Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reading “Babar” in Roxbury

What does it mean for the white head of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to read “Babar” to black public school kindergartners in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood? I kept thinking about this when I saw photos of MFA Director Malcolm Rogers, with State Street Corporation’s Hannah Grove, reading “Babar’s Museum of Art” at Roxbury’s Maurice J. Tobin School to promote tomorrow’s free community day at the MFA, sponsored by State Street.

Jean de Brunhoff’s original 1931 children’s book “The Story of Babar” is a metaphor for French colonialism in black Africa, with the story’s cultured white folks portraying the French and Babar and the other wild animals as the Africans.

The story begins with a white hunter shooting dead young Babar’s mother. He flees into a French town, where all is new and strange and attractive to him. “A very rich Old Lady who has always been fond of little elephants understands right away that he is longing for a fine suit.” She civilizes him – giving him money for clothes, takes him in, teaches him to bathe and exercise, lends him her car from drives in the country. He gets educated and impresses the Old Lady’s friends with tales of his life in the forest.

When two elephant cousins arrive in town, he becomes like a rich Old Lady to them – buying them cake and fine clothes. Then he returns home with them to the forest. Note how the clothed elephants ride home in a car while the cousins’ unclothed – i.e. uncivilized – mothers “run behind, and lift up their trunks to avoid breathing the dust.”

Back home, the elephant king suddenly dies from eating a toxic mushroom. So the village elders appoint Babar king because “he has learned so much living among men.” It ends with Babar marrying one of his cousins who had come to the city, and then a party.

“Babar’s Museum of Art” is a 2003 tale about a tour through the museum King Babar and his queen build to house their art collection, which mimics various Western masterpieces but featuring elephants.

So what does it mean when Rogers and Grove, as moneyed envoys from civilizing white culture, read Babar in Roxbury? Is it just a delightful children’s story? Is it a colonial enterprise? Is it an invitation into the world of “fine” culture and money that are key steps to rising in America’s attempt at a meritocracy?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nathan Fitch’s Top Drawer photos

AS220’s main gallery in Providence is presenting “Double Vision.” Nathan Fitch photographed folks from Top Drawer Art Center in East Providence, which offers art programs for adults with developmental disabilities. The portraits, both tender and featuring some of the playful spontaneity of the Top Drawer gang, are paired with duplicates that the artists amended. Some sort of colorized the photos. Others urgently scribbled atop them, leaving just a window of untouched space around their heads. One man completely buried his portrait under a black sludge. One woman attached beads to a photo of herself holding a beaded necklace. The results are mixed, many sort of spinning out unresolved. But artists, by training or peer influence, often arrive at the usual predictable answers to similar aesthetic problems. A chief pleasure of Top Drawer art is how often the results are unexpected.

Nathan Fitch and the artists of Top Drawer Art Center, “Double Vision,” AS220, 115 Empire St., Providence, Sept. 4 to 26, 2009.

Pictured from top to bottom: Emmet Estrada, Emmet Estrada, Anthony Pontarelli with his painting, Virginia Tavares, Lindsey Ponte, Anthoney Brum holding his drawings over his eyes, Katrina Cathcart, and Anthony Pontarelli.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Annual Faculty Exhibition" at RI College

From my review of the "Annual Faculty Exhibition" at Rhode Island College in Providence:
The 11-artist "Annual Faculty Exhibition" at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery is hit or miss. Hits include Lisa Russell's three densely painted abstractions. Her sense for texture, narrow harmonies of color (gray to white, green to mocha), and rhythm of marks all contribute to a tense mood. Her compositions begin with long, wide, open brush and knife strokes, but then tighten somewhere off-center, with lots of short, narrow strokes that seem to buzz with pent-up energy.
Read the rest here.

"Annual Faculty Exhibition," Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery, 600 Mt. Pleasant Avenue, Providence, Sept. 3 to 23, 2009.

Pictured William Martin's 2000 sculpture "Rocketdrill" and in the background Richard Whitten's trompe l'oeil paintings. Photo by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pilgrim Hall Director Peggy Baker to retire

Peggy Baker, the director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, plans to retire early next year after leading the Plymouth institution for 15 years. She previously served as its curator of manuscripts and books for four years. Her most visible accomplishment was spearheading a $3.9 million renovation and 1,200-square-foot expansion of the museum, which opened in spring 2008. The effort included winning a $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2006.

“After 15 years I had a vision and accomplished it. Now is the time when it works for me and the [Pilgrim] Society to step apart and find fresh vision,” Baker tells me. Then quips, “And I’m old.”

Her husband, James Baker, is also retiring – from his job as curator of the Alden House Historic Site in Duxbury, which he helped get named a National Historic Landmark last November.

Peggy Baker says the Pilgrim Hall Museum building project was an outward manifestation of a greater change at the institution. “The big accomplishment is more internal: The board and I taking an institution that had been inward-turning, stern, not particularly welcoming to visitors and making it a vibrant place. … We were not fulfilling our mission of telling our story and caring for the artifacts. And we have certainly changed that.”

The signs are a complete reinstallation of the permanent collection in the new building with up-to-date scholarship that Baker believes makes the artifacts more relevant to today’s visitors. The renovation and expansion included air-conditioning the 1824 hall as well as the new structure to better preserve the collection. And the building project allowed the institution to offer universal access for the first time – to get in the front door, and an elevator for getting about inside.

Baker says she’s not sure what she’ll do next. “I’d love to stay in the field of history,” she says, imaging herself perhaps busy at a local historic house. Time will tell.

Pictured below: One of those things that only happens at places like the Pilgrim Hall Museum, a recent visit by the Sheriff of Nottingham, England. From left: Plymouth County Sheriff Joe MacDonald, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s “lady,” Pilgrim Hall Museum Director Peggy Baker, and the Sheriff of Nottingham Leon Unczur standing in the new entrance gallery at Pilgrim Hall Museum, with the newly-restored and backlit 1920 stained glass windows as a backdrop.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Brandeis seeks dismissal of Rose lawsuit

Brandeis University today filed a motion to dismiss the suit brought by three overseers of the Waltham school’s Rose Art Museum, according to Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon. The motion filed in Suffolk Probate and Family Court by Thomas Reilly, the former Massachusetts attorney general who is representing Brandeis in the matter, argues that the overseers don’t have standing to bring the case – and their proposals could threaten charities across the state. A hearing is scheduled to address the matter on Oct. 13.

“This case is about an attempt, by three members of an advisory board to a university art museum, to take exclusive control of the entire collection of that museum for their own personal objectives,” Brandeis’s motion begins.

Brandeis’s motion is an expected response to the suit filed by Rose overseers Jonathan Lee of Brookline, Meryl Rose of Swampscott and Lois Foster of Boston on July 27, seeking to stop Brandeis’s threatened sale of works from the Rose’s collection and preserve the museum. In addition, they argued that if the Rose museum can’t be saved, the collection should be given to a new Rose Preservation Fund that they would start independent from Brandeis.

Brandeis’s motion rejects the overseers’ attempt to seize the collection for a Rose Preservation Fund: “Such an extraordinary conversion of charitable educational property to private purposes would be unprecedented in centuries of Massachusetts charities law. … The unprecedented power they seek would disrupt the governance not just of Brandeis and every college and university in Massachusetts, but every charity in the Commonwealth.”

This whole drama began on Jan. 26 when Brandeis’s Board of Trustees, faced with what ended up being a 17.3 percent decline in its endowment over the 2008-2009 fiscal year, unanimously authorized the university’s administration “to take the necessary steps to transition the University's Rose Art Museum to a teaching center and exhibition gallery. These steps shall include, to the extent appropriate, review by the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and court approval, followed by an orderly sale or other disposition of works from the University's collection. The proceeds shall be used to help address the University's needs and preserve the University's assets during this period of economic challenge.”

Brandeis leaders have since made noises about not closing the Rose and not selling off the entire collection, but never actually contradicted the January announcement. And today’s motion claims, in passing, that museum ethical codes “do not apply to it.”

The Brandeis motion argues that the overseers “at most” could have standing regarding their own donations, but no standing to represent the public interest or other donors, including close relatives. Their position as overseers, it asserts, gives them no standing to their claims. Only the Massachusetts attorney general has standing to represent the public interest, it continues, and “she has not made any claim against Brandeis in this regard.” But, the motion adds, “Brandeis does not believe Plaintiffs have any standing, even with respect to their gifts.”

The motion downplays the three overseers' connections to Brandeis and the Rose, going so far as to note that Foster’s late husband “Henry Foster gave substantial sums to Brandeis and the Rose, and he alone signed most of the instruments of gift”; that it was Lee’s late mother who made substantial gifts to the museum not him; and that Meryl Rose is not related to the Roses whose donations helped found the Rose Art Museum – um, except by marriage.

In the meantime, the Rose is scheduled to open a major survey of its collection on Oct. 28 to coincide with the publication of a new catalogue of the collection by Abrams Books.

Dec. 23: Rose freezes curator search
Jan. 26: Brandeis to close Rose
Jan. 27: Update: Brandeis to close Rose, sell art
Jan. 27: Brandeis president’s e-mail on Rose
Jan. 27: Brandeis’s money
Jan. 27: AG on Brandeis's plans
Jan. 29: Brandeis’s liquidator-in-chief
Jan. 29: The first painting Brandeis should pawn
Jan. 29: Question: Brandeis financial management?
Feb. 5: Brandeis won’t close Rose?
Feb. 5: Will defunct Rose replace defunct Safra Center plan?
Feb. 9: Open discussion at the Rose tomorrow
Feb. 11: How do you solve Brandeis’s budget crisis?
March 16: Rose family objects to closing Rose museum
March 16: What is the Rose family saying?
May 15: The end of the Rose?
May 20: Voices from the Rose.
May 20: Rose collection treasures.
July 27: Rose overseers sue to preserve museum, stop sale of art: If museum can’t be saved, they say give art to new Rose Preservation Fund.
July 31: Key weaknesses in the Rose suit.

Jef Czekaj

Jef Czekaj, a Somerville cartoonist and indie rocker (and a pal of mine), drew the kids comedy adventure comic "Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters" for Nickelodeon Magazine for a decade. He published a "Grandpa and Julie" collection in 2004. But when Viacom started shutting down the magazine this spring, he began sketching “The Gallant Prince,” a series of deliciously naughty fractured fairy tales. Czekaj writes:
“When I heard that Nick Mag was closing, this was the first thing that came out. Something filthy. I drew one strip (the tweedle dee and tweedle dum strip) and I realized that it's a perfect formula. I decided that the only constraint would be that the second to last panel would be the prince thinking. I was definitely thinking about Mad Magazine. Someday maybe I'll draw a ‘finished’ one.”
See more of “The Gallant Prince” here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gropius House in Lincoln

From my review of the Gropius House, which is operated by Historic New England, in Lincoln, Massachusetts:
A landmark example of High Modernist design can be seen in the modestly sized New England home of Walter Gropius (1883–1969), which he built, in 1938, at 68 Baker Ridge Road in Lincoln, when he moved here from Germany (after a stopover in London) to become head of Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Gropius, who founded the legendary Staatliches Bauhaus school of design in Weimar in 1919, was best known for the groundbreaking urban, factory æsthetic he devised for two German projects. Both the 1911-'13 Fagus Works (an affiliate of United Shoe Machinery Co. in Beverly) and the 1926 Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, Germany, are characterized by large, gridded exterior expanses of steel and glass.

When he built here, Gropius wrote that "I made it a point to absorb into my own conception those features of the New England architectural tradition that I still found alive and adequate." But his house — vertical redwood siding versus horizontal bands of windows, a flat roof, all straight lines and rectangles — feels like an argument with the surrounding meadow.
Read the rest here.

Gropius House, 68 Baker Ridge Road, Lincoln, tours are Wednesday through Sunday through October 15, and then weekends during the rest of the year.

All images are courtesy of Historic New England.