can only depend on your own individual response to create the authenticity. It’s this individual response to real objects that I think is what is at the core of what I like about museums. I witnessed this firsthand at the Modernist sculpture exhibition at the Chazen while observing a young boy and his grandfather walking through the galleries.

Here’s the website for the museum, which is on the University of Wisconsin campus.

(Apologies for the suckiness of the site. Perhaps they could use a museologist with a flair for design to help them out in this area…)

The boy looked to be about 8 years old, and one would get the feeling that this is the kind of kid who spends more time playing video games than visiting cultural institutions (like most kids, right?) But it was obvious that he was completely taken with this modernist sculpture exhibition, especially Calder’s mobile. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but Calder’s use of movement and primary colors make him a very kid-friendly artist.

Alexander Calder mobile similar to one in Chazen exhibition.

This boy was not using an “indoor voice,” which usually drives me nuts in museums, but I couldn’t help but enjoy his enthusiasm for the art. He was, after all, giving his immediate and unbiased responses, which you just have to appreciate. When standing under the Calder, he looked up and commented that it seemed like it would have been hard to make, and then announced, “it looks like it’s floating!” He also seemed to want more information, as he read the labels loudly, prompting his grandfather to gently ask him to be quiet.

Yeah, he probably could have been quieter, seeing as I heard this entire exchange from the other side of the gallery, but I hope more children (and adults) are exposed to authenticity like this, learning not just about art, but about their own responses to it. Ultimately, that is what every exhibition should set out to inspire. Hopefully, with wherever our museum careers take us, we can contribute in creating meaningful, memorable visitor experiences in some small way.

OK, all aboard the S.S. Snark next time, I hope.


This blog came from the desire to take negativity and turn it into something positive. What do you do with a negative nickname? What do you do when four good friends suddenly find themselves in different time zones, without any outlet for creative (and cranky) discussions?

If you are normal, you probably just  vow to keep in touch and make time for the occasional phone call or e-mail. If you are four spunky museology graduate students, you get drunk and hatch a plan for a cross-continental art blog while sitting in a Seattle tiki bar. And as for the negative nickname, we embraced it as a mark of our fierce friendship and common interest.

If this experiment goes as planned, all four of us will log in to write posts about art happenings in our respective areas of the country: Seattle, Madison, Ann Arbor as of yet. We haven’t decided on a voice, or on an audience, so hopefully that will decide itself as we move forward.

This weekend: a post about Seattle art.