Are you a UT student who hasn’t visited the Blanton? Read this.

It’s the advice always given to incoming freshmen: college is the time to try new things and challenge yourself. Luckily for students at the University of Texas at Austin, that something new might be right around the corner on campus.

Blanton galleryDespite being on campus and free for those with a UT ID, many students have never been to the Blanton Museum of Art. Why not escape the Texas heat before the semester starts? The museum is located on campus behind the PCL, across the street from Jester dormitories, and is a great place to visit when you aren’t in class or want to take a break from all things school related. I think that some students are a little afraid of visiting an art museum because they don’t know what to expect. But take it from a currently enrolled college student who loves the Blanton: you can visit without fear and have plenty of fun.

What should I wear to the Blanton?

The words “art museum” may conjure up images of fancily dressed ladies and gentlemen strolling through galleries, peering at paintings while whispering their interpretations of artworks to each other. Showing up to any event or place underdressed or overdressed is a nightmare no one wants to go through. To help fellow college students avoid the attire nightmare, remember that the Blanton is a museum open to people of all ages and walks of life. Art might be fancy, but you don’t have to dress like an Italian fashion icon to view art from the Italian Renaissance: Birkenstocks and Nike shorts are just fine. As long as you’re comfortable in what you have on and it’s an appropriate outfit for going out around town, you’re on your way to a successful trip to the museum!

What should I bring to the Blanton?

Besides yourself, I recommend bringing an open-mind and willingness to experience something novel—you never know what you might find.

I like bringing a small notebook and a pencil (no pens allowed!) with me because it could come in handy. If you stumble upon a work that you really like, check out the name and write it down. If you’re artistically inclined, you might want to take some time to create a sketch. There are benches inside the gallery spaces for visitors to gaze at works, take a break from walking, or give themselves a minute to sketch.

Blanton galleriesI’d also recommend bringing a friend (or a few friends) to see what the Blanton has to offer. I believe that beautiful things are even more beautiful when shared with people you care about and enjoy being with. But for those who like to fly solo, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to the Blanton by yourself.

Don’t forget to bring your phone! If you think you can’t take a #hookem selfie or make your roommate get a snap of you in front of fruit paintings, think again—the Blanton allows photography and loves when visitors share their experiences at the museum on Instagram. Just don’t forget to tag #BlantonMuseum in your caption!

What if I don’t know anything about art?

Don’t worry about it! Art isn’t created for just experts, so you can still enjoy the exhibitions even if you don’t have a background in art history. You probably aren’t the only person in there that doesn’t know a thing about art.

But if you do feel uncomfortable with the idea of touring the gallery yourself, find a friend to come with you or visit during a drop-in tour so you have a guide through the gallery.

AirplaneWhat kind of art does the Blanton have?

The Blanton’s permanent collection holds over 17,000 works and is made up of a wide range of genres. The museum has something to offer everyone and you’re bound to find something you love. You can see works by well-known artists, such as Warhol’s portrait of Farrah Fawcett, as well as intriguing and stimulating art by artists that you may have never heard of, like Jorge Eielson’s Quipus 58 B.

The Blanton also has rotating exhibitions throughout the year, so there is always a new presentation to enjoy. The museum strives to bring its visitors visually-arresting and thought-provoking art all year long. This summer, for example, the Blanton has Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World (#OllerATX) and Natalie Frank: Brothers Grimm (#NatalieFrank). You can always find information regarding current (and past) exhibitions and the museum’s permanent collection on the Blanton’s website.

What other things are there to do or see in the museum?

SnapchatThe Blanton has a variety of events that go on every month. The museum offers workshops and hosts events like SoundSpace (there’s a large number of UT students planning on attending September’s SoundSpace) and Yoga in the Galleries. Most of the events hosted by the Blanton are free to the public or are included with museum admission, which is free for UT students. You can keep yourself always up-to-date on the latest Blanton news and events by following the museum on Instagram and/or liking the Blanton Facebook page. This is one social media savvy museum so make sure to also find the Blanton on Tumblr, Snapchat, and Twitter!

How do I know if I’m doing the “visiting an art museum” thing correctly?

There’s no real way of gauging whether or not you’ve met some standard for a museum visit, because there isn’t one. There’s no right or wrong way to visit a museum. Did you find something cool? Did you learn something new? Did you have fun? Asking yourself questions like those might help answer whether or not you visited the museum like you are “supposed to.” Museums and the art they hold can be a source of inspiration, an invitation to see the world in a new way, and can even provide a way for you to learn more about other people or cultures. You can experience and take from your trip to the Blanton (or any art museum) what you want, but at the end of the day, have fun and enjoy your time with the art.

Next time you find yourself with nothing to do on a weekday or weekend, consider a trip to the Blanton Museum of Art instead of binge-watching Netflix. You never know what you might discover if you step outside your comfort zone and try something new.

Jenny Zheng is a third-year marketing major in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin set to graduate in the fall of 2016. She had the opportunity to work as the PR and marketing intern at the Blanton Museum of Art this summer and enjoys writing in her free time.

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Behind the Blanton: Koven Smith, Director of Digital Adaptation

kjs museumnextYou may have seen him around on our blog, but Koven Smith is actually the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series profiling different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Koven to learn a little bit about what he does in and outside of the museum.

You’ve previously worked at the Denver Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other places. Is there something that sets the Blanton apart from other museums you’ve worked at?

Koven: The sense of purpose among the staff here is particularly strong–from the beginning I could feel a strong motivation among everyone on staff to do something really special and wonderful with this museum. The fact that (relatively speaking) we’re still a fairly young museum also motivates everyone. The possibilities are wide open.

convertWhat prompted you to found Drinking About Museums in 2011?

Drinking About Museums started as a low-key meetup for people who work in museums. When I first moved to Denver, I used to have regular lunches with Kate Livingston, who was then at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and we’d have these wide-ranging conversations about museum futures and strategy and whatever. At some point we figured that it would be a good idea to invite other Denver museum people to be a part of these conversations, and one meetup at the Cheeky Monk later, Drinking About Museums was born. I thought up the name while watching an episode of “Doctor Who.”

After we did our first one in Denver, Ed Rodley, an old colleague/friend of mine from Boston called up and asked if he could steal–he probably said “use”–the name for a meetup they already had going. At that point it had never occurred to me that this would be replicable anywhere else, so I was like, “oh yeah, sure!” Once the Boston crew did it, Drinking About Museums started popping up everywhere. I just saw that there was one in Italy, which to my knowledge is the first one in that country. They’re in Russia now, South America—I think the only continent that there hasn’t been one, to my knowledge, is Antarctica. Turns out people who work in museums like to talk about museums while they drink beer.

How does your background in music fit into what you do here at the museum, if it does at all?

It kind of does. My background in music is actually as a composer–that was what I studied at Berklee. I suppose that when a project is going really well at the Blanton, it feels very similar to the process of composing or rehearsing a large group of musicians. I’m constantly scoping in and out to figure out what needs to be adjusted to make something work, or how to change direction on a large project so that it has the impact we hoped it would. When a project is going well, it feels like a great rehearsal when every musician is at the top of his or her game, and everybody’s on the same page. So it’s more of a conceptual similarity than something more direct.

What’s your favorite part about your job at the Blanton?

I love when I’m able to see a new way of looking at a problem. Museums by nature are pretty tradition-bound and generally speaking are not always willing or capable of addressing a problem in a different way. One of the things that appeals to me about the Blanton is that there’s a real willingness to do that. So the part that I love is saying “Oh, let’s take this thing that most people take for granted and let’s pull it apart and look at it in a very different way and see if that enables us to come up with a solution that makes more sense for us.”

I’m happiest when I feel like I’m able to do something that enables [the Blanton] to move faster or get ahead of the field. For instance, we’re starting to look at different ways of delivering text information in gallery spaces and researching how information density affects visitor experience. The willingness among the Blanton’s staff to look at issues in new ways means that we might be able to find a better (or at least more deliberate) way of doing this that could be useful for other museums as well. It’s really cool.

The best part about living in Austin is…?

I love 91.7 KOOP. I love Deep Eddy. I love that I can come to the Blanton on a Saturday afternoon and see Line Upon Line Percussion play, and then see some Nancarrow player-piano pieces performed “live.” I love that even grocery stores here have bands playing. That’s just amazing to me. I love that Black Star Co-Op is a short bike ride from my house. Austin is just filled to the brim with wonderful things.

Extra big thank you to Koven for taking time out of his busy day to chat with us. You can also visit him online.

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Up Close and Personal with Artworks on Paper

Prints and DrawingsYou spot it down the hallway, past the plaster casts. You wonder what kinds of artworks abound behind the two glass doors. You approach and read the lettering over the entrance: “The Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings,” and the H-E-B Study Room. Great! You are pumped to see some prints and drawings. You open the door, step inside, and…where are they?

This is the Wilkinson Center, which contains curatorial offices, a small library, and a study room for, yes, prints and drawings. Occasionally these works of art will be displayed in special exhibitions, but most of the time, the museum keeps them in storage. Why wouldn’t curators want to keep these works on display all year round? Because they need special protection.

“These works are like textiles,” says Kristin Holder, the Print Room Manager at the Blanton, “They are very vulnerable to light, humidity, and temperature.”

studyroom3Light hardens the fibers in the paper and makes the artwork more vulnerable to breakage, deterioration, and discoloration. Therefore, museums must provide special treatment for prints and drawings, keeping them in a cool, dark place for storage.

But what’s the point of art if it just sits in boxes, never to be seen by a human eye? We agree, so the print study room was born to solve that problem. The Wilkinson Center offers free art-viewing appointments in the H-E-B Study Room to any member of the public.

“We have one of the most active study rooms in the country, with about 2,500 visitors a year,” says Francesca Consagra, the Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings. “This is extraordinary, especially since our visitors are divided almost equally between university and non-university audiences.”

studyroom4Kristin manages appointments in the print room and serves as the facilitator between visitors and the collection. Visitors contact her, tell her what they’re interested in seeing, and she pulls works from storage based on the information provided. Some visitors come with a particular work or artist in mind, but others may simply be interested in seeing artworks related to a certain topic. For example, a recent visitor was researching human rights and sought a cover image for his book, and another group of visitors, a class in the nursing program at the University of Texas, were researching HIV.

Kristin says that professors often visit the center with their students to provide visual aides for understanding.

“Professors want to get students to read an object like they would read a book,” Kristin says. “You can tell a whole story around one image.”

Though UT students are the most frequent guests in the print room—they made up 44% of all the room’s visitors in 2014—our fastest-growing group is K-12 students and teachers from Austin. 23% of visitors last year were K-12 students, and 9% were involved in K-12 teacher training.

Study RoomKristin says that classes in the print room often give students an opportunity to have a voice and chance to express themselves thanks to the ability to interact closely with the works of art.

Other visitors to the print room include scholars, artists, art students, museum professionals from outside institutions, and individuals with an interest in certain artists, works, or topics.

“Our full-time staff is comprised of two artists and two historians,” Francesca says, “And we all love looking at wonderful and meaningful works of art with anyone who wants to learn and to think creatively in an intimate setting.”

If you’re interested in viewing artwork in the study room, please email Kristin Holder at or give her a call at 512-471-9208.

Jeana Bertoldi is the assistant to the senior curator of prints and drawings, and European paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in English with a minor in photography from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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A Peek into the Blanton Café

IMG_2740As a new employee at the Blanton, I am naturally interested in nearby places to eat. What better place to start than at the Blanton Café? Located just across the plaza from the museum in the Edgar A. Smith building, the café offers visitors a peaceful place to enjoy delicious food like flatbread pizzas, soups, salads, signature desserts, a variety of “grab and go” items, and, of course, your daily dose of caffeine.

I sat down with the Blanton Café’s chef manager, Jeanna Lewis, to talk about her experience working at the café and to hear about its signature (and secret!) menu, which offers fresh and healthy food with a variety of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options.

Jeanna started working at the café two years ago after owning her own corporate catering company for 13 years and loves being affiliated with the Blanton and UT. She is inspired by the students and patrons who regularly come through the café: “I know a lot of people by name— we like to treat them like family,” Jeanna says. She is also influenced by the Blanton’s summer family programs such as WorkLab, Storytime Tours, and Deeper Dives, which she says have inspired her to add more “grab and go” items to the café menu, including dry cereal, goldfish, and cheese bento boxes for children, while her chef’s salads are a favorite for parents.IMG_2747The Blanton Café also offers off-menu specials for the museum’s Third Thursdays: a glass of wine and a slice of pizza for $5 (substitute beer for $6) – and the Midday Music Series: coffee and a cookie for $2.50 plus tax. Jeanna says that both specials have become increasingly popular—the Third Thursday special created a line out the door for a solid three hours last month, so get in early! Aside from the wallet-friendly special prices, Jeanna thinks the wine that the café features is a huge draw. The café currently offers two wines, the Lechuza granacha, a red blend from Spain, and the La Fiera pinot grigio, a classic white from Italy. Jeanna also teased the promise of a delicious rosé, coming soon.

Also popular are the breakfast tacos (which often sell out by 10AM, despite breakfast being scheduled through 11AM) as well as the Tomato & Avocado Grilled Cheese and the Grilled Portobello Stack, both of which can be made gluten free using “Udi’s Bread” or served over greens for a healthier option. Offering healthy and fresh food is a priority for Jeanna, who reminisces fondly on the café’s stint serving Fredericksburg peaches last month, which she says sold extremely quickly.

IMG_2754If you’re feeling a bit snacky or need to satisfy a sweet tooth, though, Jeanna has you covered. The Blanton Café secretly offers some of the best fries in Austin, and while they’re not on the menu, you can see them perfectly perched on a dish next to a sandwich once you’re in line at the café. Let me tell you: they are a perfect mixture of crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Jeanna also suggests their newest cookie, the “Royale,” which boasts chocolate, macadamia nuts, pecans, and coconut, and is baked in house, along with the rest of their cookies.

Above all, though, Jeanna has created a fun and lively environment. She tells me that her “awesome girls,” some of whom have worked at the Blanton Café for five or six years, help contribute to this atmosphere through their hard work and love for what they do. I will definitely be frequenting the Blanton Café and certainly will be on the lookout to try all of Jeanna’s new creations!

IMG_2772The Blanton Café is open Mon-Fri 8am-4pm, Saturday & Sunday 12pm-4pm (grab and go items only). A limited menu is served after 2pm on weekdays and on the weekends. The Café is open until 9pm on Third Thursday evenings and during B Scene. For the full menu, visit our website.

Tessa Krieger-Carlisle is the PR and Marketing Manager at the Blanton Museum of Art. She holds a BA in the History of Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

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Hitting the Road to Find Impressionism in Texas (But Not Texas Impressionism)

One Friday in February, I set out on a five-hour drive from Austin through the Piney Woods of far East Texas to a small, nearly forgotten town called San Augustine. I was headed there on a mission (though unrelated to the mission this town is best known for). I was looking for paintings by S. Seymour Thomas, a little-known but remarkably successful artist who happened to be one of the few Texans to study art in Paris in the 1880s and ’90s. My search had brought me to a historic house in Thomas’s hometown, where a collection of his work is now housed.

Thomas Studio

Detail of S. Seymour Thomas’s Studio in Paris, 1891. Photo by Beth Shook.

The Blanton’s special exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, presents a broad view of the Caribbean basin. Rather than chopping up this region by language or political history, the exhibition juxtaposes images depicting Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, St. Thomas, Dominica, the Bahamas, and Cuba, among other Caribbean locales. The basin extends into the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Gulf Coast—a region that during the colonial period became commercially and culturally bound both to the Caribbean islands and to the imperial powers across the Atlantic.

A map of the Caribbean sets the scene in the first gallery of Impressionism and the Caribbean.

A map of the Caribbean sets the scene in the first gallery of Impressionism and the Caribbean.

Because the exhibition was to debut here in Austin, curators and educators from the Blanton and the Brooklyn Museum hatched a plan to highlight this local connection by seeking out 19th-century artists who had both a Texas connection and transatlantic careers. We first selected two works by Julius Stockfleth, a German-born Galveston painter who depicted that city with naturalistic detail during its heyday. But we were still interested in including an artist from the region who had engaged with French Realism or Impressionism, and thus followed a similar career trajectory to that of Francisco Oller, the focus of the exhibition.

Julian Onderdonk

A Cloudy Day, Bluebonnets Near San Antonio, Texas, 1918, by Julian Onderdonk, the major proponent of Texas Impressionism. Two decades too late for our exhibition.

As it turned out, finding artists who fit the bill was no easy task. In the 1860s, when painters in Paris were beginning to break away from the official academy by exploring avant-garde strategies, the newly annexed state of Texas was still being settled—not exactly the ideal atmosphere for a thriving modern art scene. On top of that, I quickly discovered the importance of distinguishing between Impressionists from Texas and participants in “Texas Impressionism.” Impressionism was slow to take off in the United States. In Texas, it was only in the first quarter of the 20th century that artists began to represent the effects of light and atmosphere in a manner that can be described as Impressionist. This regional movement reached its height between 1927 and 1929, when the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions were established to encourage depictions of the local landscape. This was, however, outside of the chronological range of our project.

I reached repeated dead ends until a colleague in Galveston pointed me to S. Seymour Thomas. The artist fit the bill: After training in Texas and at the Art Students League in New York, in 1888 Thomas set off for Paris, where he enrolled the Académie Julian, an art school popular among American expats. Not only did his time in Paris overlap with Oller’s—indeed they may have both exhibited work at the Paris Salon exhibition of 1895—Thomas’s work from the period demonstrates a clear awareness of Impressionist brushstroke and coloring.

Impressionism and the Caribbean detail

Installation view of Paris by Gaslight, 1890s, and Texas Landscape, 1897, both by S. Seymour Thomas. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

Hence my road trip. In San Augustine I found the two paintings I’d had my eye on: one a street scene from Paris, the other a wintry Texas landscape far removed from the fields of wildflowers that would comprise the bulk of Texas’s regional Impressionism.

While not as luminous or painterly as the works by French masters like Pissarro and Monet that are included in the exhibition, Thomas’s paintings from the 1890s evince his exposure to radical developments in technique and subject matter. And while, like Oller, Thomas never identified as an Impressionist, his career encapsulates the promise that transatlantic travel held for artists of the 19th century.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American Art and managing curator for Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.


Edwards, Katie Robinson. Midcentury Modern Art in Texas. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 2014.

Pinckney, Pauline A. Painting in Texas: The Nineteenth Century. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1967.

Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935. Exh. cat. Canyon, TX: Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2012.

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Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary through an Audio Guide

Our Lady of Pomata

Unidentified artist, Cuzco, Peru, Our Lady of the Rosary of Pomata, late 17th or 18th century, oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2003.04.

A new rotation of miraculous paintings have gone on view at the Blanton as the second installment of the long-running exhibition, Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America. Originating from colonial-era South America and selected from the collection of Marilynn and Carl Thoma, the works are a window into a European tradition transformed by indigenous Andean artists. Each painting depicts a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary.  By copying the original statue, there was a belief that the painting was imbued with the same miraculous powers as the statue.

Museum educators help visitors understand first, why paintings were made of these statues, and second, why the Andean region became such an important center for these works. As the Museum Educator for University Audiences, Siobhan McCusker scours the intellectual resources of the diverse campus in order to find the perfect collaborators for the audio guide. As the lead for Digital Interpretation, Mary Myers creates a guide that transforms the substantial contextual information into a narrative that all visitors can understand. The timeline below captures Mary’s process through the months it takes an audio guide to unfold.


Since each exhibition at the Blanton is unique, we approach new installations with eyes wide open to various modes of interpretation. Wall labels are a traditional way of sharing information with museum visitors, but ever-evolving digital tools means new possibilities for digital interpretation. After considering and discussing varied multimedia approaches to interpretation, we decided to create an audio guide featuring voices of faculty and students from the university. As the participants are identified, they are given a checklist of paintings included in the exhibition so they may choose which work they would like to discuss. After a bit of jockeying, four excited academics each select a painting to speak about.


Recording participants for the audio guide is the first of many steps towards creating a cell phone audio tour. As participants confirm their schedules, I transform the Blanton’s auditorium into a recording studio. The session is an intimate and intellectual exchange between audio guide participants and museum educators. Though we encourage each participant to prepare a script, the sessions often veer into deeper investigations of the complex themes within each painting. All the while, I monitor the microphones and recording device for good audio levels and competing background noise. The speaker reads through the script multiple times throughout the session, ensuring that I will have a variety of tonal options when approaching the audio edit. As the session unfolds, participants begin to relax, and the read becomes more animated. As their scripted material peaks our curiosity, we try to tease out more detailed explanations, and their passion for the subject lights up the room.

Auditorium setup


One of my favorite parts of creating an audio guide is unearthing information that reaches far beyond what is offered on a wall label. Each participant brings their research efforts to life, and entries become personal expressions. However, with prolific content comes prolific edits. Though participants are asked to craft a script, the recording session often yields exciting unscripted content as well. Multiple takes of the script transition into more off-the-cuff research and anecdotes from the participant, and I consider all the recorded material when approaching my edits. I compare the numerous reads of the script alongside the unscripted content for the most compelling material from the session. Often, I am looking for moments when participants say something particularly illuminating or unique, listening for phrases that engage me as I hope they will engage a visitor. This hybrid edit expands on the speaker’s research, capitalizes on the fluidity of the recording session, and creatively combines the two into one piece of content.

Susan Deans Smith, Associate Professor in the Department of History, speaks about Our Lady of Pomata on the audio guide.


The complex stories behind the miraculous statue paintings, the religious characters represented within, and the motivations of their indigenous Andean creators can be difficult to grasp, so I rely on fresh ears to measure success. Making research come to life for visitors in language they can understand within a two minute sound byte is a constant challenge, so sharing creative edits with staff and soliciting feedback is a crucial step in creating a well-received audio guide. The edits make their way around the Education and Curatorial staff, and everyone is struck by the excitement evident in each entry. As historical research is exposed and religious folklore unveiled, our curiosity begs to hear Marilynn Thoma who, along with her husband Carl, amassed the impressive collection of Spanish Colonial art. What drew them to collect these paintings? Why is she so invested in researching their origins? What inspires her to share her collection with our audience? Since Marilynn is based in Chicago, we decide to approach her about doing a record session over the phone. She agrees, and we schedule the session for early July.


The fiery red walls that served as the backdrop for the first installment of Virgin Mary paintings are replaced by a fresh coat of cool blue as the Odom gallery is transformed for the next year of viewing.   The paintings arrive and we get to witness them in-person for the first time. After only seeing digital images of the paintings on a screen, I am surprised by many new observations. The scale of some works is surprising: larger than anticipated. The detail of flowers and faces are exponentially more intense than any image file can express. That same week, we get a chance to speak with Marilynn Thoma and authentically share in her excitement for the objects and all the research they have inspired. I put her phone recording session through its paces and all audio guide edits are finalized just in time for the exhibition’s opening weekend. I load the edited audio files onto the Guide By Cell platform and we listen to each stop in front of its corresponding painting for the first time.

Installation view

Installation view of Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary

Only about two minutes of the recorded material will make it into the final audio guide edit, but the rest of the audio content will have a life beyond the cell phone tour that visitors find in the galleries. The Education Department is interested in making as much of the captured content available to gallery teachers and docents who will be leading tours through the museum. Future researchers will also have the benefit of accessing the extended audio files to help further their own knowledge of associated topics.

Special thanks to our Audio Guide participants:

Susan Deans Smith
Associate Professor in the Department of History

Alexandra Madsen
Master’s Student in the Department of Art History

Jorge Canizares Esguerra
Professor in the Department of History

Juan Carlos DeOrellana
Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History

Marilynn Thoma
Chicago-based collector of Spanish Colonial Paintings and member of the Blanton’s National Leadership Board

Mary Myers is the Blanton’s Media Coordinator and leads Digital Interpretation for the Education Department.

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Behind the Blanton: Cory Conner, Chief of Security

In order to avoid a dramatic art heist here at the Blanton, we have recently hired a new Chief of Security, Cory Conner. In our latest installment of Behind the Blanton, a series where we profile different Blanton staff members, we sat down with Cory to learn a little bit about what he does and how he protects the art in the Blanton’s collection on a day-to-day basis.

Prior to joining the Blanton, you worked at NBC Universal as the Director of Loss Prevention and Security Liaison. How is protecting art different than working for an entertainment company? Are there any similarities? 

Cory: This is a great question. I think the largest difference I’ve noticed with protecting art is the split second of time in which a visitor could damage or vandalize a specific piece of work even though a Gallery Assistant might be in the same room. With an entertainment company if you need to guard a specific piece of property, it’s typically locked down and out of sight until it’s needed. However, I think there a re a lot of similarities between the two  in terms of the way property protection is handled. For example, the amount of overall video surveillance is directly proportionate to the size and scope of the entity security is observing and recording, and the amount of staff is typically proportionate to the amount of area that security is responsible for patrolling and securing.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Luckily, no two days have been the same so far, or typical! Some of things I do go throughout the day are checking on and trying to resolve any alarm issues from the previous day, prepping for the amazing team of Gallery Assistants’ meetings in the morning, coordinating access into the galleries usually before hours, attending planning meetings for upcoming exhibitions, communicating with my awesome team of Security Supervisors about any ongoing issues or concerns, researching museum security trends and benchmarks, and tweaking current policies and procedures, and finally…trying to learn something new about art every day.

What is something people would be surprised to learn goes into protecting artworks? What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job?

Personally, I think people would be surprised to learn about the sheer amount of time and resources devoted to the movement, placement, staffing, and consideration that is all combined into how best to protect artworks and ensure they are preserved for future generations. The most challenging aspect of my job has been to learn the cultural property protection role and the realization that objects in the museum are all vulnerable to vandalism and theft at any given moment. I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it really puts things in perspective for me, “saving art means saving context”.

What’s the weirdest/most unique/interesting interaction you’ve had with a visitor in the galleries?

I laugh each time I remember this, and the interaction just happened at the most recent B scene. I was walking through the new Impressionist exhibition downstairs, when I was approached by a gentleman that questioningly asked me, “None of these paintings are for sale, right?” After a startled moment on my behalf, I assured him that they were not.

How has it been adjusting to life in Austin? What’s your favorite part about the city, and what are some things you enjoy doing while not at work?

I’m actually from the Austin area, but I’m glad to be back residing here after almost thirteen years in California. There are so many parts of the city that I enjoy, it’s hard to pick just one! Some of the things I enjoy while not at work are the outdoor activities Austin has to offer, following soccer globally since I’m a huge fan, trying to keep up with the multiple books I seem to read at the same time, and spending time with my family and friends here in town.

Philip Evergood

Philip Evergood, Dance Marathon, 1934, oil on canvas, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.

If you had to pick a favorite artwork in the museum, what would it be?

By far, my favorite artwork here in the museum is Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood. I think since I grew up reading comics as a kid, the visual appeal for me is the way it’s structured with the small, almost hidden details you can look for, as well as the vibrant color scheme.

We appreciate Cory taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us! If you see him around the museum or in the galleries, be sure to thank him for protecting the art entrusted to the Blanton’s care.

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Not Your Average Princess: Humanity and Complexity in Natalie Frank’s depictions of The Tales of the Brothers Grimm

On December 21, 1937, Walt Disney studios released their first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie, based on the story by the Brothers Grimm, grossed nearly $8 million during its initial release (just over $132 million by today’s standards). Nearly 80 years since this resounding success, Disney has continued to mine historical fairy tales, twisting them into something almost unrecognizable for family audiences. I don’t mean to be unkind; I love Disney films and grew up with my favorite characters literally painted on my bedroom walls. I, like most people who grew up with Disney, never knew the original tales, and as a child, I would not have been prepared for the unhappy endings or the titillating details of the original stories.

Yet to blame only Disney studios for the sanitization of these stories would be unfair: the Grimm Brothers started to make them more “kid friendly” over the course of forty years. The original stories are filled with dynamic and interesting characters, complex relationships, and true human suffering. Modern day soap operas could only dream of this much intensity. Luckily for avid fairy tale lovers like me, Natalie Frank, the New York-based, Austin native, has created 75 gouache and chalk pastel drawings that illuminate the beauty, complexity and humanity of these original stories. On July 11, the Blanton Museum of Art will open the exhibition Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, showcasing 36 drawings from the series. As the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin writes, “These are Grimms’ fairy tales before the PC censors got ahold of them.”

Natalie Frank

Rapunzel II, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014.

These are not illustrations, but rather, Frank’s feminist interpretations of the stories. She is interested in the multifaceted and complex women she admires in the stories. According to Frank, “I always look for images of feminine beauty that are atypical and complicated because that is how I saw their roles, and a lot of the roles of women in these stories.”[1]

In Frank’s drawing, Rapunzel II, we see an older woman’s face coming out of a tower window. Her bushy hair and eyebrows, ruddy cheeks, and large nose make her an unlikely candidate for the starring role. But, according to Frank, she wanted to depict a woman who has been held in captivity: a woman who had been used by the only people she had ever known and literally given away for vegetables by her true parents. Her story is intricate and complex, and so is she.

In the original 1812 version of the story, a husband and wife had been wishing for a child for many years. At the request of his pregnant wife—who is wasting away due to her desire to eat rapunzel (the lettuce)—her husband jumps the fence and steals it from the fairy’s garden. When confronted by the fairy, the man explains the situation and the fairy agrees to give the couple as much lettuce as they like in exchange for the child. In fear, the man agrees.[2] (In later revisions, the fairy is a sorceress and she threatens them with more than just the withholding of veggies.)

The child Rapunzel “grew to be the most beautiful child under the sun.” Ironically, this beauty is the cause of her cruel imprisonment. She grew up completely isolated and never knew anyone aside from the fairy she called Mother Gothel. When Rapunzel meets the prince, there is no mention of love. In the 1812 telling, “Rapunzel was terribly afraid, but soon, the young prince pleased her so much that she agreed to see him every day and pulled him up into her tower. Thus, for a while they had a merry time and enjoyed each other’s company.”[3]

(In later revisions, the Grimm brothers added moralizing overtones, thoughtful contemplation of love, a marriage proposal and a plan for escape.)

Rapunzel gives away that she is having nightly rendezvous with the prince when she asks Mother Gothel why her “clothes are becoming too tight.”[4] She is unaware of her own changing body and the consequences of her evening soirées and her naïveté gives away her pregnancy. The fairy, the only mother and woman Rapunzel has ever known, “banished Rapunzel to a desolate land, where she had to live in great misery. In the course of time she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.”[5] (In later revisions, the brothers change the focus away from the pregnancy (although she still has twins) to make Rapunzel more foolish rather than just tragically naïve. The golden haired vixen asks the sorceress why she is so much heavier than the prince, resulting in her banishment.)

Natalie Frank

Rapunzel III, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Promised gift of Brent Hasty and Stephen Mills.

Frank’s final depiction in this series, Rapunzel III, shows Rapunzel and her prince reunited. The couple embrace and her tears clear the eyes of her blinded lover. The prince has a squirrel tale, because, according to Frank, he is most like an animal since he has been wandering in the desert. The twins are upside down, indicating their “wretchedness.” Rapunzel has become more beautiful through the course of her suffering and she is the one comforting the prince. Behind the couple, the kingdom is in the background, maybe signaling the hopeful future they will have together.

What makes these original stories distinctive from the ones Disney has disseminated is not the beauty and magic of true love, but the humanness and suffering that makes personal growth and transformation possible. Frank’s drawings celebrate that suffering and highlight the emotion and physical transformations endemic to human life. By focusing on the gritty, the not so shiny and the moments of sadness, Frank makes our own sufferings a little more bearable and the moments of compassion that much sweeter.

Amethyst Beaver is a curatorial assistant in modern and contemporary art at the Blanton.

[1] Natalie Frank in conversation with the author, April 20, 2015.

[2] Jack Zipes, trans. & ed., The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid.,39.

[5] Ibid., 39.

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Enabling comments for an exhibition: Witness Voices

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 10.46.23 AMOne of my primary roles as the Director of Digital Adaptation here at the Blanton Museum of Art is determining exactly what the Blanton’s online “products” should be. Aside from simply making sure that visitors know how to get to the Museum and what they’ll see when they arrive, what’s the point of the Blanton’s website? Is it to provide content? Context? Conversation? Pretty pictures? Links to our Facebook page? And in all cases, who are we trying to reach? People who visit us in person? People who only interact with us online? People who retweet us? People who don’t retweet us?

Witness Voices, a website developed in conjunction with the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights In the Sixties, helped us dig into a few of these questions. By the time the exhibition closed, we had a website that was serving a different function from that which we’d originally intended, but which I think will have a more significant impact on the way the Blanton approaches online experiences over the long term.

Why “Witness Voices”?

One of the first questions we had to address in the lead-up to the opening of Witness was what hashtag we would use to promote the exhibition. After quite a bit of discussion, we finally decided on #witnessvoices. The reason for choosing this instead of something more obvious like #witness60s or #witnessblanton was that we wanted to encourage visitors to voice their opinions on the exhibition itself as well as on themes related to the show. (See Alie Cline’s recent post on hashtags for more on how we make these sorts of decisions at the Blanton.) Because we have works related to these themes in the Blanton’s permanent collection, we felt that this hashtag might have a useful life beyond the run of the show itself.

The thought that went into #witnessvoices (The Hashtag) informed the development of Witness Voices (The Website). As we worked through our goals for the show, it increasingly seemed that a traditional online exhibition, with images of the works from the show and text about each work, would be the wrong approach. An online exhibition could not possibly communicate the power of these works when experienced in person, nor could it really take proper advantage of the social power of the Web. We decided ultimately that this site should be able to stand on its own as a “hub” of communication amongst visitors to the show and those interested in the show’s themes.

A conversation that became an archive

Our initial thinking was that, given the themes and subject matter of the show, that we could use Witness Voices to encourage visitors to converse with one another, and share memories and opinions. With limited time to develop and market the site, we did not imagine that most of this conversation would actually take place on Witness Voices. Instead, we set up an automated routine to re-post any posts on social media that used the #witnessvoices hashtag on to Witness Voices itself. Once those posts appeared on the site, others would then be able to comment and respond.

This approach mostly didn’t work out as we’d hoped. While we found that visitors were consistently posting to social media platforms about the show, they weren’t really interacting with one another. The “conversation” we’d hoped for wasn’t happening, and our efforts to provoke it mostly fell flat. However, the fact that these non-conversations were all showing up on Witness Voices gave them a somewhat different power than we’d originally imagined—we weren’t capturing conversation, but we were capturing visitor responses to the show and, effectively, making those responses part of the exhibition archive. Anyone from the future willing to dismount from his or her jetpack long enough would be able to see how visitors had responded to the show in real time. In a sense, it was as if we had “enabled commenting” for Witness. While this wasn’t our original intention, it ended up working well, and helped us to better understand how our audiences actually respond to the content of our exhibitions, even if that response wasn’t quite what we’d originally thought it would be.

This structure also allowed us to take advantage of the fact that the curator of the Blanton’s installation of the show, Evan Garza, is active on Twitter and Instagram, and was happy to have his perspectives appear on the site as well. This meant that we were able to capture wonderful moments throughout the show’s run, as when Jack Whitten came to UT for conversation with the show’s original curator, Kellie Jones. We recorded the lecture and posted the audio, but Evan also posted a great photo of himself and Jack to Instagram, which also became part of the archive. As the show wore on, we also added in pictures from the Blanton’s Worklab Satellites, as well as thoughtful essays by UT students. These voices merged with those of visitors, in effect making us all commenters.

What does it all mean?

Look at this. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.

–Famous evil archaeologist René Belloq

While we didn’t really see much of the kind of “conversation” we’d expected, it was wonderful that we were able to capture so much rich response to the show in a way that can be preserved (and referenced) over the long term. It was almost as if we’d managed to turn the exhibition into a YouTube video with comments enabled. And as with a YouTube video, some of the comments people posted were insightful, and some were superficial, as it should be. But all have value as part of the exhibition’s history. Years from now, these responses may become part of the ongoing scholarship and history of these objects.

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Let’s talk #hashtags.

What’s in a #hashtag? That which we call a #rose by any other name would smell as sweet…

Hashtags are one of the most confusing aspects of social media to explain to non-internet addicts. They’re one of those things that once you notice them, you start seeing the little rascals popping up everywhere: on billboards, on your TV screen while your favorite show is playing (I’m looking at you, ABC Family), or littered in your aesthetically-conscious friend’s Instagram feed.

So what do hashtags actually do? What’s their point? Why do you see them on our title walls when you walk into an exhibition at the Blanton?

Hashtags first appeared in the late 80s in online internet chat rooms, but their widespread use is largely thanks to Twitter. Originally created as a way to group together posts about the same topic, users started putting the # sign in front of words or phrases to turn them into clickable links that made finding information easier. Want to know what’s going on in Austin, Texas? Search the #Austin hashtag. Looking for fashion bloggers on Instagram? Search—appropriately—#fashionblogger. Over time, hashtags gained popularity on Twitter as a way to share news and breaking updates; for example, news stations, weathermen, and reporters shared news about the flooding in Austin using #ATXfloods. Hashtags are also used more colloquially to provide context or express emotions that wouldn’t be readily apparent. For example:

If you’ve been a longtime visitor to the Blanton—or just oddly interested in the design of our title walls—then you might have noticed that about a year ago, we started including hashtags on the entrance walls to our exhibitions. A little backstory: after I began working at the Blanton and ramping up our social media profiles, I noticed that  visitors who posted about our shows would often make up their own hashtags to include in posts. For example, we had people tagging, #blantonmuseumofart, #blanton, #bma #blantonmuseumaustin, or a variety of other combinations to show that they had been at the museum. This made it hard for me to monitor what people were posting about us since there was no consistency. Now we have a dedicated hashtag (#blantonmuseum) that I include on all of our Instagram posts so visitors know which hashtag to use. Although people still like to come up with creative ways to tag us, consistent promotion and use of the “official” hashtag has led to wide adoption by most social-media savvy people who visit the museum.

So, back to the title walls of exhibitions: why don’t they have our general #blantonmuseum hashtag on them? Wouldn’t that be better for consistency, you ask? I will concede that yes, it would, but I’m more interested in how people react to a specific show, since we have a variety of different exhibitions that rotate throughout the seasons, while the art on view from our collection doesn’t change as often. That means that for every show, I work with other members on the PR & Marketing team to develop an exhibition-specific hashtag that will appear on the title wall, the corresponding brochures, and any web or print ads about the show (space permitting).

While you think it’d be easy to come up with a hashtag for each show, this process is often, for lack of a better word, #rough.

Brain Trash hashtag

Ideally, I like to have a hashtag that is pulled from the title of the show, as we did for #BrainTrash, our 2014 exhibition on artist James Drake. Having the hashtag overlap with the title of the show means that if people miss seeing the hashtag on the exhibition wall, there’s a solid chance that they’ll include the correct one anyway—we want to make it as easy as possible for people to use the right hashtag. The more the hashtag deviates from the title of the exhibition, the less intuitive it is for people to use or guess. This means that the Blanton’s social media channels need to be even more attentive to sharing and promoting the hashtag we want people to adopt.

So, step 1 in hashtag design for exhibitions: try to make it relate as closely as possible to the title of the show. Step 2 is where things get more challenging: the hashtag needs to be short, ideally 12 characters or under. On platforms like Twitter, where the character count in each post is restricted, having a short hashtag means users are able to fit more of the important stuff (like what they thought about the show!) in the body of their tweet.

In the case of Impressionism and the Caribbean, where all the words in the title are long, #FranciscoOllerAndHisTransatlanticWorld would take up half the space needed to share a reaction to the show. So, we needed to find a way to cut down the title to a more manageable hashtag. #FranciscoOller wouldn’t work, because when you read it as the all lowercase #franciscooller, a strange man by the name of Francis Cooller appears. #ImpressionismCaribbean wouldn’t work, because honestly, who can successfully spell either of those without spell check? Not me.


After a lot of deliberation, we finally settled on #OllerATX. This hashtag met all our criteria in that it was short and easy to spell. We also thought it was important to include some part of Oller’s name in the hashtag, since the show focuses on his life and work. We also wanted to highlight that this presentation of the show was unique to Austin and the state of Texas, since the exhibition includes a selection of works from artists using Impressionism to depict the Gulf Coast. Thus….#OllerATX was born! Because it’s not an intuitive hashtag, the Blanton’s social media channels have been using it on every tweet, Instagram, or Facebook post relating to the exhibition. Blanton staff, like the show’s managing curator Beth Shook, also help put the word out that this is the hashtag we want visitors to use.

So, the next time you’re walking into the galleries, stop for a moment and study the title wall. Find the exhibition hashtag, and for the love of all things holy, please use the one we’ve listed instead of making up your own! And remember: every time a visitor uses the correct hashtag for a show, a social media manager gets her #wings.

Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.

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B scene: Bon Voyage – Paris to San Juan

15-06-bscene-bon-voyageThis Friday from 6 – 10 p.m., B scene, our quarterly art party, will be a reflection of the time and transatlantic travels of Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller, the focus of our new exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World. The event will evoke the ambiance of romantic travel at the end of the nineteenth century, and will transport you to the Caribbean.

Oller was the most prominent Caribbean painter of the 19th century and was deeply influenced by his sojourns to Europe from his home in San Juan. With each trip, Oller returned to Puerto Rico to share developments in early European modernism—including elements of Realism and Impressionism. He applied these to local subjects to revolutionize the school of painting in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean region. The exhibition features masterworks by Oller and those of his friends, mentors, and influences: Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and many more. Guided tours of this beautiful exhibition will begin at 6:30, 7 & 7:30pm. Pick up your tour tickets early—they go fast!

Music will be one way we hope to capture the spirit of Oller’s homeland. Michael Crockett,  Austin’s foremost authority on international and Latin American music and host of the radio programs Horizontes and Global Grooves (airing Sunday evenings from 7:00-10pm on KUTX 90.9 and 2 – 6pm on KUT3, respectively), will DJ the event. Crockett is well versed in the different cultures of the Caribbean, and we look forward to hearing the rhythms that he has to share.


La Moña Loca

Salsa music and dance has origins in musical genres such as traditional Puerto Rican bomba. Bomba music is all about the connection between musicians and dancers. To help recreate this connection we will be featuring the 11-piece salsa orchestra, La Moña Loca. Well-known in Austin for their dance-oriented repertoire, this ensemble specializes in the Caribbean styles of salsa, timba, cha-cha, merengue, cumbia, etcetera. And if you need some guidance to master these tricky rhythms, Go Dance will be at B scene once again with lessons and demonstrations at 7pm and 8:50pm.

Consider coming hungry if you would like to experience what makes Tamale Addiction so fabulously addictive! With pork tomatillo, chicken mole, bean and goat cheese, spinach and caramelized onion, and more, there’s something for everyone—including vegetarian and vegan options.

JuJu Juice creates handcrafted and cold pressed juices, smoothies, cleanses, nutmilks, superfood bowls, shots and more; with local, organic fruits and veggies for eating healthy, delicious and clean in Austin, Texas. They will be on hand in the member lounge with free samples of signature smoothies and agua frescas!

Isla Bonita Coffee is a company founded by devout coffee lovers and experts from Puerto Rico. They deliver the highest end coffee available to Austin, Texas. The first 30 people to sign up for a new membership at B scene will receive a complementary bag of Isla Bonita Coffee!

As a special art activity, we’ll be channeling the transatlantic culture. Upstairs on the mezzanine guests are invited to create unique vintage-style travel postcards and envelopes to send an old fashioned note to someone special! For a more contemporary communication experience, be sure to visit Le Photo Booth to strike some crazy poses and print or digitally download your photos. Remember to use the hash tags #blantonmuseum & #bscene!

cindi roseBlanton members will enjoy an exclusive outdoor member lounge with complementary silhouette portraiture by world-renowned silhouette artist Cindi Harwood Rose, who will demonstrate the fine art of silhouette portraiture—just as it would have been done in the lifetime of Francisco Oller. Officially documented as the world’s fastest silhouette artist, the beauty and accuracy of her work is also unsurpassed.

Not sure what to wear? We’ll be dressed in breezy fabrics and tropical pastels inspired by Oller’s canvases. We can’t wait to see your outfit!

Francisco Oller was passionate about his Puerto Rican heritage and showcased his love of his homeland in his works. At B scene: Bon Voyage – Paris to San Juan, we hope to transport you back in time to experiencing the beauty and culture of Puerto Rico as well. See you Friday!

FREE for members / $12 GA. Tickets are available online or at the door.

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In Honor of “Impressionism and the Caribbean,” a Pop Quiz

The Blanton’s new special exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World offers seemingly infinite possibilities for comparative study. The exhibition includes over 80 paintings that that depict life in more than a dozen countries in Europe and the Americas from the 18th to the early 20th century. Artists from different continents mix and match techniques and styles, depicting the same places in vastly different ways.

So, digital content strategist Alie Cline and I thought, why not make it interesting? Test your visual acuity and art historical chops with this Oller-inspired pop quiz:

1. Which of these 19th-century Caribbean landscapes was painted by a foreign artist, and which was painted by a Caribbean-born artist?

Throughout the colonial period, European and North American artists were drawn to the sun-drenched coasts and lush plant life of Caribbean locales. They traveled throughout the region, painting Romantic, exoticized landscapes devoid of any signs of social turbulence or conflict. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, co-curator Edward J. Sullivan describes paintings of this genre as “landscapes of desire,” idyllic panoramas designed to seduce European and U.S. audiences and encourage foreign investment in the region. Meanwhile, many artists based in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, focused their attention on the everyday realities of life in their respective countries and colonies—from local people and landmarks to the ever-present shadow of slavery.

Solution: The idyllic coastal landscape at right, bathed in warm colors and overflowing with tropical foliage, is Jamaica (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church, a celebrated 19th-century American painter and member of the Hudson River School. Sublime elements such as the mountains looming in the background were characteristic of this group’s treatment of nature. The image at left is Francisco Oller’s Hacienda La Fortuna (1885). It depicts a Puerto Rican sugar plantation a decade after the abolition of slavery, including the buildings that made up the complex and the Afro-Puerto Rican workers who comprised its labor force. Oller was known for his sensitive treatment of local subjects, and his work has since come to represent Puerto Rican identity in a time of rapid change.

Left: Francisco Oller.Hacienda La Fortuna, 1885. Oil on canvas, 26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Lilla Brown in memory of her husband John W. Brown, by exchange. Brooklyn Museum photograph. Right: Frederic Edwin Church. Jamaica, 1871. Oil on canvas, 14 1/2 x 24 1/4 in. (36.8 x 61.6 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Gift of E. Hart Fenn in memory of his mother, Mrs. Frances Talcott Fenn.

2. Which of these turn-of-the-century harbor scenes depicts the Texas Gulf Coast?

In Impressionism and the Caribbean, the Caribbean region is defined broadly. It encompasses islands colonized by Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as bordering mainland countries, like Mexico, the United States, and Venezuela. It extends all the way to the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, which, like the Caribbean Sea, was home to several important commercial ports during the 19th century. These included Galveston, Texas, an immigration hub and a leading port for the export of cotton and wheat—and eventually the import of raw sugar from Cuba.

Solution: Don’t be fooled by the abundance of livestock and wagons in the image at left. If you guessed that the painting on the right depicted Texas, you were correct! German-born painter Julius Stockfleth painted Galveston Wharf Scene in 1885, describing with great detail the city’s bustling harbor. The painting on the left is a never-before-exhibited work by the Catalan painter Manuel Cuyàs Agulló called The Disembarkation of American Troops in Ponce, July 27, 1898 (1898). Copied from a photograph, it depicts the arrival of American naval forces in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce during the Spanish-American War. That war would result in Spain’s ceding of Puerto Rico to the United States by the end of that year.

Left: Manuel Cuyàs Agulló, American Landing in Ponce, 1898, 1898. Oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 38 3/4 in. (59.7 x 98.4 cm), Gift of José and Mary Jane Fernández, Museo de Arte de Ponce. The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc. Right: Julius Stockfleth, Galveston Wharf Scene, 1885, oil on canvas, Courtesy of Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

3. What artistic modes or styles influenced each of Oller’s paintings below?

It was Oller’s three sojourns in Paris that most influenced his mature visual vocabulary. There, between 1858 and 1895, the artist worked alongside and under the tutelage of some of the great masters of the early European avant-garde: Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet, to name a few. He embraced the relatively new practice of painting en plein air or outdoors, which he would harness in depictions of specific locales in both France and Puerto Rico.

Solution: While Oller often painted in a hybrid style, melding elements of what he had learned abroad with local mood, the painting on the left likely relates to the artist’s early experience with the French Realist painters, such as Courbet and Jean-François Millet. The Realists monumentalized the rural and urban laborer, depicting ordinary people as protagonists in socially conscious—and at the time radical—scenes. Oller painted The School of Master Rafael Cordero between 1890 and 1892. In it, he memorializes Rafael Cordero, a self-taught son of freed slaves who went on to open the first school in Puerto Rico for children of all races and social standings.

The image at right, Landscape with Royal Palm (ca. 1897), on the other hand, is undeniably Impressionist-influenced. Here Oller employed short, dot-like brushstrokes and juxtaposed varying shades of green to represent the light-dappled foliage of the palma real, a national icon in his native Puerto Rico. He made the painting soon after his final trip to Paris, where he found inspiration in the late Impressionist experiments of Monet.

Left: Francisco Oller. The School of Master Rafael Cordero, 1890-92. Oil on canvas, 39 x 63 in. (103 x 160 cm). Ateneo Puertorriqueño, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Right: Francisco Oller. Landscape with Royal Palm, circa 1897. Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 13 3/4 in. (46.7 x 34.9 cm). Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Stop by the Blanton to see these paintings and more, on view now through Sept. 6.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art and managing curator for Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.

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Music for Meatyard

The Blanton’s award-winning music series, SoundSpace, returns this Sunday with its latest installment, SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders. This program features several new works of music that have been written in response to the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, whose works are currently on view in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with the composer of one of these new works, the Houston-based bassist Damon Smith, about his piece “Music for Meatyard.”

Adam: You’ve written a really interesting description of this new piece you’re going to do at SoundSpace that references Meatyard but also William Carlos Williams and Sigmar Polke. Where did you get the idea to combine those three artists into your music?

Ralph Eugene Meatyard Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in. Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Motion-‐‐Sound #28, ca. 1970, Gelatin silver print, 6.75 x 6.75 in., Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center, © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Damon: I have one of Polke’s artist books, this big book of lithographs called Daphne that features all these xeroxed machine works. I work at an arts supply warehouse so I have access to a Xerox machine, and having the materials is sort of one of the first steps, I guess! I’ve used it to make my own graphic scores before.

When I looked at [Meatyard’s] sound motion studies I actually thought there was a little bit of a similarity to what Polke was doing with the Xerox machine. The sound motion studies are pretty flat—some trees are moving and that’s it—and so I thought the Xerox machine could add some disruption to that, to sort of isolate the movement.

I also liked this idea of this blue-collar intellectual guy who worked as an optician, you know, and had such an interest in concrete poetry—which is fairly well-known now but not really back then in that time period. I thought that was kind of an interesting aspect of Meatyard: it put him in a different class of awareness compared to the accepted photographers around him who might not have known about concrete poetry. So the idea then was just to turn Meatyard’s favorite Williams poem [Paterson] into a concrete poem by tearing it up and dropping it onto the Xerox machine.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 3.08.42 PM

Music for Meatyard, Damon Smith

Adam: I love in the description when you say that you tore up the poem and “dropped the bits on the copy machine, carefully making sure the text was facing down but without moving the pieces.” So you’re creating an element of chance by dropping them but you are careful about where you drop them!

Damon: Yeah, I wasn’t like Hans Arp where I was hardcore about their position. If they moved a little bit in the flipping-over process, I didn’t care that much.

One other connection to Meatyard is that we’re going to do some free improvisations. The idea behind that is that Meatyard is really like when you meet a grizzled old free improvisor! There are a couple of musicians that I wouldn’t necessarily name their names—they might get insulted, you know— but they’ll have a house full of books and they are super well-read and they might not have gone to college but they have a wealth of knowledge about all kinds of music and literature and film and art. And instead of thinking of them as outsiders, they sort of took the route to a Ph.D. that takes 40 years to get, always out digging and researching. So I think that the whole life of an improvisor sort of mirrors the way Meatyard was doing things. In the same way, free improvisation is not 100% accepted academically. It’s getting there but there is still a preference for notated material.

Adam: Do you remember the first time that you saw or read about Meatyard?

Damon: Oh man. I had one of those Phaidon books with the history of photography that I used to keep in my bathroom in the 90s. And I actually thought about his position as this sort of a super accepted artist but who also had that outsider tag. And then I immediately thought of trying to do a duo with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. I actually don’t have a degree in bass, but I studied with a lot of super academic classical bass players and stuff like that and got a fairly formal education and my approach to the instrument is actually super formal. Whereas Ingebrigt has a degree in bass and then plays way more like a hardcore self-taught American jazz player. But it’s a choice that he makes and I just immediately thought of that combination as being super interesting.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith

Adam: How do you think about this notion of the “outsider” being applied to Meatyard?

Damon: I think that it’s weird to think of Meatyard as an outsider at the same time that someone like Bjork has a major museum show. If you read about Meatyard, he talks about how he wants every photo to be perfect. He references these great photographers that he knows and the history of photography. He knows all the contemporary photographers of his time. He already knows all this great modern jazz and he’s friends with all these great writers like Guy Davenport. So I think artists like Forrest Bess and Meatyard are a lot more—those people were hardcore artists. And Bjork is too, but she’s still part of the corporate structure—as much as I like her music, and I think she is really good, I know people who have worked with her, she is still part of corporate pop music. Her whole reasons for doing things aren’t in line with Forrest Bess or Meatyard or Rauschenberg or even someone like Titian.

This SoundSpace brings up the idea of what an outsider audience is, and also the relationship between the art world and popular music. You’ve got the Bjork show and the young kids doing rock’n’roll karaoke at their openings and that sort of stuff and that kind of unhealthy obsession with pop music. The establishment is now corporate culture and corporate pop music and not the universities or the museums. Those museums are sort of our frontlines of defense to protect intelligent ideas.  I think that it’s important that Texas has all these great institutions that are doing this, like the Blanton and the Menil and MFA-Houston and CAM. It’s an interesting place to do this sort of work.
SoundSpace: Musical Outsiders is this Sunday, June 14, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blanton.

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Behind the Blanton: Hilary Elrod, Membership Associate

Some museums might have a member appreciation day, or maybe even a week—at the Blanton, we have an entire Member Appreciation Month! Over the course of June, we’ve set up special perks, treats, and tours to thank our members for all they do for the Blanton. If you’re a member, one of the people you’ve undoubtedly interacted with is Hilary Elrod, our Membership Associate. To put a face to the voice on the other end of the phone, we sat down with Hilary to get some insight on what it’s like working with our members.

Hilary Elrod

You graduated from UT in 2013 with a degree in Anthropology and a minor in Art History—what’s it like working on the UT campus after spending 3 years here as a student?

Hilary: I love it so much. My time at UT was so special to me, so being able to take a break and walk by my favorite spots on campus any time I want is such a treat.

What does a typical day in the membership office look like for you?

My job covers many areas of membership, so my days are often very different. Sometimes, I will spend an entire day working on member profiles making sure everything is current. Other times, I’ll work on processing payments for our different levels of membership. We have about 4,000 members, so there’s always work to do in our database! On other days, I will be working on writing member-specific emails, preparing for events, attending brainstorming meetings, and answering any questions that members might call our office with, such as replacing a lost membership card or renewing their membership through another year.

What makes Blanton members special, and what’s the best part about working with them?

Blanton members are unique because of the small art community in Austin. In cities like New York, where large art museums are in abundance, it seems like a member might feel like they’re voice isn’t heard as much. In a small city like Austin, where the Blanton is the largest art museum, we are able to interact more closely with our members and really hear them and listen to feedback that we receive. That’s also one of my favorite parts about working with our members: it’s wonderful to get to personally interact with so many people who care so much about our institution. I hope that they can feel how important they are to us.

Hilary Elrod

If a member walked in and said they only had 20 minutes to tour the museum, what three works would you recommend seeing?

The Blanton has such a wide range of art on view, so I think it’s important to get a taste of that when you visit.

First, I would definitely recommend Allegory of Youth by Domenico Piola—it’s my favorite piece in the collection. There’s something about a dramatic Baroque-era painting that will always stop me in my tracks in order to take a closer look.

I also love Modern and Contemporary art as well. One of the Blanton’s show-stopping pieces is Summer Circle by Richard Long. It’s a must-see. As soon as you see the giant, intricate sculpture taking up half the gallery floor space, you immediately want to know what the artist was thinking when he created it. The thoughtful placement of each stone is so beautiful to me.

Finally, I would also recommend seeing Rock Bottom by Joan Mitchell. In the center of the gallery on its own free-standing wall, this piece draws you in. Even if you aren’t a fan of abstract art, I think most visitors would enjoy discovering their own interpretation of the work. I personally love abstract art, and even have a wall in my apartment dedicated to my own amateur abstract pieces that I made a few years back. 


What should members look forward to during Member Appreciation Month?

There’s going to be a lot of events and activities this year for Member Month! We have planned a family scavenger hunt, a special member preview of our new exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World with Caribbean themed snacks, and our B scene member lounge is going to be extra special. I’m excited about this year! We really wanted to show our members how much they mean to us by making this month as fun as possible.

For a full list of what we have in store for our members during June, make sure to visit our website. Not a member? Join today!

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Curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt on “Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary”

Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt is an internationally renowned curator and scholar of Spanish art. She’s organized important exhibitions, published several books and articles, and lectured around the world on major Spanish artists like Murillo, Velázquez, and Goya, as well as work by lesser-known and unknown artists working in the Americas. She’s curated the Blanton’s exhibition Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America, which is on view through June 14 and which will re-open on June 20 with a new rotation of eight different paintings. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt recently about the exhibition, which she’ll be discussing at the Blanton this Thursday evening at 6:30.

Our Lady of the Pillar

Unidentified Artist, Peru, possibly Lima, Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk, 17th century, Oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2004.1

Q: You have a very diverse background—how did you come to be interested in South American colonial paintings?

A: I was drawn to working with Spanish colonial art through a long series of life events: first, when I was a child, we lived in the the Caribbean and in Mexico. So Hispanic culture generally has always been a little bit of my own. I grew up with it and I spoke Spanish. When my family moved back to the US and I went to college, I majored in Spanish literature. And then I went on and got a masters degree in comparative literature, which was concentrated on Spanish and French theatre of the 17th century.

And then, a big leap: I got married, had children, and when my children went to school, I went to graduate school in art history. And at that point I decided that my background suited me to Spanish art. So that became my field of research and work for a couple of decades, and it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I had two new opportunities: one working with a private collector, and one working on a major exhibition with the Philadelphia Museum of Art [the exhibition Journeys to New Worlds] on Spanish colonial art. And so these two new projects allowed me to dive in and reinvent myself in a way.

There are many overlaps with what I knew about art in Spain, but it’s new and different, and it’s such an open field—I’ve stuck with it and I’m still enjoying it very much.

Q: You were doing graduate studies in Spanish literature at the same time that the Latin American Boom writers were flourishing [especially Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar]. Were you interested in that movement in contemporary Latin American literature?

A: Yes, but my undergraduate degree was in the Spanish literature of the golden age: Cervantes and Lope de Vega. In the US at that time, contemporary Latin American literature wasn’t such a big deal: people didn’t know very much about it. I love modern and contemporary Latin American literature, even extending up to the novels of someone like Junot Díaz, but that wasn’t part of my academic background—it’s just something else that I’m interested in. The academic study of contemporary Latin American literature would have to wait for someone from a generation younger than me.

By Jiuguang Wang (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Basilica del Pilar by Jiuguang Wang.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Spain License.

Q: Among the works in the exhibition at the Blanton, can you point to one that stands out among others in the genre?

A: The most idiosyncratic work on view at the Blanton right now is Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk. Our Lady of the Pillar is a devotion in Zaragoza, Spain, but it’s really internationally Hispanic at this point in time because Our Lady of the Pillar is the patroness of the national day of Spain, the Día de la Raza. So she has come from being a local cult to being an international figure, very much admired today.

This particular work of art is so interesting because the painting shows the sculpture as it appears, and not in a narrative context. She’s actually appearing on a pillar and saying, “I want a church built here in my honor.” And that’s the great Basílica del Pilar today, which I’ll talk about on Thursday. So I think what interests me most about this painting is that it is so unique: in Spanish colonial art, a lot of images are repeated, but this image of the pillar is one that really stands alone.

Make sure to stop by the Blanton this Thursday, May 21 at 6:30pm to learn more about the Basilica del Pilar and Spanish-Colonial painting from Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt.

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Social Iconography and Graphics in Mexican and Chicano Art

The bilingual exhibition All the Signs are (T)Here: Social Iconography in Mexican and Chicano Art from Collections at The University of Texas at Austin emerges from my research this year as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. As a Mellon Fellow, I sought to learn more about Mexican and Chicano works because they reflect a part of the Latin American populace that resides in Austin and in the United States.

Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014 Archival inkjet print Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies

Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014, Archival inkjet print, Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies

One of the many fortuitous discoveries during my research was Ricky Yanas’s 2014 Protest/Strike Sign, Available upon Special Request, From the Archives of the Benson Latin American Collection. The photograph tells a Texan Chicano narrative that also interweaves various other Chicano histories. The work depicts a sign used in the 1971 Austin Chicano Huelga, a strike staged by predominantly Mexican American workers in Austin, Texas. California-based civil rights leader César Chávez led the strike—which was part of the ultimately successful effort to gain bargaining rights with the strikers’ employer, Economy Furniture Company. The photograph not only succinctly outlines the historical and political context of Chicano history, it also plays upon art historical references: the clean lines of the sign’s handle and the dark molding along the floor divide the image into distinct planes reminiscent of geometric abstraction and minimalism. The black floorboard visually extends the sign to form an inverted cross, evocative of the Christian symbol of humility.

I discovered the artworks featured in my exhibition while reviewing The University of Texas at Austin’s collections as part of my curatorial research. All the works I included are drawn from those research collections, like Yanas’ photograph of a sign held in the archives of UT’s Benson Library. His work was exhibited at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Art in the exhibition at the exhibition Historical Present curated by Rose Salseda. The photograph is now part of the Warfield Collection.

20150511_AlltheSigns_023 copy

Installation view of All the Signs are (T)Here, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Photo by Milli Apelgren

All the Signs are (T)Here makes connections between Chicano histories (Texan, Texican, and otherwise) as well as between Mexican and Chicano histories.  In most museum shows, these artistic practices have been narrated and exhibited separately. The exhibition at the Blanton, however, explores relationships between their shared histories. From mural movements to print workshops, Mexican and Chicano art is known for its emphasis on legible graphic communication as well as its social and political aims. All the Signs are (T)Here brings together a range of expressions—including many works reflecting upon or participating in popular and material culture—featuring the work of artists who playfully rework the tropes of these legacies. It considers the ‘graphic’ both in terms of graphic design—the way finding systems from exit signs to gendered symbols indicating which bathroom to use—and graphic content: images which depict violence or sex in ways that disturb. The exhibition considers the various ways artists use the sign, from social justice endeavors to formalist pursuits, as a flexible social directive that invites interpretation from the audience. The works on view deal with historical moments ranging from the post-revolutionary reforms of 1920s Mexico, to the undeclared Guerra sucia (Dirty War) in the 1960s and 1970s, to the workers rights and UndocuQueer movement in 20th century and contemporary Texas.

Manuel Felguérez

Manuel Felguérez, Signo convexo, 1975, Painted metal, 10 in. x 12 3/8 in. x 11 1/2 in., Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1975.

The exhibition also features examples from the Benson Collection, including a Guided Meditation and reading from the book Borderlands/La Frontera by its author, Gloria Anzaldúa courtesy of the Gloria Anzaldúa Trust and Puro Chingon Collective. In addition to these collections, the show also features work from the Blanton’s collection by artists Pedro Friedeberg, Francisco Dosamantes, Manuel Felguerez (pictured here), Alfredo Zalce, and Anton Vidokle. [2] Also on view is a screen print by Patssi Valdez that is part of the promised gift to the Blanton of more than 350 Self Help Graphics collection prints from Gilberto Cárdenas.

A showcase of the Mexican and Chicano resources at UT’s research institutions, All the Signs are (T)Here features works that reflect upon key historical moments of possibility and change. I will lead a gallery tour of the exhibition on May 21 and look forward to continuing the conversation about these works and UT’s Mexican and Chicano communities.

Alexis Salas is a PhD candidate in Art and Art History at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. She received her BA in History of Art and Spanish from Amherst College and her MA in Art History from the University of Chicago. Alexis also studied at Universität der Künste Berlin and at the California Institute of the Arts prior to working toward her PhD. Salas has been a recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, the DAAD Fellowship, and several awards to conduct research, teach, and lecture in Latin America, Europe and North America. Her research interests concern socially engaged art practices and the social role of the artist.

[1] Independent of my research, the forthcoming book The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin, edited by Andrée Bober will explore UT’s holdings.

[2] Blanton visitors may remember Anton Vidokle’s 2003 Nuevo [New] which the museum featured in its permanent collection exhibition for several years. M Manuel Felguérez’ 1975 Signo convexo [Convex Sign] was exhibited in the 1970s at what was then called the University Art Museum.

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Bearing Witness to Awe: Some Final Thoughts on Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton

Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten, King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, Oil on canvas, Collection of the artist, courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

A few weeks ago, a visitor came up to me after I had finished leading a tour of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton. He overheard me speaking in detail about Jack Whitten’s King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), a large painting that teeters delicately between abstraction and figuration, bearing a fiery hot palette, and made after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He trailed our tour group in the last few galleries of the show, which is often the case with viewers who are curious enough to want to know more.

The man extended his hand, a smile on his face. He pulled me over to the ‘Beloved Community’ gallery, which is filled with black-and-white images of the communities directly involved or affected by the Civil Rights Movement—a Richard Avedon photo of Julian Bond marching with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Danny Lyon’s iconic image of Bob Dylan singing to a group of African Americans behind a SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi; official White House photos by Yoichi Okamoto of LBJ having tea with MLK in the Oval Office. He said it was his favorite gallery in the show. Not for the black-and-white photos, however, but rather for the colorful Romare Bearden collage at its center.

Romare Bearden

Evan Garza giving a Perspectives Talk in front of Romare Bearden’s work in Witness

“Growing up in North Carolina in the sixties, my parents always told me about Romare Bearden. They would show me images of his work in books so that I would know he was important—that black artists could be famous… I have never seen his work in person until now.”

He was beaming from cheek to cheek, his head turning back and forth between my face and those rendered in Bearden’s collage. The sound of Nina Simone’s fierce, impassioned singing bled in from the next gallery as we spoke about the work. He stood there with his arms crossed, shaking his head from time to time, as if in disbelief. The man had waited his whole life to see this artist’s work, and now he was finally standing in front of it. His eyes were full and wet when he thanked me, before walking slowly into the next gallery, following the sound of Nina’s piano and her pleas for peace.



This was one of my favorite moments during Witness—when the impact of these artworks, and the tumultuous period they came out of, became fully realized for the viewer in front of my eyes. And there were dozens more like this—more moments than I can count. Last week a high school student wearing a #BlackLivesMatter shirt chased me down in the Blanton atrium to tell me the show was “really cool.” What I find to be even cooler is that a museum can be a safe space for visitors of all kinds to safely and elegantly unpack and digest some of the most difficult issues of the day. A leader of the Austin chapter of the Black MBA Association reminded me Friday that, “we cannot know where we’re going unless we know where we have already been.”

Charles White

Charles White, Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961, Charcoal on paper, 30.7 x 55.5 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon Family Collection

Witness has been a transformative exhibition for the Blanton, and for months our visitors have been tweeting at us with #WitnessVoices and sharing their experience of race and beauty in contemporary American culture. Visitors with lived experiences of discrimination in the 1960s have passed through our galleries next to wide-eyed elementary school kids with questions about the nature of injustice, each just as moved and as curious. And with the Blanton’s new major gift of 20 works by artist Charles White, scholarship on his work and American art from the African diaspora will continue to flourish at the University of Texas well after Witness has come and gone.

On that note: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties closes in less than a week, on view through Sunday, May 10. If you haven’t had a chance to see this exhibition of important and groundbreaking work, now is the time!

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Managing Curator, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

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Art as a Way of Seeing: Two Works by Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Colombia Coca-Cola, 2010, enamel on tin, edition 10/11, Susman Collection, 2014. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

If you chose to escape the SXSW revelry last month with a visit to the Blanton, you may have happened upon the installation of two new works in the museum’s Klein Gallery. Both are recent acquisitions created by the Colombian artist Antonio Caro.

The first is a painting on tin, in which the name of the artist’s native country is depicted in one of the most iconic typefaces in the world.

Across the gallery, a row of sixteen hand-painted posters wraps high along one wall to another, spelling in bold block letters “Aquí no cabe el arte,” or “Art does not fit here.” (One can’t help but wonder whether the work, in light of its positioning, is site-specific.)

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Aquí no cabe el arte (Art Does Not Fit Here), 1972-2014, acrylic paint on paper, edition 2/2, Susman Collection, 2014. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

On the contrary, Caro has been making and remaking series of work like Aquí no cabe el arte and Colombia Coca-Cola since the early 1970s, when he became one of the first Colombian artists to engage with ideas as his principal subject. In Caro’s practice, material and technique are always second to meaning. His media of choice often include materials that are inexpensive and close at hand, like salt, sand, natural dyes, and cardboard.

At the same time, Caro’s use of format and poor materials is purposeful. His works often evoke popular advertisements and signs of protest and recycle old motifs. Such strategies are intended to dispel the notion of artistic aura and originality. In a 1974 interview, the artist explained, “People think that art is something mystical, something outside of the everyday. There are people that assign it metaphysical, transcendental value. Not me. I think of art as a way of seeing.”

Caro’s use, repetition, and subversion of popular logos stems from his experience working at an ad agency as a young artist. There he learned how an image, like a missile, could be used to “hit the target” of people’s desires. Colombia Coca-Cola harnesses the ubiquity of the Coca-Cola logo, historically treated as a signifier of U.S. capitalism, to call into question the distance between the producer and the consumer. Unlike in modern ads, the handmade quality of the painting (note the absence of a dot over the “i”) points to an invisible agent guiding our consumption of popular imagery.

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Aquí no cabe el arte (detail)

Similarly, Aquí no cabe el arte [Art does not fit here] exemplifies Caro’s ability to use simple means to convey a complex web of meanings. Originally conceived for Colombia’s National Salon of 1972, this work refers, on one level, to that venue, which was being boycotted by a number of artists at the time. But the tongue-in-cheek snub gives way to a pointed reflection on the chaotic political situation in Colombia. Beneath each letter of the banner, Caro inscribed the name of a slain university student or indigenous activist and the year and location of the protest in which he or she was killed. Interpreted as a whole, the work questions the place of art and the art institution in the midst of national trauma.

The installation of these two works by Antonio Caro continues the Blanton’s history of collecting and displaying postwar conceptual art from South America. Visit the Blanton now through July to experience it for yourself.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American Art.

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Paper and Performance: The Bent Page

Everyday life is full of paper objects—a dollar bill, a utility bill, a receipt; each of these evoke a range of senses from dread to desire or delight. These objects all participate in different hierarchies: we attribute more value to a birth certificate, say, than to a 49-cent stamp or a grocery list.

U.S. Department of Labor Declaration of Intention for Pietro Anania, May 31, 1928. Image courtesy

U.S. Department of Labor Declaration of Intention for Pietro Anania, May 31, 1928. Image courtesy

In the digital age, sometimes paper’s scarcity is the thing that generates its value. Here’s a scan of my great-grandfather’s immigration papers that I found catalogued on this week. Subscribers to the site are willing to pay a premium subscription fee in order to see, on paper (even if it’s actually an image of paper), how their identity connects with the past. In this case the paper is a certain kind of performance—it implies age, validity, authenticity.

Inspired by this range of dynamics, I began planning my exhibition Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, which opens April 25. The show’s main argument is that paper isn’t just a surface for drawing or planning; it is a medium that does specific kinds of work and reveals and performs things for the viewer. The show notes the spike in artists’ use of paper in the 1960s and 1970s, when Xerox technology was first introduced and social theories about behavior and communication were widely studied. In this period writers like Erving Goffman were proposing that all social interactions, including private gestures, were performances—a theory that has gained currency in contemporary life.

The show continues up to the present, a time when we see our culture as fundamentally paperless. Like my great-grandfather’s Declaration of Intention, paper elicits a certain sense of gravity in the present moment, but the material also feels weighty and cumbersome. The show demonstrates how paper often disrupts or weighs down our relationship to information in contemporary life, and how it generates unexpected moments of connection, longing, or mourning.

Channa Horwitz

Channa Horwitz, Sonakinatography I: Varied Movement for Multi Media, 1969. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 18 x 13 ½ inches. LeWitt Collection, Chester, CT.

My research gained ground from a trip to the private collection of artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) in Chester, Connecticut. LeWitt constantly bought and traded work with his friends. Many artists like Channa Horwitz (1932–2013) became acquainted with LeWitt through this habit of exchanging art. As a result, LeWitt amassed a collection of thousands of works over his lifetime. He traded everything imaginable: postcards, sketches, artists’ books, snapshots and paper objects.

One such object was Horwitz’s Sonakinatography I: Varied Movement for Multi Media, 1969, a musical performance score on gridded graph paper. Traded to LeWitt after Horwitz met the artist in Los Angeles in the early 70s, this small 18-by-13 1/2 -inch work is an amazing example of paper as an “in between” medium, part sketch, part score, and part artwork. (Many of these scores, including this one, were never performed and are shown instead as stand-alone works of art.) We can imagine LeWitt standing in front of it attempting to decode its geometric symbols like some kind of medieval codex. The gridded page doesn’t just invite engagement; it demands it.

Constantina Zavitsanos

Constantina Zavitsanos, I would prefer not to, 2013. Printer paper and C-clamp. Collection of the artist; image courtesy Constantina Zavitsanos.

The reverse is true of Constantina Zavitsanos’ sculpture I would prefer not to (2013), which consists of three years’ worth of the artist’s student loan debt printed out hour-by-hour. At almost 1000 pages long, the work is bound with a clamp so that viewers in the gallery can page through it like a book; however, it’s a book that no one really wants to read. It inspires the same behavior that most of us feel when we see a bill: we want to turn away, to put it aside; anything to get past the heaviness that the paper document implies. (Even the work’s title refers to an act of refusal: it takes its name from a line in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, in which a bureaucratic worker begins refusing to do the writing that he’s been hired to do, saying instead that he “would prefer not to.”) The sculpture is the remains of a performance that the artist herself executed during her residency at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 2013, when she began printing out her calculated debt every day. She recalls, “I started thinking about the work in the same way [Minimalist sculptors in the late ‘60s] did: what do I have a lot of? Carl Andre had a lot of bricks. Donald Judd had a lot of aluminum. I had a lot of debt.”

After visiting Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, you may find yourself going through your mail, sifting through shoeboxes of letters, or perusing old photographs with new eyes as these networks and lives of paper become visible. The material may take on an added gravity or levity. If you’re just curious about your own historical documents, though, you’re in luck: has a fourteen-day trial subscription, so you can search unencumbered by real paper.

Katie Anania is a PhD candidate in art and art history at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton. Her dissertation, “Tracing Difference: Drawing, Intimacy and Privacy in New York Studio Practice, 1963-1979″, examines new drawing strategies among downtown New York artists in light of changing approaches to identity and “personal space”. The project has received awards from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, the Getty Research Institute, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University. 

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Art and Evidence of the Civil Rights Movement

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Malcolm X Holding up Black Muslim Newspaper, Chicago, Illinois, 1963, Gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 x 18 3/4 in., The Gordon Parks Foundation, Purchase, New York, EL113.060. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a particularly turbulent chapter in American history. It was the product of social inequality, was motivated by hope and justice, and took place in tandem with a quickly growing media culture. Black-and-white pictures of protestors attacked by dogs in the Birmingham race riots, footage of President Kennedy’s assassination on live television, and images of helicopters full of American men in Vietnam flooded television screens and newspaper pages. It was the dawn of modern American media culture; sensational images of turmoil landed front and center on a scale like never before.

These images would provide the evidence of a growing shift in American ideals, and serve as documents of the legacy of injustice that plagued American men and women of color. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of images, and often tipped off photojournalists when he and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) members were planning a protest. White photographer James ‘Spider’ Martin was there in Selma, Alabama on what would be deemed Bloody Sunday, and documented now infamous images of violence and police brutality. He stayed to photograph marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and his archive of photographs of this watershed moment in the fight for voting rights is an important body of work.

Sam Gilliam

Installation view: Sam Gilliam, Red April, 1970, Acrylic on canvas, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Gift of The Longview Foundation and Museum purchase, 1971.11

Artists also responded fervently. Washington D.C. painter Sam Gilliam witnessed the riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination from the windows of his studio, and painted a body of work in response. Other black painters like Jack Whitten produced abstracted compositions in charred palettes or hot fields of color. White artists like Jim Dine, Mark di Suvero, and May Stevens, whose practice would be forever changed by Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington, also contributed in significant ways to the art-making discourse surrounding segregation, discrimination, and violence against African Americans.

Join me and Don E. Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History, this Wednesday, April 8 at 6pm for “Perspectives: Art and Evidence of the Civil Rights Movement” at the LBJ Presidential Library, a conversation moderated by LBJ Library Director, Mark Updegrove. Don and I will present and discuss works included in the LBJ Library exhibition March to Freedom, organized in collaboration with the Briscoe Center, and Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, organized by the Brooklyn Museum and on view at the Blanton until May 10.

More details are available here. We hope you’ll join us!

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

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Meerkat vs. Periscope: Which App Comes out on Top?

koven 8:22 AM
Hey, is Evan’s perspectives talk today? We should Meerkat it if so.

Those two sentences sent on Slack from Koven Smith, the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation, set off a frantic 4 hours on what had been a normal work day in March. With the launch of Meerkat, a live-streaming video service through your phone, the online world was abuzz about this new piece of technology that had been developed in only eight weeks. Meerkat had taken South by Southwest by storm here in Austin a week before, so it seemed only natural to see if it would work as a way to broadcast tours given in our galleries. Shortly after I received the message from Koven, we discovered that Periscope, Twitter’s similar-but-different live streaming app, had launched that very morning. An embarrassment of streaming riches! Which app should we use?

The answer was obvious: we would stream assistant curator Evan Garza’s talk on Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties on both apps simultaneously. Boom.

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Koven and I spent the morning playing around with each app and testing our (private) WiFi strength in the galleries. Our first attempts at broadcasting inside of Witness went well, without any connectivity issues. When we moved back to Koven’s office to test the desktop versions of each app, we discovered that commenting in Meerkat, currently, is tied to twitter—anything you say in a comment while watching a live-stream is sent to your twitter account, while Periscope’s comments function only within the app without being published elsewhere (for now). During the course of our testing, Koven and I made a new friend through Periscope—@bizpaul, who stumbled on our broadcast by accident, became enamored with Koven’s Ray Bans, and helped us try out a few features from across the pond. Thanks, Paul!

Koven: This was some pretty seat-of-our-pants testing, since the only way we could really test the two apps was just to stream them live and hope that not too many people were watching us. However, Periscope was so new at that point that a bunch of people were just watching any and all streams coming across the wire, including our test. This meant people were tuning in to experience Alie and I saying things like, “hey, see what happens when you landscape-orient the camera,” or “there seems to be about a five-second delay between the desktop stream and the stream on the app.” Thrills! This testing was really important, though, because it did help us to figure out that the two apps treat camera orientation differently, which I don’t think we would have known otherwise.

Once we committed to broadcasting Evan’s talk to our (hopefully present) audience, we needed to figure out logistics. Koven was Team Meerkat, while I manned the helm of Periscope—each of us would broadcast from our respective apps at the same time, delivering the same content but through different platforms. After talking to Evan and making sure he was okay with his tour being broadcast to millions hundreds a handful of internet strangers, away we went to the galleries, hoping that our experiment more or less worked the way we had hoped.

Long story short: it did.


Periscope’s post-stream analytics

Both apps broadcasted the entire 47 minute tour without any hiccups in network connectivity. After some (kind of aggressive) outreach on my part to fellow museum social media and tech people, we ended up with roughly 10 viewers on Meerkat, and 5 on Periscope, with the latter giving a clean analytics breakdown of retention rate, total viewers, time watched, and duration.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Holding an iPhone to your chest for 45 minutes while trying to keep the feed steady leaves your arms feeling like you just powerlifted in the Olympics. If you’re planning to broadcast something as long as a tour or a talk, it would be wise to invest in a tripod or have someone on hand to take over when your arms inevitably fail you.
  • It was difficult to film the tour without being disturbing/distracting to the real bodies standing next to you. To get a clear shot, I had to stand close to Evan, but that often meant blocking someone’s view of the art. I also waited until the tour had moved on to another artwork before zooming in for detail shots, which was a bit of an inconvenience for online viewers. Evan has a great speaking voice, but if you have a quieter lecturer, you’ll need to move in closer to get clear audio—which would probably be even more annoying for your real-life tour companions.
  • Text commenting in Periscope was non-existent. As the broadcaster, I had no way to interact with my viewers outside of speaking directly to them through the phone, which I tried to do in whispers between stops on the tour. Meerkat allows the person filming to type comments back to their audience (which, FYI, also post on Twitter), which I would have appreciated. Based on feedback from our viewers, it seemed that people liked the comments on Meerkat better—they remained on the screen so you could scroll back through them, while Periscope’s disappeared if you happened to look away for a second, with no way to see them again.

Koven: I found that I don’t really have a good eye for framing a shot in real-time; I was constantly settling for shots that had both Evan and the artwork he was discussing in them instead of something a little more dynamic. For all its informality, I did feel that a skilled cinematographer could really make this format sing in a way that I couldn’t. I did really enjoy the text commenting in Meerkat; I was able to respond in real time to people commenting on the stream (though I think my video got a little shaky while I was trying to thumb-type on my phone).


Screenshot from our Meerkat stream, with my hands and Periscope in the foreground—so meta! Photo via Chris Alexander.

One thing that I did wonder as we were filming in the galleries: was our filming sending a conflicting message to our visitors, since visitor photography is not allowed in Witness? When visitors walk up to the front desk, they’re shown two separate signs that say photography is prohibited in Witness; when they get to the exhibition entrance, there is another stanchion with the same message, followed by yet another placard as they pass through the entrance with a red X over a camera image. Was it frustrating for tour participants to see staff members filming the tour when they couldn’t take out their phones to snap a photo of the artwork? Full disclosure: if I was the visitor, I would have been annoyed. Even though the allowance of photography within the exhibition was out of our hands, I have to wonder whether efforts to bring the show to a wider audience through live-streaming risks alienating the visitors we already have.

Koven: This was definitely problematic, and I’ll be honest that this dissonance between our “no photos” policy and having two staff members stand there with camera phones was not clear to me until Mary Myers, who is responsible for most of the Blanton’s amazing video work pointed it out. This is where the lo-fi nature of both Meerkat and Periscope worked to our disadvantage–if Alie and I were both using big official-looking cameras rather than our camera phones, this dissonance wouldn’t have been as egregious.

Overall, though, both apps did exactly what they advertised: delivered live-streaming to people around the world with very little setup on the broadcaster’s end. For organizations with few staff resources and a little (or non-existent) budget, I can see both apps being invaluable to creating content without a lot of overhead.

Koven: Personally, I think if we were to do this again (which is almost certain), we would probably schedule a special gallery talk just for live streaming, where it would be easier to control for variables like sound and positioning. There was also something strangely intimate about both apps, and I think doing a live stream while the Museum is closed would accentuate this intimacy even more. I also had several people watching the Meerkat stream ask me (via comments) to move closer to a particular artwork, or to zoom in on details. This sort of thing would be much easier to do if I didn’t have to stay out of the way of other visitors.

So: team Meerkat or team Periscope? Further efforts will probably tell us more, but from our initial test I have to go with Periscope: commenting features aside, museum colleagues reported that it worked seamlessly on desktop and mobile, the user interface was cleaner than Meerkat, and it has the weight of Twitter to help it improve now that it’s out in the real world. However, changes are coming to both apps now that Meerkat raised an initial round of funding, so don’t count out this startup just yet. It will be interesting to see how museums use this new technology to bring their programs to a wider audience—and which app they’ll use to do it.

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Okay Mountain reunites at the Blanton Museum of Art

IMG_6624On a recent trip to Dallas, I checked into the DoubleTree Hotel and was promptly offered a warm chocolate chip cookie. The service was excellent from the cookie onward but as I wheeled my suitcase through the lobby, I couldn’t help but to notice that the interior décor felt standardized; I could just as easily have been in any other city in the United States or staying at another chain. There was a Starbucks in the lobby, a gift shop selling postcards and forgotten toiletries, an ATM and vending machine near the elevator, and the requisite outdated beige hall carpeting with a diamond pattern likely chosen to hide stains. But my favorite detail was the rack card display hawking local attractions: as much a staple of certain hotels as the buffet breakfast.

IMG_1845We just acquired Okay Mountain’s Roadside Attractions at the Blanton, a work that playfully riffs on these rack card stands. Okay Mountain’s nod to these stands is filled with irreverent humor, but what struck me in the hotel lobby is how funny the “real” rack cards often are. Some advertise the customary attractions—the zoo, local museums, outlet shopping malls, and in Dallas’s case, competing JFK Tours—while others offer somewhat eccentric activities: for example, Ripley’s Enchanted Mirror Maze in Grand Prairie, where “The Selfie Possibilities are Endless.” Competing for the tourist’s attention, the flyers are busily designed and zealously overuse exclamation points. Cheesy slogans are embraced without any of the irony that Okay Mountain brings to its counterpart.

Roadside Attractions, 2012, Birch plywood, Masonite and printed brochures, ed. 1/3. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase with funds provided by The Mark and Hilarie Moore Family Trust in memory of Timothy A. Fallon, 2014

Roadside Attractions, 2012, Birch plywood, Masonite and printed brochures, ed. 1/3. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase with funds provided by The Mark and Hilarie Moore Family Trust in memory of Timothy A. Fallon, 2014

For their work, the members of Okay Mountain designed 100 different rack cards that mimic and mock the campy tone and dense mishmash of styles often found in brochures. The cards—all of which are available for museum visitors to take—hawk activities that range from obscure and irreverent to the absurd: “Quiltin’ the Colorado!” (quilting and rafting tours); “Enjoy the Majesty of Mt. Rushmore without leaving the state!” (a half-scale version of the monument); “Visit the Second Largest Night Court Museum!” Other brochures possess a more biting humor that hints at the kind of ignorance and prejudice that can also be found in every state: for example, “The Vaguely African Museum” or “Crew Cut Clan” (haircuts designed like Klansmen hoods.) A few of the flyers refer to actual, offbeat local attractions. The Tabernacle of Trash, for example, depicts the Cathedral of Junk, an installation where a man has turned castoffs into a castle in his backyard.

Detail of brochure, Roadside Attractions, 2012

Detail of brochure, Roadside Attractions, 2012

Although the work is unapologetically humorous and at times even deliberately crude, it also captures a distinctly American spirit—a combination of brazen self-promotion, local pride, and a do-it-yourself attitude. Like other works by the group, Roadside Attractions plays on the conventions and absurdities of contemporary consumer culture. In the digital age we live in, where ads are tailored to consumers in sophisticated ways, these rack cards feel decidedly old-fashioned, even a little sweet, in spite of their low-cost look. They belong somewhere along a continuum of vernacular roadside attractions that includes billboards, misspelled menus, door-to-door solicitations, and funny local business signs (my personal Austin favorite: El Arroyo on West 5th Street).

soy milkFrom 2006-2010, the artist-run, alternative gallery space OKAY MOUNTAIN, presented several exhibitions each year highlighting local, national and international artists. What began as weekly collaborative drawing sessions during staff meetings, developed into a wide range of aesthetic projects and the formation of an artist collective—Okay Mountain. The nine members—who are now spread out across seven different cities in the US—only spend time all together when they are on the road, traveling to install and de-install shows. The hotels they stayed in became their de facto studios, in the case of Roadside Attractions, a source of inspiration.

All nine members will be at the Blanton Museum’s auditorium on Saturday, April 4 at 2pm to speak with me about their work and practice. This is the first time that all nine of them will speak together about their work in Austin.

The collective will also create a mural in downtown Austin. The Blanton has commissioned Okay Mountain to paint a mural as part of the Frank Public Art Wall. Installation will take place March 29-30 and will culminate with an opening reception at Frank (4th & Colorado) on Wednesday, April 15 from 6-9pm.

In the spirit of Roadside Attractions: Join us for any and all events! Good times and fun guaranteed!!!!!!

Veronica Roberts is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton.

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A Conversation with Christina Coleman

photo 4Ever since she graduated from UCLA in 200­6, University of Texas at Austin MFA grad Christina Coleman has been exploring themes surrounding portraiture, skin and hair. The Austin-based artist has shown her work at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, grayDUCK Gallery in Austin, and the John L. Warfield Center’s Isese Gallery and Visual Arts Center at UT Austin. Coleman recently installed Christina Coleman: A Spatial Continuum in Black at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, on view until April 7th. She spoke with Amethyst Beaver, Curatorial Assistant in Modern and Contemporary Art, about her experience growing up in Los Angeles, her love of David Hammons’ work, and her interest in hair.

Amethyst Beaver: To start, could you tell me a little bit about your personal history?

Christina Coleman: I have a younger brother and a sister and I am from L.A. originally. I was born there and I grew up in mid-city. It’s literally right in the center of L.A. proper, so it is twenty minutes to Hollywood, the beach, South Central, downtown. It was really cool growing up in LA. I really like that city, even still. It’s very diverse, even though it is a separated diverseness. There are signs throughout the city that say “Little Ethiopia,” “Little Armenia,” and “Thai town.” I lived in L.A. for most of my life, all the way through college. After graduating, I went to Pinggu, China, which is a small city about an hour and a half east of Beijing. I lived there for two years and then came back to the states and shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas where I now live.

AB: How did you start making art?

CC: I came into art making through my dad. He would take me and my brother and sister to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] every Friday to hear jazz.

A: They had a jazz concert every Friday at LACMA? 

C: Yeah, they would invite bands to come and play there. We were little—elementary school or junior high—and we didn’t like jazz, so we would just run around outside and wander in the gift shop and stuff. We kind of looked at the art. But for the most part, we were wandering around looking at the people.

A: You were just being kids. 

C: Yeah, and I think that growing up in that environment made it more comfortable for us to be in galleries in the first place. My dad started taking us to a gallery in old town Pasadena so we got used to looking at art. I can still remember some paintings from that time. For me museums and galleries were never associated with being boring or quiet. My dad would usually take us to opening receptions and there would always be a lot of people talking, drinking, and having a good time.

 A: When did you start making art?

CC: On Saturdays, during my last year in junior high, my dad took us to these art classes at the Watts Towers Art Center. Cal Arts had this community arts partnership program (CAP) and basically grad students from Cal Arts would come to different inner cities in L.A. and teach art to high school and junior high kids. I took mostly animation classes. I really enjoyed them.

A: It is so neat that they would offer those classes.

C: Yeah and it was free! (Laughter) That’s really how I got started in art, my dad bringing me up around it. He had friends who were painters. His friend, Bernard Stanely Hoyes, is a well-known painter in LA. I just grew up in—

A: —An arts friendly environment?

C: Yeah! (Laughter) it wasn’t the type of environment where I was told, “you’re not going to do art” (Laughter) I also attended Fairfax High School, which had a visual arts magnet program, so I was making art there as well.

A: You went to UCLA’s visual arts program for undergrad. What was that like?

CC: The UCLA program treated the students as independent. It was a non-traditional art education. I really liked it. It was structured so that there was only a beginning and an advanced class. Most of the time the classes were really focused on your ideas. Most classes began with “you have X amount of assignments. What are your ideas? Lets talk about them, then you can carry them out.” Then we would just do critiques. Being at UCLA really opened up my mind about what art was.

A: What do you mean exactly?

CC: Before I went to UCLA, art was only one kind of thing for me. Art was Picasso or Rembrandt. And I really like Rembrandt. LOVE Rembrandt. Gosh that guy could paint. (Laughter) But art was only portraiture or landscape. I had these very traditional ideas of what art was. And I remember one time, thinking to myself, “if someone asked me why I painted this painting, I wouldn’t be able to tell them.” I would not be able to give some kind of explanation and that really bothered me on a subconscious level.

A: Were there any artists you were looking to at that time? 

CC: At UCLA, some of the departments had their own small libraries—the sculpture department had a little library in their space and I remember looking through books and that was when I first came across a David Hammons’ work. I saw his piece, his public sculpture, Higher Goals, and that blew my mind! (Laughter) I thought, “oh my gosh, wait, art can be political and social, it can relate to other things.” (Laughter)

A: When you graduated from UCLA, were you thinking that you wanted to go to grad school in studio art? Did you take some time off?

CC: I took two years off. When I finished undergrad, I knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but also I knew that I wasn’t ready to go. A professor hinted that to me. (Laughter). At the time I had wanted to go to grad school because I knew that I wanted to make better work and school would have the facilities to help me do that.

A: What did you do with your time off?

CC: I did this very strange thing and I moved to Beijing, China (Laughter). It wasn’t strange to me. (Laughter)

A: I don’t think it sounds strange. I think it sounds great.

CC: My friends were like, “What? What are you doing?” I had gone to China one summer through an exchange program to teach English. So when I decided to go there, I thought I would teach English and make artwork. I only intended to go for one year but I ended up staying there for two and I would have stayed longer, but my sister was graduating from college, so I came back for her graduation.

A: Looking back, do you think your experience in China influenced your work? What kind of imagery emerged?

CC: One thing that I took from my time in China that really filters into my practice now—although I didn’t realize it at the time—is an interest in large structures that exist in my surrounding environment and make me aware of my physical body in space. When I was living in Pinggu, I saw large smoke stacks, mountains, and giant inflatable arches everywhere throughout the city and its neighboring small towns. All of these have become and are still becoming imagery in my work.


Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

AB: What are these inflatable arches?

CC: In China, there is a form of advertising where stores will put giant inflatable arches in front of the entrance. The arches usually have a slogan or a word on it and a lot of times they are colorful, either green or red or blue and sometimes there will be many of them. They are huge, and you have to walk through them to enter the store. I was fascinated by those arches. That is where my work, Arch came from. After I came back to the states and started making work I realized that the structures I was interested in—like these arches—were simple in form and that these forms lent themselves toward metaphor. Much of my work now incorporates metaphor and simplicity of form.

A: Could you tell me more about your sculpture, Arch?

CC: To me, an arch is something that you pass through, almost like a portal. That’s why I really choose that form. It reminded me of how I felt going under the inflatable arches in China. I would stare up and look at them, hypnotized. I have experienced a similar feeling when looking at certain hairstyles. I was inspired to create a sculpture that embodied that same feeling and visually represented the hairstyle using the form of the arch. Since repetition lends itself to hypnosis I felt it appropriate to use many braids.

Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

A: You used hair extensions and braided them?

CC: Yeah, I went to beauty supply stores and I bought synthetic braiding hair. A couple different ideas went into this piece. I was thinking about synthetic hair and exoticism of hair as it relates to difference or otherness. Thinking about animals in a way, if that makes sense.

A: It does. I’ve heard people say, “I hate it when someone asks, ‘can I touch your hair?’” Is that where you’re coming from? 

CC: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I remember when I was in the subway in Beijing and I had given the women my ticket and I was going down the stairs and then all of a sudden I hear, “Hey,” and I thought, “What’d I do now?” I went back up the stairs to her and she just reaches out her hand and touches my hair. I didn’t really mind—I was more concerned about trying to catch my subway train. Arch is really coming out of that kind of personal circumstance. I was also thinking about how other hairstyles, thickness, and textures of hair can be exoticized. You begin to be seen as other or different or fantastic in a way.

A: I have seen images of this work shown a couple different ways. This large arch is put together from two pieces right?

CC: I change the work every time I show it and I like that about it. I am planning on showing it as two separate arches. They become these creatures on the ground. I really like that about them. I like how the hair hangs—it becomes moss-like, or fur-like, like an animal.

A: Hair, hair care, hair products and hair politics seem to be really important themes in your work.

CC: Yes, these are important themes in my work. My work is always in some way about my experience, identity, and perspective as a black woman. For me hair is a significant part of this. I use hair to address many topics such as empowerment, freedom, maturation, beauty, pain, and more. In my personal hair care journey the key question I started to ask myself in college was, “Why do I have to straighten my hair? Why can’t I just wear it natural?” I was thinking about beauty being equated with process and alteration, versus beauty equated with a natural look.

When I was at UT, Dr. Cherise Smith [Associate professor of Art History and Director of the Warfield Center for African and African Diaspora studies] gave me the article “Black Style/Hair Politics,” by Kobena Mercer.

When I read Mercer’s text I gravitated toward his discussion of the Afro because he challenged the idea of what natural is. Mercer made the argument that the Afro, a visual marker of social solidarity during the 1960s, was a socially constructed hairstyle. No one just wakes up with their hair in an Afro. The Afro is in fact a style—you have to maintain it, manicure it, cultivate it, run your hands through it. It has gone through some kind of process. During that time, black people were interested in their “African roots” and were trying to make connections between the Afro and Africa. Mercer asserted that there were no African cultures that were wearing Afros or a style similar to it. It was interesting because it really got me thinking about what natural means.

My aunt grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. She said that she really wanted to wear an Afro, but her hair couldn’t actually do it—her hair would lay down flat. I think that’s an interesting thing too—that hairstyle was a visual representation of solidarity for African American people yet, my aunt’s experience also reveals the complexities that are involved within the politics of black hair.

A: When did you start working with hair gel? Were you working on the hair gel works and comb works simultaneously?

Floating Afro

Floating Afro (African Essence, Eco Styler, Ampro Pro Styl, Lusti Professional), 2013, Hair gel on paper

CC: These hair gel paintings began as an accident. I wanted to make prints of combs, but not in the traditional sense of a print. I was thinking about what material I could use that is hair-like that was going to give me a print I could emboss the comb in. I realized hair gel could do that. I took the gel with my hand and spread it on the paper and then I pressed the comb into it. When it dried, I removed the comb and the impression of the come was left on the paper. I began to see that the gel would make these patterns in the paper. I was really getting into the patterning and I thought that was a happy accident.

I then became interested in using the gel to make imagery that was associated with the ground or earth or the body. I didn’t want them to look realistically like a body, but to have the sense of a body. I really wanted them to read as skin. I’ve never owned a car; I always take the bus everywhere. I’ll look at people on the bus and some people’s bodies have a lot of history. I think that was filtering into my work subconsciously—I was thinking about how bodies have scars.

A: I can see that the gel has been applied very thickly in some areas.

CC: The thickness of the gel affects the drying time of how fast the paper will absorb it and affects the patterning. When I was working on that piece, I actually put it outside because I wanted to experiment to see if it would dry faster. It happened to rain a little—a light, misty rain—then when I brought it back in, I noticed that all the little spots were there. I didn’t really expect that to happen. It’s tricky working with the gel, it always does something that you don’t expect it to do. Going back to the idea of skin—the hair gel works are almost not even paper anymore. They become fabric-like, especially the large ones. I really like the relationship that whatever material the gel is on—canvas or paper—the gel is absorbed into it. It’s like our skin, it absorbs things.

Untitled (Eco Styler, African Essence, Softee, Ampro Pro Styl), 2013, Hair gel on paper

Untitled (Eco Styler, African Essence, Softee, Ampro Pro Styl), 2013, Hair gel on paper

A: How did you choose to use these hair gels?

CC: These are all gels that black women use. I was specific about that, initially. I was influenced by David Hammons’ works where he substitutes an object for a body part like he did when he created works where stones and shovels stand in as heads. Similarly, for me, the hair gel in its various shades of brown becomes a substitute for black skin.

A: What about the comb? How does that manifest in your work?

CC: For me, the comb was associated with this daily ritual of combing out my hair, and it was always a struggle. I have a complex relationship to the comb—I see it as something more than a grooming tool.

 Staff #4, 2011, Synthetic braiding hair, hair elastic with plastic balls, plastic barrettes, steel pole

Staff #4, 2011, Synthetic braiding hair, hair elastic with plastic balls, plastic barrettes, steel pole

AB: Is that what you were thinking about with the Staff and Spear series? How do these relate to Variations on the Pick?

CC: Yes, the hair staffs and spears stem from that idea. A staff is essentially an appendage. One uses it to protect him or herself. It is also an object that one can lean on for support. It marks and claims space every time it makes contact with the ground. By decorating the staffs with synthetic hair, barrettes and other materials, I give them agency; they become objects of empowerment. When I began making the spears I decided to cut a comb at an angle so that the teeth became sharp like a weapon. I have a relationship to combs in that they are tools that sometimes cause pain. I felt that making spears—and therefore weapons—was fitting for the comb.

Interestingly enough, once I locked my hair, I didn’t have to use a comb anymore. It was then that I began to make the small sculptures that were Variations on the Pick. For these sculptures I continued working with the same idea of repurposing the comb as a weapon but I also expanded this concept, thinking about the comb based on its physical form. In many of them I have stripped the teeth so that they are functionless in terms of being able to comb a person’s hair. Some of them are humorous in that way.

Variation on the Pick #1, 2014, Earthenware casting slip, ceramic glaze

Variation on the Pick #1, 2014, Earthenware casting slip, ceramic glaze

AB: Switching gears—Did you like the UT program?

CC: I did, it was great. Like I said, it was such a contrast to my UCLA experience. It was a completely different kind of ideology. I had never had a studio before going to UT, so I had this huge painting studio. A lot of professors really promoted a studio practice of a lot of making—a lot, lot, lot of making. They emphasized that the work would come about through the act of producing.

It was really good for me to work with [former UT professor] Michael Ray Charles. I consider him my mentor. He was very crucial for me in the program, because he provided a very approachable support. If I had a question I could talk to him about it, I would just call him up. And a lot of the professors were like that. I think they’re very open to spending time with students, really working with us. Margot Sawyer was really supportive. My work had become sculptural so it was really good to have her opinion.

That’s one thing about UT, I didn’t expect there to be a community of black artists and academics, but there really is. Not that I was looking for it, you know, it was just a nice surprise. When I was an undergrad, I think it was me and one other black girl in our class. I think there were eighty people in our class when I came in that year. You get used to it. I mean my dad would take us to galleries when we were little and we were the only black people there usually. There was something really nice about having that community here at UT. I will definitely say that it was one of the things that made it a positive experience. It’s also nice to see other black artist communities in Texas as well. You have the Otabenga Jones Collective in Houston.

Jamal Cyrus, Eroding Witness 7a, 2014, Laser-cut papyrus, ed. ½,

Jamal Cyrus, Eroding Witness 7a, 2014, Laser-cut papyrus, ed. ½, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of Jeanne and Michael Klein

A: The Blanton actually just acquired a work by Jamal Cyrus, a member of the Otabenga Jones Collective.

CC: Ahhh, you did?! I love his work. That’s so cool.

A: We’re super excited about it. Do you remember the first time you came to the Blanton?

CC: Yeah, the first time I came to the Blanton was during the Desire show in 2010. I went to the conversation that Marilyn Minter and Glenn Ligon had with [former Blanton curator] Annette DiMeo Carlozzi.

AB: That sounds like an amazing talk. You will have to come and see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the 1960s. Knowing your love of David Hammons’ work, there is a piece in there that I think you will love. 

CC: I am looking forward to checking it out soon.

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The Great Museum Selfie Stick Ban of 2015, or This Post Is Search Engine Optimized

Selfie Stick

Obligatory shot of random people using a selfie stick. Photo by Flickr user simbiosc

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you’ve managed to make it through the last few weeks without hearing about the biggest news story in museums, a slowly unfolding epic tale that has been reported breathlessly moment by moment by news outlets both big and small. A story that is so important that even museums who aren’t yet involved are being asked to weigh in. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out, gentle reader, because you are living through The Great Museum Selfie Stick Ban of 2015.

Just think! Years from now, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren stories of how, in 2015, museums around the world collectively said “enough!” and banished selfie sticks to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. They will listen in rapt attention, marveling at sepia-toned tales of the era before The Ban in which hundreds of museum visitors a day wandered around brandishing selfie sticks openly and wantonly. You will chuckle to yourself, thinking how little we knew back then. We used to be able to go into a museum, of all places, and take photos of ourselves from three feet away with sticks? Why didn’t we just go ahead and smoke cigarettes on airplanes while we were at it?

So, yeah. We here in the museum world have been dealing with the media’s fascination with our recent prohibitions of selfie sticks for a few weeks now. It seems that nearly every day yet another museum announces that it is banning the dreaded selfie stick, and nearly every day a new article dutifully appears in some publication reporting about said museum’s prohibition of the popular self-expression object/practical device/signifier of cultural decay. This story refuses to die. A full accounting of the number of articles on The Ban might lead one to believe that this is the most important issue facing museums at this moment, or at least that selfie sticks were somehow pervasive in museums before The Ban took effect.

Blanton Visitor

A Blanton visitor recording a performance in the atrium—shockingly, no selfie sticks were involved. © Blanton Museum of Art

Neither is the case, of course. If there is a real story here, it is that at the same time The Ban is sweeping across the museum world, many museums are actually liberalizing their photography policies. Here at the Blanton, prohibiting selfie sticks was almost an afterthought, added in at the last minute after several weeks of discussion about loosening up our own policies. We already prohibited tripods, monopods, and other pointy things, so we had a de facto selfie stick ban in place anyway. I honestly don’t know, when we began to play our part in The Ban, if we had actually ever even seen anyone try to use a selfie stick in the galleries. We were mostly focused on making sure we were allowing our visitors the maximum amount of expression while still ensuring the long-term safety of the objects in our care. The real story, for us, was not “we’re banning selfie sticks” but rather “visitors can take more photos and videos than ever before.”

But “museums liberalizing photography policies” isn’t a great story for the media, because that story doesn’t make conspicuous use of the popular search term “selfie.”

I seriously doubt that any of the reporters covering The Ban truly think this is big news. But they (and their editors) do know that any article with the word “selfie” in the title is likely to have waaaaay more page views than an article that doesn’t. And page views and clicks are what matter—the actual story being told is largely irrelevant. It didn’t matter if the real story was “museums are finally allowing photography,” because the hook that would get users to click the link was the word “selfie,” and that’s the quote-unquote angle most of the media went with. (Though I give much credit to the New York Times for providing some real context in their coverage of The Ban.)

I recognize that optimizing content to maximize search engine hits is Just How The Media Works Now, and that complaining about it is effectively the “get off my lawn” of the Twenty-Tens. I accept that. But watching The Ban somehow turn into a big story, despite there being virtually no story to tell, worried me. It has long been my contention that a museum that doesn’t appear in search results for a given topic is effectively not an authority on that topic, no matter how many experts it may employ. And seeing how the story of The Ban grew made me realize how difficult appearing in search results is going to be for museums.

Fundamentally, I think it would be wrong to ask a curator here at the Blanton to re-write his or her essay in listicle form just so we can get all the likes. The way that museums produce content just isn’t geared for Search Engine Optimization. But at the same time, this non-optimized content we produce is having a harder and harder time finding an audience organically. And by not attempting to show up in search results, we’re effectively making a decision to give up on using our online presence as a means of reaching people we wouldn’t—or couldn’t—reach otherwise.

There’s got to be a middle way here, and I don’t yet know what that is. I see promise in Google’s possible move towards using facts as a way to rank search results, but museums (art museums, anyway) rarely traffic in the kinds of facts that could be added to Google’s Knowledge Vault. So I don’t know how much of a difference that will make if and when Google moves in that direction. I certainly think there’s value in playing the long game and sticking to our guns, hoping that great content will win in the end. But I don’t know—by the time it does (if it does), will museums still have a place on the Internet?

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Discover the Blanton at Explore UT

eut_logo_large[1][1]This Saturday, March 7 marks the 16th annual “Biggest Open House in Texas,” Explore UT. During Explore UT, the public is invited to the UT Austin campus to learn more about the university’s goals, programs, and resources. Across the 40 Acres, visitors will find special events and activities spanning all genres and interests for everyone from early learners, to prospective students, to adults. Explore UT is a great opportunity to discover how campus communities work together and how learning extends beyond the classroom.

There is no better place for discovery to begin than at the Blanton Museum of Art. Throughout the year, classes across disciplines visit the Blanton because it provides unique opportunities for creative, participatory study alongside works of art from Old Master paintings to contemporary sculpture, and beyond. At Explore UT, the Blanton offers interactive activities that encourage curiosity and imagination through a variety of media.

This year, the powerful exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties coincides with Explore UT, and our activities focus on amplifying the diverse voices of our visitors. As UT President Bill Powers says in his introduction to Explore UT: “We like to say ‘What starts here changes the world’.” Through thoughtful art-making and creative writing, we want to inspire our visitors to be brave, be honest, and be empowered!

Inside the museum, in addition to our special exhibitions and galleries, there are two activities that challenge our visitors’ ideas of expression. The first, which will take place in the atrium, is inspired by the Race Card Project, which asks visitors to condense their thoughts about identity, experiences, and beliefs into just six words. Next, visitors can ‘post’ their card to magnetic boards to create a community forum that others can respond to. The second indoor activity takes place upstairs on the Blanton’s mezzanine, and is called Art of Gold. Inspired by Lawdy Mama, a work by artist Barkley Hendricks in the Witness exhibition, and the way gold is used symbolically throughout art history, this activity invites visitors to create photo-portraits of themselves surrounded by gold.

Button in commemoration of MLK Jr. after his assassination. From the personal collection of Jo Freeman, activist.

Button in commemoration of MLK Jr. after his assassination. From the personal collection of Jo Freeman, activist.

The Blanton will also offer two outdoor activities, both tied directly to activist and protest traditions used by the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. Under the loggia, guests can create buttons using words and images that convey a message—making creative use of a 2” circle! In the plaza ,another tradition is upheld in the form of placards. Visitors can write a message on a large board and hold it up proudly in view of the Texas State Capitol building.

We encourage our visitors to share their photos, thoughts, and comments using the hashtag #WitnessVoices, at any time during the event. Who knows, maybe your post will inspire someone else to make a change, take a stand, and make their voice heard!

Elizabeth Srsic is a first year MA student in the Art History Department at the University of Texas, specializing in Medieval art. She is the Graduate Fellow for Family and Community Programs at the Blanton.

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