American art is changing. Voices that had been silenced are being heard. Technology is giving artists new tools for their work. And art museums are finding new ways to engage with artists and interact with audiences.
Beginning in February and continuing throughout 2024, Colby’s Lunder Institute for American Art will convene and encourage conversations with artists, curators, and scholars at six prominent national art institutions to discuss a single, complicated question.
What is the state of American art?
That question will be presented under the framework of a new initiative, Lunder Institute @, which will involve public programs at museums from Boston to Los Angeles. In the fall, Colby will host an on-campus convening that will bring together representatives from each institution to compare their answers, distill what they have learned, and look ahead to what the field of American art might look like and how it could function in years to come.
Lunder Institute @ launches Feb. 10 at the de Young fine arts museum in San Francisco, and continues March 2 at The Broad in Los Angeles; March 7 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.; April 7 at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass.; May 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and a date in September to be determined at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
The Colby symposium will be in October.
“Practice and methodology are core interests of the Lunder Institute, and that interest extends beyond individuals—artists, scholars, curators, etc.—within the field of American art,” said Erica Wall, director of the Lunder Institute. “It also extends to institutional practices. As a think tank for the field and part of the Colby Museum, the Lunder Institute seeks to provide opportunities and resources for institutions to engage with critical questions related to the field. Lunder Institute @ is a way for institutions to engage this question internally within their institutions and externally with their audiences.”
A racial reckoning
There is no bigger question facing museums and art institutions today than the overall health of the field, the direction it is headed, and its ability to elevate previously unheard voices in meaningful ways, said Edward Patuto, director of audience engagement at The Broad in Los Angeles.
“Museums and the arts in general are facing critical challenges. As we all know, there was a racial reckoning during the pandemic, and museums realized we have to connect with new audiences and new communities in new ways,” he said. “It is absolutely invaluable to be given the space and the time to sit with other leaders in our field and discuss these issues, to reflect and consider what we are doing, our histories as museums, the role museums have served, and the purpose that art has served over the history of this country and beyond.”
With Lunder Institute @, Colby has created a forum for that discussion. As participants in the program, each institution was asked to respond to the question of the state of American art by having internal conversations across departments and sharing what emerged from these through a public program. Funded by the Lunder Institute, this initiative offers partner institutions the opportunity to consider, discuss, and respond to the issues, opportunities, and challenges within the field in relation to their own institution, collection, and location. Importantly, this work also fosters dialogue within and among institutions, Wall said.
“These convenings will promote discourse in an open and fertile space leading toward innovation, new areas of exploration, and possible answers to questions that continue to arise around what American art is and what impacts its production, its scholarship, and its research,” she said, adding that Lunder Institute @ will become an annual event and will involve other institutions at it evolves in years ahead.
A collaborative initiative of the Colby Museum of Art, the Lunder Institute for American Art supports research and creativity with a goal of expanding the understanding and contexts of American art. The institute invites visiting artists, scholars, and museum professionals to engage across disciplines. It awards fellowships and grants and convenes workshops and symposia to amplify marginalized voices, challenge convention, and provide a platform for dialogue through art and scholarship.
The first six
In selecting these six institutions for the first iteration of the program, Wall said she was seeking partners that, like Colby, have unique art collections that reflect the views and values of the collectors, a sense of place that is evident in the geography of the collectors and their institutions, and the time periods in which the collections were assembled.
For instance, The Broad’s collection consists of contemporary art from the 1950s to the present, founded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. Crystal Bridges’ collection, built by philanthropist Alice Walton, spans five centuries of American art. The collection at the Addison Gallery, on the campus of Phillips Academy, is among the most important collections of American art in the country, with a founding collection that includes major works by John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer.
At Colby, the Lunder Collection of American Art includes more than 500 works of American art from the 19th to 21st century given by Peter H. Lunder ’56, D.F.A. ’98 and Life Trustee Paula Crane Lunder, D.F.A. ’98. Highlights include works by James McNeill Whistler, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, and many more.
“Each of these institutions has a real presence in the field, and each has something related to what we have here at Colby in terms of the significance of our American art collection, the significance of the collectors who built the collection, and the significance of location,” Wall said.
The kickoff program Feb. 10 at the de Young in San Francisco will consist of discussions among artists and interpretation specialists, who will examine the state of the American art landscape through the lens of radical imagining and collective care, said Devin Malone, director of public programs and community engagement. Participants in the program, titled “Making America: On Creative Work and Liberatory Practice,” will explore the responsibility of art workers in the face of censorship, the aftermath of the reversal of affirmative action, and ongoing assaults on education and freedom of expression, they said.
“This program invites artists and interpretation specialists to examine the role of creative work in shaping American discourse and resisting threats to freedom of expression. We hope that these conversations move institutions away from the myth of neutrality and toward a distinctly democratic point of view that supports a more just future,” Malone said. “The contemporary museum should be, among many things, an educational institution. That means confronting the past and present of this country in our creative work and providing a platform for sharing such conversations with the public.”
At The Broad, the program will coincide with Frieze Los Angeles, a leading international art fair that focuses on contemporary art and celebrates the culture of the city and its contributions to the global art community. The Broad’s conversation, presented as part of the museum’s ongoing “Un-Private Collection” discussion series, will include artists Sayre Gomez and Patrick Martinez, who are part of the museum’s collection exhibition Desire, Knowledge, and Hope (with Smog). Author and native Angelina Lynell George will moderate the discussion.
“The paintings of Gomez and Martinez are emblematic of a new generation of artists using the visual language of Los Angeles as inspiration for their creative practice,” Patuto said. The artists and George will talk about Los Angeles as a creative landscape and how their work is shaped by it.
Crystal Bridges, which opened in 2011 and will soon reinstall its collection, will host conversations about the history of the collection, the work and role of Indigenous artists in Arkansas, and the presence of craft in American art. The Addison is planning a two-part symposium that will examine ideas of American art from the perspective of its own history and collection and explore what constitutes American art today, including its definitions, limitations, and opportunities.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston will host a panel discussion about where folk art and the art of self-taught artists fit in museum collections. Long considered “outsider” art, folk art is becoming mainstream, and museums struggle with how to handle it. The discussion will involve an artist, a critic, and curator.
Details of the program at the Whitney are evolving.
Becoming leaders in the field
This is Patuto’s second time collaborating with the Lunder Institute. In summer 2023, he traveled from Los Angeles to Waterville to participate in the Lunder Institute’s Summer Think Tank program dedicated to performance art. Among the topics was how museums collect performance art, the best practices for doing so, and why it’s important.
In creating a forum for such discussions, the Lunder Institute is beginning to have a significant impact on the field, Patuto said. “The conversations we had there I don’t think could take place anywhere else. I found them to be encouraging and exciting.”
In addition, he said the lasting value of Lunder Institute @ initiative likely will be the ability of these institutions to think beyond their walls in favor of a perspective that includes the field broadly. “The Lunder Institute is offering all of us the opportunity to think about the whole of the field and not just our institutions and our short-term plans.”