The Members Speak: Voting for Art at the Allen
Members of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College have an intriguing privilege: They get to hear pitches from curators, and vote on which works the museum will acquire for its permanent collection.
On the evening of May 3, members (and a bevy of onlookers) will gather for the vote, and a party. The Purchase Party is a concept that originated in American museums beginning in the 1940s, and the Allen was among the first to adopt it. Purchase Parties have long been among the events most popular with the Allen’s membership, but it’s been quite some time since the last one occurred. With the celebration of the Museum’s Centennial in 2018, the Purchase Party is back.
Three curators will deliver impassioned pitches—just five minutes or so—in support of the works they have selected for purchase with a modest pool of funds. Then voting will commence in at least one and likely a second “lightning round.” Members that cannot attend the event are able to vote online prior to May 3, but the Museum asks that members who can attend in-person wait until the Party to cast their votes. You must be a member of the Allen Museum to vote, but you can join the night of the event and immediately get your voting privileges. If you’re just interested in spectating, that’s fine too.
The artwork that the three curators have selected for the vote is already at the Museum waiting to be approved (or not) by members. I was lucky to get a sneak peek at some of the seven pieces that will be considered.
Andrea Gyorody, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has chosen two items. First, there’s a portfolio of seven photogravure prints by Catherine Opie: the series O from 1999, would represent the first work by Opie (who is noted as both a major female photographer and queer artist) in the Allen’s collection. The series is Opie’s response to Robert Mapplethorpe’s X portfolio, and Gyorody remarked that drawing connections between the two artists’ works would be a useful exercise for Oberlin students. The acquisition of any work must always not only strengthen the museum collection, but also reinforce the College’s educational mission.
From a 2016 series titled “Paper or Plastic?”, a delightful sense of humor is on display with Gyorody’s second selection, Argentinian/LA-based artist Analia Saban’s recreation of the ubiquitous plastic bag as a paper relief print. But many different meanings can be pulled from the seemingly simple subject matter. Saban created the work in the wake of California’s ban on single-use plastic bags, reminding us of the environmental impact of Americans’ obsession with plastic. This particular version of the ubiquitous plastic-bag is bilingual, referencing the growing Latin population in the United States and Saban’s own Argentinian heritage. A photograph hardly does justice to the painstakingly created relief print; it’s worth seeing in person.
Kevin Greenwood, Curator of Asian Art, selected four pieces to present to the voters. These include Yōshū Chikanobu’s Singing by the Plum Garden, a color woodblock print from 1887. This triptych print is from Japan’s Meiji period, a time of rapid change spurred by the intrusion of Western powers. Japanese royalty chose to adopt elements of the culture rather than push back against it as a way to avoid complete exploitation by forces from the West. This is demonstrated in the figures’ dress and the Western instruments they are playing in this propagandistic print. Such an acquisition would be of interest to history students and art lovers alike.
Greenwood also will present contemporary Asian art acquisitions, including Ishiyama Tetsuya’s Dimple Bowl from 2017. This hand-formed piece of stoneware is a beautiful example of contemporary Japanese ceramics, which are considered to be in their heyday currently (while still affordable, an ideal time to invest). This tea bowl, in the “wabi-sabi” aesthetic, is functional, but a far cry from a traditional Japanese tea bowl. The “dimples” in the clay are obviously formed from Tetsuya’s fingers and knuckles shoving into the clay with playful abandon.
Andaleeb Banta, Curator of European and American Art, has put it all on the line with one work, The Castration of Saturn, a hand-colored woodcut print by Antoine Vérard from 1493. The print is the frontispiece from La Bible de poètes (Ovid’s Metamorphoses). As the title signals, the subject matter of the work is rather explicit, but in this case the colorist lessened the gore by painting out the bleeding wound and phallus—censorship! Vérard is lauded as the “father of the French illustrated book” and this illustration would greatly enhance the Museum’s modest collection of French 16th Century prints.
So what happens to works that do not get selected? There are a couple of possibilities. A noble donor could step in and cover the purchase of a work. If the curators feel a piece is essential to the collection they may consider using the Museum’s regular acquisition fund. And there’s always the chance a piece could be rejected entirely. Power to the people, after all.
The Purchase Party takes place at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (87 N Main St, Oberlin), 5:30 – 8 pm Thursday, May 3. Viewing of proposed works begins promptly, with pitches at 6:15 pm, and in-person voting at 6:30 pm in the King Sculpture Court. Food and drink will be available.