Olivia Knauss was our Lamont Gallery Collections and Education Intern during the 2015-2016 school year and returned to the Lamont Gallery for the 2016-2017 school year as our Collections and Archive Assistant.
Olivia is passionate about art. During her time with us, she helped create a number of innovative exhibitions and programs, made many discoveries in our collection, and was instrumental in implementing the Accidental Origins exhibition and developing our student gallery proctor program.
After leaving the Lamont Gallery, Knauss undertook a grand cross-country museum-going adventure and we asked her to share her findings with us for this blog.
Great American Adventures & Graduate School Essays
While working at the Lamont Gallery, I would muse with Ms. O’Neal, Ms. Durand, Mr. Schuetz and Ms. Atkins about staying in tiny houses, travel to far-off places (e.g. Iceland), or embarking on camping trips (despite the fact I had only camped once in my backyard). I was lucky enough to work with people that celebrate travel, exploration, and learning through diving right in.
After I moved back to Buffalo, NY to apply to Museum Studies Master’s degree programs, I started to think about this graduate application prompt, thanks to the Cooperstown Graduate Program:
Imagine your ideal museum. What is it like and whom does it serve?
What is your role at that institution? (1)
For the past two years, I had worked within an educational gallery space…located on an elite boarding school campus…within a high school building…with a collection of 700+ objects…in an exhibition space that was not a traditional white cube…in a town of 14,000 people. As I sat down to write a draft, I understood that my perspective was extremely specific to say the least.
Embracing the spirit of adventure the Lamont Gallery and Phillips Exeter Academy colleagues instilled in me, I decided to investigate this question during a solo, month-long road trip across the south and west coast this past October.
After excitedly contacting friends and family about the availability of their couches, I generated my route. First, I drove to Louisville, KY, and then moved onto Memphis, TN, by way of Nashville. From Memphis, I traveled onward to Atlanta, GA. Leaving my car in Atlanta, I hopped on a plane to Seattle, WA. From Seattle, I boarded a train to Portland, OR.
A fellow Rhodes graduate picked me up from the train station in Portland in a rental car (that was barely larger than a smart car), where we solidified our ten-day southbound travels through Oregon and California in the courtyard of Tiny Digs, a tiny house hotel.
Over the next ten days, we traveled down the coast of Oregon and the interior of California, camping in or around five national parks (Crater Lake National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks). Heading north, back towards civilization, we ended our voyage in San Francisco. Parting ways with my travel companion, I flew back to Atlanta to pick up my car and begin the drive back home to Buffalo through Charlotte, NC.
At the end of the four-weeks, I visited sixteen museums and/or galleries in eight different states:
Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
Frazier History Museum
21c/Proof on Main
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse
High Museum of Art
Seattle Art Museum
Olympic Sculpture Park
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Legion of Honor Museum
San Francisco Arts Institute Fort Mason Center Gallery and graduate studios
Diego Rivera Gallery
Albright Knox Art Gallery
Door to door, I drove about 4,200 miles and flew over 5,000 miles.
Each person’s ideal museum may look different based on their passions within the field, but after the thousands of miles, critical looking, and heated discussions, I finally came up with the highlights that, I believe, shape a highly enjoyable and educational museum-going experience for inquisitive viewers like me.
Based on the things I enjoyed most about each museum or gallery, my ideal museum would:
1. Utilize a preexisting historical space.
Two museums on the trip were perfect examples. The Metal Museum, situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, utilizes the still-standing buildings from an 1884 Marine Hospital. It is hard not to feel the history when walking through the three different buildings that are in use today.
Originally established to care for wounded Confederate soldiers during the Civil War era, the modern-day museum occupies the western half of the site. The location’s history also has ties to Native culture, pre-colonization. Across from the Metal Museum’s current standings, there are two 14th century native burial mounds, in what is currently referred to as Chickasaw Heritage Park, named after the Chickasaw chief, Chisca. During the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers obliterated these sacred formations, while digging out the burial mounds for ammunition storage. (My summary only scratches the surface; for more information about the land’s history and the establishment of the Metal Museum at this site, please visit the Metal Museum’s website. (2)
Likewise, when exploring the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, it does not feel like you are walking through a museum, but a building pulled from the pages of The Great Gatsby. The museum occupies a dazzling 1930’s Art Deco post office. When a new post office was constructed in 1984, the old post office was a secondary location, with only half of the building being utilized. In the 1990’s, Thomas F. Frist, Jr., MD., with the support of the Frist Charitable Foundation, the U.S. Postal Service, the City of Nashville, and the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, listened to the cries by Nashvillians for a new visual arts center and made their dream a reality (3).
Both historic buildings, the Metal Museum and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, shape the museumgoers viewing experience. When I was in the Metal Museum, its low ceilings and small rooms provided a more intimate viewing experience. Off the beaten path, I had the luxury of viewing L. Brent Kington’s metal toys, charms, and drawings up close, without having to dodge and dance around other visitors within the Metal Museum.(4) Wandering through the museum, library, foundry, and grounds, I felt like I was walking through history. The Frist Center was almost the complete opposite: with high ceilings, high-gloss marble floors, and clerestory windows, the effect was bright and airy. The building itself was like a collection piece on display.
When a museum moves into a preexisting historical space, it heralds a specific set of challenges (maintenance of an old building, spatial constraints, upholding standards of a national heritage site or register of historic places, etc.), yet it gives the building a new life and a new clientele to appreciate its history. Looking at modern or contemporary art within a historic building only enhances my experience.
2. Cause its visitors to be completely jarred and ask questions.
Questions such as, “Why is there a taxidermy Buffalo hanging on a hot-pink wall near a Hillary Clinton shrine (I mean, why wouldn’t there be? #breakingglassceilings), an art installation on the bathroom mirror, a Nick Cave coat exhibited in the hotel lobby, and why is the actor Jesse Eisenberg (#facebook) sitting next to me?”
Proof on Main, a restaurant/art gallery attached to Louisville’s 21C hotel, is jarring to say the least. Revolving contemporary artists (thanks to arts patrons Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson) are able to use the restaurant and bar as their immersive installation playground. According to the website, the goal of this not-museum is to “[bring] works of art to the public through innovative exhibitions and programs that integrate contemporary art into daily life.”(5)
For some reason, 21C’s spaces, exhibitions, and general atmosphere felt far more playful than a museum or gallery. When I enter a museum bathroom, why can’t I encounter Sean Bidic’s site-specific installation, In the Absence of Voyeurism #6? Or passing by elevators, why could I not find Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s installation, Text Rain.
I want to be surprised, shocked, and pleased by art invading my space, rather than seeing it on its own terms (i.e. a museum or gallery).
3. Be cognizant of its diverse visitors.
One of the buzzwords I am discovering these days is “universal exhibition design.” The whole concept revolves around the fact that museums should consider their audience in regard to age, physical and intellectual challenges, learning style, gender identity, and so on. According to the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, if a museum designs exhibitions considering its diverse visitors in mind, “to name an audience who will not benefit by these designs is impossible.”(6)
I saw this play out in Atlanta’s High Museum, in the exhibition, Painter and Poet: The Wonderful World of Ashley Bryan. The show displayed illustrations and books by Bronx-based artist Ashley Bryan, an author that often questioned, “why aren’t there more African and African American protagonists in children’s books?”
Visiting on a weekday, and in the company of an elementary school field trip, I was able to see the exhibition’s design demonstrated. Bryan’s illustrations were hung low on the wall so young children could see them without a boost from a grown up. Stools bumped up to viewing tables. Child-sized chairs were nested in the corner with a table full of Bryan’s books to read and touch. The color palette of the wall vinyls was bright, low, and directly pulled characters and iconography in Bryan’s books. The wall text was large and its content was digestible to a younger audience. As an adult in a space designed for young children, I was incredibly happy to see students interacting with the art. Walking through this exhibition may have been one of the most memorable of the month-long road trip.
4. Focus on promoting interactivity and transparency with a collection.
When I entered the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, I immediately understood the experience the museum catered to: baseball lovers of all ages, with an emphasis on children/teens, tourists, and possibly active people that may not frequent museums (this last one may be a bit of generalization, to be honest). The museum, albeit small and centralized in one room, was highly interactive: touch this, throw that, watch this!
One sneaky thing that I noticed was that the museum did a good job of displaying and protecting collection items. In one section, museumgoers could hold, swing, and pose with famous baseball players’ Louisville sluggers. Although bats had varying conditions, staff members required visitors to strap on baseball bat gloves before touching the bat. Immediately, I thought, wow. What an ingenious way to protect the wood from natural oils, sweat, and other foreign debris that grace the human hand and may wear down or damage the bats after time!
5. Spill out of the museum.
I love seeing how art can become part of an urban landscape, or normalized in daily commutes, skylines, or point of a city’s pride.
However, I think we all have seen art within urban contexts that make you scratch your head and think, now, why did they put that there? The Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, WA did an amazing job placing the sculptures, considering sightlines, foliage, and signage.
There were two really striking views that stuck with me, which arguably may be the goal of a sculpture park: considering one’s context in regard to a sculpture and creating a lasting viewing experience.
The first view was of Richard Sera’s Wake, a rust colored monolith amidst the backdrop of peak-season yellow ginkgo leaves. The second was Alexander Calder’s Eagle, which, from some sightlines, seemed to take a gigantic step over the Seattle Space Needle.
6. Contextualize history and make it enjoyable for all ages with digital media and creative exhibition design, so that you literally want to run (but you walk because you follow the rules) from room to room.
One of the most memorable exhibitions during my road trip was the Frazier Kentucky History Museum’s “Spirit of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky” exhibition. As the Frazier’s website says, this exhibition truly “brings the 1920’s to life & shows how millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans chose to violate the national alcohol ban to quench the country’s thirst for illegal booze.”
With each turn, the exhibition would open up to reveal another sultry-lit space. Passing by two-full scale bars (one at which visitors could learn how to play card games and another to give the sense of what a speakeasy would feel like), stepping onto the speakeasy stage, or sitting next to Al Capone, it felt like I was transported to a different Louisville. Highlighting the conservative political context that shaped the prohibition movement, key players, crime during and caused by prohibition, music, and language, the exhibition gave a holistic understanding of the rise and conclusion to prohibition. (7) The exhibition made the prohibition era cool (I mean, it already was, right?), sexy, and accessible.
7. Create moments for contemplation.
I left this one for last because it exemplifies my favorite memory from the trip.
Picture this: I am on the seventh and topmost floor, in the third or fourth hour or my visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I am busting at the seams with art-viewing euphoria because I have salivated in front of works by Diego Rivera, Agnes Martin, Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, and so forth. I am just about at that point where my feet are hurting and I know if I sit down, I might not get back up again. All of a sudden, my friend and I realize, wait! There is another room.
We enter a darkened room, showing Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors. The room is pretty much full with people looking at 10 large screens — 2 screens on each wall, and 2 facing back to back in the center. Visitors can walk around the room along this 360-degree flow.
There is music playing. In fact, each screen has one musician playing a shared melody. Upon further inspection, the audience understands that each musician can hear each other, connected by headphones, yet each in their own room or space within a historic mansion. In the 45-minute jam session, some musicians play the whole time; some take breaks to visit each other in other rooms, appearing on the other musician’s screen. Others play and sing the whole time, repeated three to four choruses.
At the end, one by one the musicians rise to all gather around the piano room, and then exit through the front door, down the front steps, and parade out into a meadow abutting the house. The singing fades as the musicians get further from the house. The video ends with a camera operator shutting off the recording devices in each of the rooms within the Hudson Valley historic house and restarts in a similar fashion.
I stayed within the room for about an hour and half, or one and a half full cycles of the performance. I first watched the performance and then turned to watch the audience for the second time. Perhaps it was the joyful and melodizing tone of the music, or the playfulness of the whole performance, but an interesting reaction occurred amongst the audience.
Immediately when other viewers entered, they were sucked into the performance, moving throughout the space with questioning looks. Soon, the questioning turned into smiling and the walking turned into reaching out to friends, partners, or children. Everyone was quiet. Everyone stayed until the end.
I have never seen such a positive, loving universal reaction to performance. As the music ebbed and swelled, museumgoers hugged, laughed, swayed to the music, happily cried, kissed, and walked around hand-in-hand. It was the type of music that makes my chest feel full, like the way I feel on holidays when my whole family gets together. It’s the type of music that makes my cheeks hurt a little from smiling too much, like while singing Tiny Dancer on a late-night road trip after silliness has set in or like singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve in a candle-lit room.
The performance seemed to bring out the love in others; it made me witness humans being their best selves. After the trials and tribulations of 2017, it was exactly what everyone needed. I fed off everyone else’s happiness and left the museum a little bit happier than when I arrived.
I want to work in a museum that is a conduit for this type of reaction — a museum that is both topical, critical, but also inspiring. I want to work for a museum that focuses on generating a viewing experience, that despite the diverse populations that enter its doors, leave visitors feeling a bit more connected and present to their partners, family, or neighbors.
Perhaps that is a little idealistic — but that is the point, right?
– Olivia Knauss
(1) “Is CGP the place for you?” The Cooperstown Graduate Program| SUNY Oneonta. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://cgpmuseumstudies.org/apply/.
(2) “History.” Metal Museum | Art Museum | Tennessee. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.metalmuseum.org/history.
(3) “The Building.” Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://fristcenter.org/about/the-building.
(4) ” WITH LOVE, FROM BRENT.” Metal Museum | Art Museum | Tennessee. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.metalmuseum.org/copy-of-master-metalsmith-david-sec.
(5) “Art in Proof.” Proof on Main. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.proofonmain.com/about/art-in-proof/.
(6) Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Designs. (2017). [ebook] Smithsonian Institution, p.ii. Available at: http://accessible.si.edu/pdf/Smithsonian%20Guidelines%20for%20accessible%20design.pdf [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].
(7) “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky.” Frazier History Museum. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://fraziermuseum.org/prohibition-and-kentucky/.