Dumbing Down the Smart Museum

Friends of the University of Chicago often profess its humanities and social sciences have largely escaped postmodern infection. But no institution is immune, and recent developments at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, the university’s teaching collection, should dispel intramural complacency.

According to Alison Gass, the recently appointed director, Chicago looks to build a “museum committed to thinking about the world through the lens of artistic practice and telling stories in the museum through art, in a way that not all universities and not all university museums are.”

“The Smart feels so ready for a reinvention,” she declares. “My biggest goal is to make the Smart feel welcoming.” The question is, for whom?

Gass’s inaugural exhibition, Welcome Blanket, is the brainchild of Pussyhat Project™ co-founder Jayna Zweiman. Welcome Blanket is her latest venture, a “crowd-sourced artistic action that calls for over 3,000 blankets to be knit from 3,500,640 yards of yarn, a length equal to the proposed border wall dividing the United States and Mexico.” Before Gass took over director last May, she set to work planning Welcome Blanket. “Jayna Zweiman reached out to me because she knew about my interest in social and political art practice,” Gass recounts.

Zweiman believes Welcome Blanket “offers a concrete way to explore abstract ideas, not only by making the concept of a 2,000-mile border wall tangible through yards of yarn, but also by blurring the spaces between individual stories and collective conversations.” Thus,

Blankets will accumulate in the space over the run of the project, transforming it from a visually sparse site of potential action into a vibrant installation of handmade blankets. Throughout Welcome Blanket, visitors will be invited to spend time knitting in the gallery or joining… conversations around issues of human rights, immigration, and the legacy of artistic activism.

This participatory project, the museum states, “confronts issues around immigration and refugee resettlement through a tapestry of handmade blankets.” Each blanket, then, is a “physical manifestation of this celebration of new refugees and other immigrants.”

Featured in People, the Chicago Tribune, and the university’s alumni magazine, the show was a wonderful, tangible example of what it means to have a politically engaged museum,” Gass concluded. “It felt like the perfect starting project.”

Gass’s reinventions for the Smart do not end with craftivism, the current state-of-the-art term. She explains:

We’re also focused on diversity and inclusion in the collection and our programs. This is a museum on the South Side of Chicago, and we want everybody who comes in to see art that reflects their own experience of identity in the world. We will be looking at telling a more serious story about the history of African American art, getting more women into this collection, and getting more Latin American art.

Established in 1974 and originally associated with the art history department, the Smart Museum has a collection that includes important gifts from the Kress Foundation and university donors.

Gass plans to reshuffle the museum’s core. “What if we shake up the way we install our permanent collection?” Gass asks. “We’re not installing it chronologically at all. We’re installing it thematically, which is definitely a different approach.”

In thematic approaches, however inventive they might be, progression of style is impossible for neophytes to grasp. So what Gass is doing with the permanent collection is disabling it as a teaching tool, unless thematic groupings are all that are to be taught, and formalism is to be fully abandoned.

“My curatorial career has been very much bound up in thinking about art as a lens onto social and political issues and the way that artists help us understand those stories or shift our thinking,” she states. At 42, the peripatetic Gass has already worked at the Jewish Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Eli and Edythe Broad Museum, and Cantor Art Center.

A student of Linda Nochlin, the celebrated feminist art historian, Gass appears barely connected to any art tradition. In an aesthetically feeble world, the classic stylistic frameworks created by Jacob Burckhardt, Bernard Berenson, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Erwin Panofsky vanish. Serious modernism goes too. The field of art history drifts into stunts and babble. Where the aesthetic corruption will end, who knows.

Museum directors like Gass select themes, exhibitions, and objects to confirm theories and political enthusiasms. Such circus masters are able to violate canons with confidence and zeal, having no personal connection to venerable treasures or what they represent.

The Smart is a university teaching museum, not a community center, hall of curiosities, or political indoctrination agency. Its responsibility is to University of Chicago students and their aesthetic development, not to identity politics or “everybody who comes in.”

Welcome Blanket is an embarrassment — and leading indicator of circus acts to come. The Smart’s board of governors and faculty advisory committee should know better — or they too are disciples of political art practice, artistic action, craftivism, and the rest of it. Whatever the case, the ideas, policies, and directions the University of Chicago museum is pursuing will be hard to undo or reverse.

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