Aneta Georgievska-Shine, Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, shares insight on the value of the UMD and Phillips Collection partnership for her students.
Recently, the class I teach at the University of Maryland on art history and the museum world hosted a guest speaker from The Phillips Collection: Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović. Although she had spoken to many students in earlier versions of this course, this was our first online meeting.
Within minutes, we moved to one of the most pressing issues of our moment: how do art institutions continue to function and communicate with the public in the age of “social distancing.” Students asked about programs that are being offered at present or contemplated for the future, giving a range of opinions on the subject. As Vesela shared her own perspective and ideas, she also set the tone for the online meeting I had scheduled for the following week, with education professionals from the Holocaust Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
As we learned, each of these institutions has its own approaches, means, and limitations in striving toward the shared goal—to continue engaging the public in meaningful ways in these strange times. Yet, even as we considered the growing role of digital media in art institutions, both in these circumstances and beyond, I was heartened by hearing that these students continue to value the “unmediated” experience no less than their older counterparts: whether a face-to-face conversation with a person or an opportunity to look at a work of art more closely.
Thanks to the partnership between the University of Maryland and The Phillips Collection, students from this school have had uncommonly rich opportunities for such experiences. As I think back to previous iterations of this course, I recall many other meetings with members of the staff of the Phillips—curators and conservators, education and development specialists—with deep appreciation.
Indeed, our very first session this semester was at the library with Karen Schneider, the Head Librarian and “memory keeper” who provided the class with an excellent overview of the history of this institution. The meeting was also intended as an introduction to a research project for which students would do case studies concerning the relationship of Duncan Phillips to a particular artist, or analyze his ideas about the visual arts as expressed in his numerous writings. Unfortunately, this will have to wait: too many resources, both books and primary sources, are simply inaccessible at present.
In our ongoing classes online, students often mention both that first visit, and the others we made between January and March, recalling how special it was to see rare drawings in the Print Study Room of the National Gallery of Art, discuss fine artefacts with curators at Dumbarton Oaks, or walk through the garden of that veritable “hidden jewel” of Washington on a brisk winter afternoon. They also remember our walk through the Music Room at the Phillips, our discussion of curatorial approaches in different spaces of the museum, the delicate works on paper by Klee, and the faint scent of honey in Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room.
If anything, this period of “social isolation” has made them even more aware of the value of such experiences. As they have repeatedly noted, including during the conversation with Vesela, they can’t wait to return to the museums once they reopen. And hopefully, the next group of students will also be able to continue the research project I had envisioned, and use the library and the archives to learn more about all of the aspects that make The Phillips Collection so special.
In the meantime, on a recent afternoon, three students from the class met via Zoom to look at a painting from The Phillips Collection, Golden Storm (1925) by Arthur Dove. They had no prior knowledge of the work of art or the artist and agreed to share their impressions and observations as spontaneously as possible. My only instruction was that once they begin talking, they should take turns responding to the prompts or questions. The goal was to explore how much one can see within a work of art on a computer screen without background information, and how our perceptions change after we have that information. Throughout this 15 minute conversation, we looked only at the work of art, without being able to see each other’s reactions. This is the recording of the conversation.