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Building Community Through Art: In Conversation with the Art Institute of Chicago

Meredith Guthrie | Lancaster University

Necklace with Pendant. It is a weighty, braided gold chain adorned with a single teardrop emerald. At the top is a conspicuous hook-and-eye closure shaped like a blossom, with a garnet at its centre. The description notes that the clasp, ‘would have been a lovely flourish when the wearer swept her hair up into one of the many intricate hairstyle[s] popular at the time,’ which was some time in the second century. While the necklace itself is striking, its age is what compels the eye to linger. The object becomes just as foreign as it is familiar.

Historians constantly are negotiating these intellectual spaces. This is perhaps a product of temperament as much as occupation, but the fact remains that this tension between the past and the present propels us forward every day. Museums are one of the means by which the wider community gets to embrace that same imaginative energy. A necklace from the Roman Empire delivers that rush of inquisitive compulsion that we enjoy by virtue of our profession.

The necklace is one of nearly 300,000 items in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it is not currently on view in any gallery. Its image is available online through the Institute’s searchable catalogue. The ability to access these images and information remotely has fundamentally transformed the way a curious public can explore the past. One could hardly argue that this is a revolutionary development in 2021; yet in light of the recent pandemic, these digital spaces have had to be transformed to serve new purposes. This digital evolution is part of an ongoing conversation within these institutions about how they serve their community and work to democratise the museum experience in the face of contemporary obstacles.

We spoke with Sam Ramos, the Associate Director for Innovation and Creativity with the Art Institute of Chicago’s department of Learning and Public Engagement, about how one of the United State’s most prestigious museums works collaboratively to curate the experiences they deliver, and why these spaces require our consideration.


Saints Augustine and Peter; Paolo Veneziano and workshop, Italian, c. 1350.
Saints Augustine and Peter; Paolo Veneziano and workshop, Italian, c. 1350.

MG: I was looking at the collection online, which showcases some of the most famous works of art in the world.  As a medievalist, I was, unsurprisingly, drawn to Saints Augustine and Peter  (Paolo Veneziano and workshop, c. 1350) and the tart-mold ring from thirteenth-century France.  It brings to mind so many thoughts on the role of patronage, court culture, and the network of workshops and their resident masters responsible for so many of the late-medieval treasures. That is a lot of potential information to filter down to a curious audience. How do museums like the Art Institute of Chicago work to bring in historical scholarship to their exhibits and online programs to bridge the gap between masterpieces, the artistic context from which they emerge, and the historical backdrop that offers a comprehensive view of art and its significance?

SR: Bridging that gap may be one of the most important skills museum professionals have, in research and curatorial roles as well as in learning and programming areas. There is so much information to share and so many connections to make that we could easily overwhelm our audiences. Instead we have to be quite careful about not only curating objects but curating content. Curators don't try to tell the story of medieval art by putting every medieval piece in the collection on view. Instead they carefully consider what stories need to be highlighted now and select the artworks that tell those stories best. We do something similar when we develop a program (a tour, for example), identifying meaningful connections, selecting the objects and information we need to make those connections, and then sharing them in a way that is accessible for our audiences. The principles apply as well to exhibition design, the text you see in the galleries, and more. 

Tart Mold Ring; 13th Century French.
Tart Mold Ring; 13th Century French.

we have to be quite careful about not only curating objects but curating content.

MG: Yet for much of 2020 (and into 2021), most of us have not had the opportunity to visit museum spaces. I imagine that the process by which you identify those meaningful connections to craft exhibits had to be re-evaluated.  Can you tell me more about how the Institute adapted to alternate formats, and what were some of the unanticipated challenges that had to be addressed?

SR: I remember the week the museum closed and for days afterward so much of our work was about cancelling in-person programs, some of which had been months or years in the making. Right away we wanted to use the web to develop new experiences that would be responsive to the pandemic moment. I think the most unanticipated challenge for me was realizing that the answer wasn't to immediately start throwing things online, but to be thoughtful about what an online future would look like. Time was going so fast in those early months, and we had to force ourselves to slow down so we could think clearly about what our audiences - and ourselves - would need next. We have worked closely across departments in our very large institution to establish an infrastructure for creating online experiences that build community through art. We produce lectures, panel conversations, performances, artmaking workshops, and participatory programs. It has been exciting because we have embraced the spirit of innovation, which is so needed right now, not only in response to our changed world, but to the increasing awareness of the legacies of systemic racism that have made museums exclusive spaces in the past. The museum is more nimble than ever, and I can't help but credit our new online lives with that shift. 

Time was going so fast in those early months, and we had to force ourselves to slow down so we could think clearly about what our audiences - and ourselves - would need next.

MG: I love that expression you used there: build community through art. You mentioned the importance of collaboration in the Art Institute’s ability to integrate scholarship into the curatorial process. Still, I imagine this level of collaboration extends into mediums and exhibits that are as engaging as they are informative.  What does that collaboration look like from the public’s perspective?

SR: Everything the public sees when they enter an exhibition is the result of a collaborative process (except perhaps the art itself, depending on the artist). For example, a video display in an exhibition will be the combined work of a curator, video production experts, Interpretation staff and others who would advise on content and language -- not to mention the people featured in the video itself, as well as the people who secured the TV to the wall! Everyone involved is a leader in their field and brings important perspective to the project. For these reasons no one coming into an exhibition at the Art Institute should assume they are seeing the results of an individual vision. They are benefiting from a collective vision with both internal and external collaborators. It's an amazing process that makes our exhibitions as impactful as they are. 

MG: This really speaks to the spatial element of museums and heritage sites; the components of an exhibit that can’t be conveyed online.  For me, there is something about organically moving between galleries showcasing the permanent collection- circling back to particular works and pieces really kindles my imagination. That’s to say nothing of the special exhibitions that inject life into art and artefact through that collaborative process you mentioned. So why is it important to be proactive in considering the role of museum spaces beyond the aesthetic?

SR: You're absolutely right. While we can have a profound experience online, that experience can't replace an in-person experience. One is not necessarily better than the other, but they are both important. I often draw attention to the space and the way things are displayed when I talk with people in the galleries, because all of our senses are coming into play and giving us important information. So much thought goes into considering the environment of the museum, none of it is an accident.

We can also be critical of those spaces. Many people do not feel comfortable or welcome in traditional museum spaces like the Art Institute. It's our responsibility to be aware of what our galleries communicate as physical places so that we can ensure no one is excluded. The artwork can't be separated from the physical space, at least not when we are in the museum. I don't think the aesthetic experience ends where the canvas or sculpture does. It continues even when we are walking between galleries, whether we realize it or not. 

It's our responsibility to be aware of what our galleries communicate as physical places so that we can ensure no one is excluded.

MG: You talk about galleries like they are living things. I think that is a sentiment that historians can understand because in a sense it is the way we view the past- as though it is part of the atmosphere. The public is especially attuned to it as well, eager to participate in discussions about art and history and how it shapes us. Amy [Smith, Art Director] and I were remarking that a recent movie about the excavation of Sutton Hoo may inspire more visits to the British Museum. I imagine these elements of popular culture and points of public discourse shape your work.

SR: I'd have to say yes. The best exhibits are going to be those that are aware and responsive to external events and the wider world in one way or another. We can't function in a vacuum and we shouldn't. It isn't always necessarily going to be a movie or single event in pop culture that affects how the public responds to an exhibition. It may most often be more about the zeitgeist. For example, during summer 2021 the Art Institute will be exhibiting the Barack and Michelle Obama official presidential and First Lady portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

Certainly reception to the exhibition will be heavily informed by people's cultural experiences outside of the museum, and the associations they may have with the Obamas. That's a singular example, but I suspect it applies to all exhibitions. This is another reason for the museum to continue seeking outside input on exhibitions, especially from those representing communities that have traditionally been excluded -- we can't know where our community is at if we don't listen. 

MG: That’s exciting. Even beyond the gallery spaces, though, the Art Institute of Chicago is incredible when also considering the archives, research initiatives, and library. Many of our readers and contributors are postgraduates and early careerists.  Are there opportunities for historians without specialities in art history in art museums?

SR: Absolutely. If your specialty is not in art history it would make sense to cast a net including but also beyond curatorial work. Our curators are deeply immersed in art history specifically, but beyond curatorial there are so many different art museum fields to be involved in that require skills in research, narrative-building, programming, conservation science, collaboration, digital design, and others. If you are interested in working in or with museums the opportunities are certainly there. 


We would like to thank Sam Ramos for his time and consideration in working with EPOCH. We will encourage you to visit the Art Institute of Chicago’s website, including its Exhibition & Events page.

Meredith Guthrie is a second-year PhD student at Lancaster University. Her research explores minority governments in medieval England (1200-1500) and what they can reveal about contemporary ideas of kingship and sovereignty.

Twitter: @MeredithGuthr17


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