After seeing “An Incomplete History of Protest,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Middlebury Chief Curator and Director of Engagement Jason Vrooman began to think about organizing an exhibition around Protest Art at Middlebury. Museum of Art.
Sadly, 2020 has become a year of wasted time, with the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily closing the college museum and sending most of the college’s students and faculty away from campus. But museum staff decided to take advantage of this period to rethink certain aspects of the museum, in particular by reorganizing the permanent galleries with the aim of greater accessibility and inclusiveness.
Staff have redoubled their efforts to dig a permanent installation in the museum for “Art and Activism” in light of the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
“There were so many other amazing stories of artistic protest that we could have told, and so many great works that remained in stock, that I knew I wanted to put on a bigger exhibition,” Vrooman said in an e- mail to The Campus.
With the museum reopening and Middlebury College returning to majority in-person learning this fall, Vrooman and staff felt that an activist art exhibit was relevant.
“The Middlebury Art Museum is a place where anyone can come to explore the past, contemplate our present moment and reflect on how we [move] moving forward together as a society, ”said Vrooman.
Planning began in the spring of 2021 and continued into the summer, with many meetings surrounding the complications that can arise when working on such a multifaceted project.
Co-curator María Ramirez ’21, who also contributed to the project, brought her personal experiences of how people of color are perceived in museums and how she wanted to make the museum accessible.
She began by asking the question “Who will this affect and how will it affect them?” Thanks to part of the museum’s grants, Ramirez and Vrooman worked together, deliberately seeking to acquire new work from women or artists of color.
The museum also enlisted the help of their summer interns to participate in discussions surrounding the works and engage in conversations with several artists in the gallery about their works and what it means to decolonize a museum. Florence Wu ’22 focused on the photojournalism aspect of the exhibition, researching different information regarding the museum’s photographs and writing some of the labels.
“I see photojournalism as having a lot of potential for success or failure. It is not very durable. You look at some photojournalists and that’s just one photograph that defined their careers, ”Wu said.
The power of art in creating movement is what helped trigger Visiting assistant professor of art history and architecture Sarah Rogers’ love for the exhibition.
“Art has a way of attracting us so that we can become more contemplative of socio-political issues,” Rogers said.
In the spring of 2021, she began making a plan to offer an art and protest class for the next fall semester. When Vrooman heard about this, the two decided to work together.
Vrooman spoke to the faculty to see which images would benefit students’ learning the most, while Rogers began linking sections of his curriculum to the works in the exhibition. Rather than adopting a chronological approach, she decided to organize the program around different strategies that can be used in protest art: caricature, art in museums versus street art, bodily insertions, etc. This allowed students to better see the impact and limits that protest art has on an audience, while also enabling them to become better participants in the world regarding socio-cultural issues.
According to Rogers, this iteration of the course will likely only be offered this semester. In his place, Rogers plans to offer a related course on either the refugee crisis and the pressure to decolonize museums, or a course focused on a specific issue in protest art next semester.
The “Art and Protest” exhibition is only visible until mid-December. Usually only six to eight temporary exhibitions are presented in the museum, along with works from the permanent collection.
“Art & Protest: Artists as Agents of Social Change” is open from September 14 to December 12, 2021 and reservations are required. To reserve a place, visit: go.middlebury.edu/museumvisit/
Editor’s Note: Florence Wu is a local writer for The Campus.