Exhibitions of museums’ permanent collections are an opportunity to exhume overlooked works, inspire interest in the genres within the collection and show off the depth of institutional holdings. So it’s a surprise that “Multiple Choice: Perspectives on the Spelman College Collection,” at the Spelman College Museum of Art through May 18, provides only a limited portrayal of its collection.
For this show, the museum placed the emphasis on personal engagement with the artwork. Students, faculty, staff, alumnae and other supporters of the college and museum were invited to see the 70-year-old collection of roughly 360 works and select one that they found compelling. They were asked to convey their responses to their chosen pieces in any way they wished, be it poetry, music, theoretical writing or autobiography. Unfortunately, many of the most exciting works that ended up in “Multiple Choice” have already been exhibited at the museum in the past few years, which leads one to question the depth of the collection rather than marvel at it.
Iona Rozeal Brown’s “a3 blackface #65,” from 2003, a captivating depiction of an Asian woman wearing rapper chains and blackface, was prominently displayed in 2009 in “Showcase & Tell: Treasures From the Spelman College Permanent Collection,” curated by Anne Collins Smith. Renée Cox’s “Hot-En-Tot” (1994), a photograph of the artist wearing prosthetics adhered to her nude body which accentuate her breasts and buttocks, and Sheila Pree Bright’s introspective photographs of domestic interiors from her “Suburbia” series have also made appearances at the museum in recent years.
“Multiple Choice” includes more variety of sculpture than past exhibitions, but aside from María Magdalena Campos-Pon’s “Spoken Softly With Mama II” (2008) and a beaded mask from the Congo chosen by High Museum curator Carol Thompson, the sculptures are mostly lesser works that don’t do much to champion the strength of the collection.
The exhibition does showcase Spelman’s commitment to preserving works by Hale Woodruff, who helped establish the art department at the school. Though Woodruff is best known for his murals, the collection includes his abstract paintings, watercolors and prints as well.
Repetition is inevitable in shows of permanent collections, especially from museums with relatively small holdings. This repetition, however, would have been mediated if the participatory aspects of the exhibition had been better executed. Though the connection between individuals and their chosen works is stressed, the tools used to communicate their stories are difficult to access.
Wall texts accompanying the works seem the exception rather than the rule. Many of the displays advise viewers to visit “nearby” television screens, a vague directive, to watch video testimonies by the exhibition participants. These testimonies play on loop and lack adequate captions to indicate who is speaking or which work they’re describing. With no guidance or sense of order, the video testimonies are impossible to synchronize with the viewing experience of works in the gallery, rendering them ineffective and negating the possibility of empathetic engagement.
Though “Multiple Choice” may seem repetitive to those familiar with the Spelman collection and makes missteps in its integration of technology into the show, it succeeds in showcasing the democratic position on art appreciation taken by the institution. The plurality of participants’ responses, ranging from poetry to preferences in formal qualities and so on, offers encouragement that any appreciation of art is valid.
“Multiple Choice” aims for a commendable inclusivity; it’s a shame the message was lost in the presentation.