The Colby Museum recently announced the founding of the New Media Arts Consortium, a collective of six northeastern academic art museums dedicated to the joint acquisition of new media works. The Colby Museum kicked off the consortium with the exhibition of its first acquisition, William Kentridge’s Tango for Page Turning, this summer. A stop-motion animation, the video reflects Kentridge’s continued engagement with the histories of imperialism and technology. Anne Lunder Leland Curatorial Fellow Andrew Gelfand sat down with Carolyn Muzzy Chief Curator and Director Sharon Corwin to learn more about this exciting initiative.
Andrew Gelfand: I was really excited to hear about the consortium. To begin our conversation, could you talk about the mission of the group and how it was conceived?
Sharon Corwin: A number of years ago, very early in my tenure as director of the Colby Museum, I saw that there was an interest and desire for video and new media in our programming, both in our collection and the exhibitions we were mounting. I was also thinking about the uniqueness of video as a medium in that it’s so easily transportable. There are so many issues that can make long-term loans of a work of art difficult or prohibitive, from shipping expenses to conservation concerns. You can often pop video in a FedEx envelope and send it to another institution. It seemed like a medium that was ripe for innovative thinking about how we could share collections.
I began talking with my colleagues at Bowdoin at the time about the idea of creating a partnership around video purchasing. What we immediately recognized was the difficulty of identifying the right object. We also identified the opportunity to be stronger in greater numbers. We have a strong group of peer institutions in the Northeast and I began to reach out to directors of those institutions about this idea as a way to build our collections in this medium. People responded very positively to this idea, although, I should note, it is not a model we originated. Other institutions—much larger institutions—have used well. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shares Christian Marclay’s installation The Clock with the National Gallery of Canada. It really comes down to the question can we augment our collections together? That was the idea, but the execution took a number of years. The challenge was identifying the work.
AG: Before we pivot to the work, you’ve already mentioned video but could you explain what new media includes?
SC: Traditional media—painting, sculpture, works on paper, etc.—began to be challenged in the mid- to late-twentieth century, and the twenty-first century has seen that take off. Having started with film and video, artists are now exploring a variety of digital platforms in creative ways. New media is a useful catchphrase to capture the ways artists are pushing beyond traditional categories of media in multiple formats.
AG: But our first work, which visitors to the Museum could see this summer, William Kentridge’s Tango for Page Turning, is a video piece. Could you talk about the selection for it?
SC: It was important to find a work that everyone could agree on. William Kentridge is one of the great authors of film and video and so finding a canonical work by such a globally respected artist made it an easy sell. Not just that, it is an extraordinarily powerful piece with great inroads into many parts of the liberal arts curriculum that we all engage in as academic art museums. I feel like we found the perfect piece to launch this.
The exciting thing now is to continue the momentum of the consortium and identify future works. I’m interested in how we might look historically to the birth decades of the medium within the sixties and seventies, building a collection that shows the seeds of video, as well as contemporarily to some of the really interesting work that is happening today. It is incredibly important that our institutions make a commitment to collecting new media now. In many ways, this parallels the decision institutions made decades ago with the collection of photography. Now is an opportune moment within this medium.
AG: That’s a really interesting historical parallel between the delayed collecting of photography and the moment of video now.
SC: Right, exactly. It is hard to play catch-up. Especially as we think about sixties and seventies historical video, work now entering the canon and collections. That work might not be available later and may be prohibitively priced. We saw we could make a greater impact together as a group. The ease with which these works can be shared made this model right for this opportunity.
AG: Thinking about the ways in which video art can be shared, at Colby we presented Tango for Page Turning as a stand-alone, single-work exhibition; do you know how participating institutions have planned to show it in different contexts?
SC: Well, this was the exciting part about this particular purchase. The artist, William Kentridge, really understood the value of our missions as teaching museums. Our purchase agreement with the artist and gallery allows each institution to show the work to a class at any point. We each have a teaching copy. Even though we’re six institutions, there may be an instance where, at Colby, a physics class is visiting to look at this work at the same time a Middlebury music class is studying the same piece there. This flexibility in teaching and study felt like an important part of creating this model. That was the teaching component.
When presenting the work, rightly so, only one institution can do it at a time. We exhibited it this past summer. Mount Holyoke will show it next spring and Bowdoin, next fall. The exhibition copy, like most displays of video and new media, comes with a specific set of installation parameters articulated by the artist. Each institution will have to adhere to those specifications. There won’t be much difference in the installation from institution to institution, but what I’m excited about is the difference in context. For example, we showed it here in proximity to Picasso’s Vollard Suite, a recent gift from Peter and Paula Lunder. The connections between Kentridge’s facility as a draftsman that is so apparent in Tango and Picasso’s use of line is one you couldn’t anticipate, but having those two artists together allowed for an interesting dialogue to happen. That will continue to happen at each institution as it is displayed.