A New Definition of American Art

Lauren Bon, Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy. Glass neon, metal brackets, 72 x 174 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Zack Garlitos.
By Bob Keyes
December 3, 2019

With great fanfare, Colby announced the creation of the Lunder Institute for American Art in 2017. Established with a gift by Life Trustee Paula Crane Lunder, D.F.A. ’98 and Life Visitor Peter Lunder ’56, D.F.A. ’98, the institute was envisioned as a place for scholarship, creativity, dialogue, and mentorship, operating under the umbrella of the Colby College Museum of Art. Two years later, we have a better idea of what that means and a clearer understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the museum and the institute.

Lee Glazer, director of the Lunder Institute.
Lee Glazer
Director of the Lunder Institute

With its staff in place, the institute has begun delivering on its promise of bringing artists across disciplines to campus to engage with students and the College’s many communities, while supporting original American art scholarship focused on the Lunder Collection.

A designated institute dedicated to creativity and scholarly research is an entirely new endeavor for Colby and unique among small liberal arts colleges. These kinds of institutes typically are associated with large museums and universities, said Lee Glazer, the institute’s founding director and formerly a curator of American art at the Smithsonian Institution. “We’re still figuring out some of the details, but the vision is evolving,” she said.

This past year offers examples of that evolving vision. The institute collaborated with high-profile artists, engaged scholars in important, original research, and invited emerging artists and academics to campus to delve into the Colby museum’s collection and focus on issues like climate change and the environment. The Lunder Institute forged partnerships with Maine’s craft community and reached out in the larger world through its participation in The River Rail: Occupy Colby, a special publication by 2019 Lunder Institute Fellow Phong Bui.

“Our aim is to activate our public spheres by inviting faculty members and students to come together to share knowledge, wisdom, and care of our surrounding environments.”

2019 Lunder Institute Fellow Phong Bui, an artist, curator, and artistic director of Brooklyn Rail
Phong Bui, Lunder Institute Fellow for Fall 2019
Phong Bui
Lunder Institute Fellow, fall 2019

As a Lunder Institute Fellow, Bui came to campus several times throughout the year, curating an exhibition about climate change, Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2, on view at the Colby museum until early January. It is an iteration of an exhibition that Bui, an artist-curator and artistic director of the Brooklyn Rail, was invited to show at the Venice Biennale. As part of his fellowship, Bui dedicated an issue of his art journal to his Colby experience, working with faculty and students across academic disciplines to create a publication that continues a conversation about climate change that began with the exhibition.

“We were able to use the exhibition and the publication as a way to broaden the conversation around climate change and environmental peril and bring people from central Maine to campus who wouldn’t necessarily come to campus or walk through the doors of the museum,” Glazer said.

Q&A: Theaster Gates

Lunder Institute Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives Theaster Gates spoke to Colby Magazine about Amalgam (opening at the Tate Liverpool December 13), Colby, and Maine, and why disconnecting from the day-to-day can spark big ideas and important work.

Would you tell us about the connection between the Lunder Institute, Malaga Island, and Amalgam? When did you first become aware of the Malaga Island story? Would you recount that as it relates to the genesis of this project? We’re very curious about the backstory.

When I was first invited to be a part of the Lunder Institute, and as a result to spend more time in Maine, one of my closest friends mentioned that there was an island that had been inhabited by people of mixed racial origin. The island was Malaga. I became incredibly interested in the island and its former population. Myron Beasley, a scholar, and Daniel Minter, an artist, were working on complementary projects about the island that helped me become more aware of the Malaga story. Myron created a performance that invited descendants and other stakeholders back to the island. Daniel, who had researched the history of the people of Malaga extensively, joined me for a talk at Colby College, organized by the Lunder Institute, and I came to develop a body of work and a film about the island. This quickly turned into an exhibition brief for Palais de Tokyo, one of the most important cultural institutions in Paris. Learning of Malaga and creating Amalgam all happened in a very short period of time. It was approximately sixteen months from my knowledge of the island to the exhibition. Often for me, exhibitions are a way of continuing a conversation that I have going, and big ideas shift what I intend to show, mid-stride. Exhibition-making is its own research structure for me.

Still from the film Dance of Malaga, 2019. Copyright Theaster Gates and courtesy of the artist. Photo by Chris Strong.
Still from the film Dance of Malaga, 2019. Copyright Theaster Gates and courtesy of the artist. Photo by Chris Strong.

How did Colby influence Amalgam?

The idea of site is very important to my work. Colby’s invitation to Maine turned my attention to the histories and ideas here. I also had support to make big ideas happen. This combination of content and support allows many things to come to fruition.

What is the value of retreat to an artist? How is Amalgam a product of that creative opportunity?

For me, retreat is both about reflection and disconnection from the daily outside forces. When there is time, new ideas emerge and existing ideas are cultivated. Cultivation time is often the thing I long for most. Amalgam emerged because I had a place where I could bring collaborators and have the facility and other resources that removed the barriers to my own creativity. Space, time, and good energy make things possible.

You are in year two of your Lunder Institute residency. How has it played out? What’s worked best?

The time here has been less about the location and more about a way of working and peace of mind. As I increase my time in Maine, it is evident that I will want to retreat here more and more. I have a very light footprint on campus, but the project has a big imprint on me. I feel long-term cultivation happening informally.

Theaster Gates, Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism, 2019. Mixed media installation. Standing cabinet, wood, neon, concrete, ceramics, steel, plaster, glazed clay, graphite, chalk, slate. © Theaster Gates. Image: Chris Strong
Theaster Gates, Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism, 2019. Mixed media installation. Standing cabinet, wood, neon, concrete, ceramics, steel, plaster, glazed clay, graphite, chalk, slate. © Theaster Gates. Image: Chris Strong

Maine is often cited as the least diverse state in the nation. Has spending time here influenced your art?

I have shared before that I didn’t come to Maine expecting diversity. I came to be quiet. The state is what it is, and I’ve found people to be very kind and mindful of each other’s privacy. This is exactly what I wanted. I have the Black Artists Retreat for diversity. I have Maine for getting things done.

What are you working on? Will Maine influence your work in the future?

Because of the amazing skill present in the state, I am finding so many artists and craftsmen who may become collaborators. Daisy Desrosiers [director of programs for the Lunder Institute], who is creating the “Makers’ Map,” a high-skilled map throughout the state, is introducing me to some of the most expert makers I’ve ever met. Through this network, I am able to realize projects that are much more complicated than I normally have the capacity to realize alone. Maine has become an extension of the studio. It’s amazing and will have a significant impact on the things I make.

About “Theaster Gates on Land”

On November 15, 2018 the Lunder Institute for American Art hosted a discussion between Theaster Gates, artist Daniel Minter and scholar Myron Beasley titled “Theaster Gates on Land.” Gates shared thoughts about his ongoing artistic endeavors on questions of land ownership, displacement, and miscegenation, and reflected on how, since joining the Lunder Institute, his practice has explored aspects of Maine’s history such as Malaga Island.

For the past 15 years, American artist Daniel Minter has raised awareness of the forced removal of the interracial community on Malaga Island. Minter’s overall body of work often deals with themes of displacement and diaspora, spirituality in the African-American world and meanings of home. Myron M. Beasley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of American Studies at Bates College, had created a repast performative dinner on Malaga Island as a public memorial to the lives of those who inhabited the island before they were evicted in July 1912.

A separate exhibition by Theaster Gates, the institute’s inaugural distinguished visiting artist, showed how the museum and institute work in coordination and apart from each other.

Gates and Sharon Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy Director and chief curator of the Colby College Museum of Art, developed an exhibition around Gates’s work Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories, which used nearly 3,000 licensed images from the archive of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. to amplify a narrative about contemporary black America. Johnson published Jet and Ebony magazines, among others. The archive is an essential record of the visual culture of black America in the 20th century, Corwin said. Gates, an artist with an international reputation and following, created a hands-on exhibition where visitors were invited to arrange the photographs to self-curate their own narrative. The exhibition was on view much of the year, closing in the fall.

“By inviting critical scholars, writers, and other artists to explore the archive, the Lunder Institute is helping me extend the rhythm of this important work—making it reverberate all over the world.”

Lunder Institute Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives Theaster Gates on his work Facsimile Cabinet, previously on view at the Colby College Museum of Art.
Theaster Gates, Lunder Institute Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives
Theaster Gates
Lunder Institute Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives (Photo by Rankin)

The programs around it, including one-day residencies by scholars and artists invited to campus to engage with the exhibition one-on-one, were led by Daisy Desrosiers, the Lunder Institute’s  director of programs. These programs are more robust than those typically associated with museum exhibitions and involve multiple artists and scholars from a range of disciplines who generate new work and research from their time on campus.

Daisy Desrosiers, Lunder Institute Director of Programs
Daisy Desrosiers
Lunder Institute Director of Programs

Resident scholars from Colby, Maine, and New England had access to the exhibition when the museum was closed, for study and reflection. At the conclusion of their visit, the scholars shared their experience. “The idea is to bring them together around a work and be in conversation with the artist without the artist being present,” said Desrosiers, who began her duties at the Lunder Institute in 2018. “The museum hosts works of art, and as an institute we ask, ‘How can we amplify and expand the possibilities around it?’” She called the mini-residencies “an example and not yet a model” of how the institute might work with artists and scholars going forward. There are other examples.

The poet Richard Blanco worked with the campus community as an early artist in residence, and New Jersey-based multidisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson collaborated with dance and theater students on a performance series.

While the residencies played out differently with each artist, their common element is interaction between the artists and the Colby community, Glazer said. Gates is working with Colby over three years. Bui’s fellowship lasted a single academic year. Other artists come to Colby for a week or so.

Richard Blanco, Lunder Institute visiting artist for spring 2018
Richard Blanco
Lunder Institute visiting artist, spring 2018
Torkwase Dyson, Lunder Institute’s visiting artist for fall 2018
Torkwase Dyson
Lunder Institute visiting artist, fall 2018

The institute is equally active in research and scholarship.

Tanya Sheehan, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, joined the institute as its director of research in 2018, though she has organized research projects during the last current academic year. She has two initiatives planned.

One is a research fellowship program for scholars focusing on art by African American artists. The initiative is motivated by her own scholarship, Gates’s presence on campus, and works currently on view in the museum. Six research fellows, a mix of curators, and academics will make short visits to campus in the fall and spring. The fellows have each selected one work from the collection to incorporate in their research, which they will share at a public symposium next March.

Tanya Sheehan, Lunder Institute Distinguished Scholar and Director of Research; William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art at Colby College
Tanya Sheehan
Lunder Institute Distinguished Scholar and Director of Research; William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art at Colby College

Sheehan’s second project is a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art to organize a series of workshops for early- to mid-career academics centered on teaching American art through direct engagement with primary sources. Workshops will include hands-on archival discussions and presentations and draw on the unique resources of each venue, Sheehan said.

The multi-year program “aims to build lasting relationships among the participants, foster professional collaborations, and allow time for participants to test new pedagogical models,” she said. “The final outcome will be a set of adaptable models for teaching the history of American art with primary sources. Many workshops for scholars focus on research rather than pedagogy. The opportunity to elevate teaching as a form of research in action is one of the things that sets the Lunder Institute apart from many other research centers.”

By all accounts, Gates’s presence also sets the institute apart. His art—largely rooted in spatial theory, history, and preservation—involves making art and creating platforms that reimagine the artist’s role in redeeming spaces that have been left behind. His attention to site is evident in his work with neighborhoods, significant spaces (see 12 Ballads for Huegennot House at Documenta 13), and Malaga Island.

Since his appointment, Gates’s work has become widely recognized across the globe, bringing interest and acclaim to his work, and also to the Lunder Institute.

“But it’s not just about celebrity,” Glazer said, drilling down on the tangible work the institute is accomplishing. “It’s about working with different kinds of artists than Maine and New England have traditionally been associated with, and aligning that artist appointment with broader trends in the fields of curatorial work and museum work and American art scholarship to think about different ways of defining what American art will be over the next couple of generations.”