Nordic Impressions: Tal R (Denmark)

Highlighting one artist featured in Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018.

Tal R (b. 1967, Tel Aviv, Israel), who was born in Israel but moved to Denmark with his family when he was one year old, works across a wide range of media, including painting, drawing, collage, textiles, installation, and sculpture. His style reflects the influence of expressionism, fauvism, symbolism, traditional Scandinavian art, and art by children. Central to his work is what he calls kolbojnik (the Yiddish word for leftovers), his practice of gathering inspiration from many sources.

Between 2013 and 2015, Tal R created a series of paintings of female nudes (both strangers and casual acquaintances) in front of mirrors and in confined interior spaces such as hotel rooms, bedrooms, corridors, and showers. Reminiscent of the colorful rooms painted by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and Henri Matisse, the composition of The Drawing Class (2014) has only an abstracted semblance to windows, pillows, tapestry, carpets, tables, and even the central yellow reclining female nude.

The Drawing Class is on view at the Phillips through January 13 in Nordic Impressions.

Tal R née TAL ROSENZWEIG, The Drawing Class, 2014, Pigment and rabbit-skin glue on canvas, 67 ¾ x 55 ½ in. (172 x 140 cm)

Tal R, The Drawing Class, 2014, Pigment and rabbit-skin glue on canvas, 67 ¾ x 55 ½ in. Collection of Howard and Katia Read, New York

How do you transform a museum from the inside out? Part II

MASS Action seeks to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices. As the museum field begins to shape its identity in the 21st century, MASS Action, in collaboration with stakeholders across the field, is creating a platform for public dialogues on a variety of topics and issues affecting communities locally and globally, leading to actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion in our institutions. Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, the intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to address these important topics.

Last month, The Phillips Collection’s Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay, Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall, and Head of Public Programming Kelley Daley, attended the MASS Action conference at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In this two part series, we discuss their key takeaways and what’s next.

In part two, we talk with Elsa Smithgall about what the conference meant to her.

Museums As Sites for Social Action (MASS Action).

What is the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting communities locally and globally? From the beginning, The Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips sought to share his art collection with the Washington, DC, community by opening the doors of his Dupont Circle home to the public. Several years later, in his statement “A Collection in the Making,” Phillips expressed his aim for the museum to serve as a “beneficent force in the community”—a welcoming, intimate space for visitors to engage with art to stimulate the mind and refresh the soul.

The Phillips Collection shares with all museums a responsibility to be accessible to all communities—local, national, and international. If museums are to remain relevant, institutions must be responsive to the social issues of our time and make concerted efforts to reach broader, more diverse audiences that represent the current demographics of our pluralistic society.

Why does this work matter and where do you hope it will lead? Advancing this work to create more inclusive and socially-engaged institutions is critical to the future vitality and sustainability of the field. While there are no easy, quick fixes to dismantling deeply ingrained cultures of colonialism and white privilege in our institutions, I am hopeful that with increased education, activism, and determination, progress will come.

What do you think museums must change internally so that they are better equipped to make the external changes necessary to foster an inclusive environment? Museums must first instill and model an inclusive organizational culture across the entire institution before they can expect to develop a genuinely inclusive public-facing side. At the Phillips, the museum affirmed its commitment to these efforts with the addition earlier this year of our first chief diversity officer, Makeba Clay, on the senior leadership team. Working across the institution, Makeba is advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in all aspects of our operations and practice, from the establishment of our first paid internship program to help foster a more diverse pipeline of emerging practitioners in the field, to instituting new hiring practices to eradicate implicit bias, and organizing ongoing training and learning opportunities to raise awareness, build empathy, and equip managers and staff with the tools and knowledge they need to create more inclusive work environments.

What was your biggest “a-ha” moment at the convening? One big “a-ha” moment for me came during a break-out session on storytelling and liberating the narrative. During this discussion, a participant spoke about the narrative she was developing for an object label on two porcelain tea cups. Rather than contextualize them in terms of their craftsmanship or their function in upper class society, she planned to speak about the cups from the perspective of the servants whose job it was to clean them. The idea of seeing objects from another lens inspired me to think about the kinds of untold, marginalized stories that we might discover when we challenge the dominant narrative, and how The Phillips Collection will tell its story at the time of our centennial in 2021.

How can the museum be used as a site for social action? During the dark hour of World War II, Phillips avowed the necessity of art as a counter force to oppression: “The rallying point of opposition to all those destructive anti-social forces.” Phillips understood the integral role museums can play in raising awareness and stimulating action around social justice issues affecting the lives of its communities. Whether through its exhibitions, collections, educational activities, programs, partnerships, website, or outreach, museums can provide opportunities for deep reflection and insight—powerful creative catalysts for social action.

How do you transform museums from the inside out? Part I

MASS Action seeks to align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices. As the museum field begins to shape its identity in the 21st century, MASS Action, in collaboration with stakeholders across the field, is creating a platform for public dialogues on a variety of topics and issues affecting communities locally and globally, leading to actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion in our institutions. Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, the intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to address these important topics.

Last month, The Phillips Collection’s Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay, Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall, and Head of Public Programming Kelley Daley, attended the MASS Action conference at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In this two part series, we discuss their key takeaways and what’s next.

In part one, we talk with Kelley Daley about her reactions to the conference.

MASS Action was held on October 10-12, 2018.

What is the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting communities locally and globally? I believe that it is the responsibility of museums to showcase human culture and accomplishment in many different disciplines and therefore, I feel it is pertinent that museums respond to political, societal, and cultural issues that communities close and far experience. If we don’t respond, what are we here for?

Why does this work matter and where do you hope it will lead? I believe that the work in DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion) being done at MASS Action matters because the world is not made up of one “type” of person. We live in a city, in a country, and in a world that is diverse and I believe it is important to recognize, value, and welcome that diversity. A museum represents culture, not just one “type” of culture. I hope that this work will lead to a more inclusive experience in museums by creating equity for museum workers, artists, and visitors; by making accessibility a foundational, structural demand versus an afterthought; and by inspiring curators and cultural programmers to redefine and reconsider what museums do (exhibitions and programs). I hope that this work and awareness will become ingrained into every day functions not only at museums, but in daily life for people.

How do the museum’s internal practices need to change in order to align with, and better inform, their public practice? I think that internal practices need to change in terms of what and how organizations display and present information. Instead of constantly showcasing artists in the public knowledge (i.e. Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, etc.), museums needs to look beyond the traditional “blockbuster” artists and explore local, underrepresented, and diverse artists. In addition to changing who museums show, we need to redefine how we demonstrate and educate the public on their work. We need to find better ways for visitors to connect to artists they have never heard of. I believe we also need to break down barriers associated with museums (quiet, prestige, elitism, etc.) and have different educational or visual entry points for all visitors. I work closely with our curatorial department to develop programming and I believe The Phillips Collection is actively working to shift internal practices to become a more inclusive museum.

What was your biggest “a-ha” moment at the conference? I was in a break-out session with Dr. Porchia Moore and among the many insightful and powerful things she said, one stuck with me. She said, “If your organization is using ‘community’ as a code word for ‘black, brown, or poor’, you need to start over.” I have long thought this but to hear it validated had a lasting impact on me. Communities are all around us and we need to be very clear about what we mean when we use that term.

How can the museum be used as a site for social action? I believe that the museum can be used as a site for social action by providing thoughtful programming and exhibitions that are steeped in social justice, equity, and accessibility mindsets and movements.