By Ayerin Simmerman- Esteem
Approaching its Dec. 2 close, Selections from the Permanent Collection at UCSB’s Art Design & Architecture Museum (AD&A) makes for the perfect opportunity to learn about art history and how the value of art is based on the context in which it is shown.
The exhibition displays art from all reaches of the fine arts collection normally held underground in the archives at UC Santa Barbara. Of the roughly 900 items usually held in storage, the exhibition shows us pieces ranging from Belgian Congo headdresses to modern abstract paintings by UC Santa Barbara alum Richard Serra. This juxtaposition of art across different places and time periods allows visitors to see a Pre-Colombian era sculpture and a still-life painting by Northern Europe’s Cornelis Mahu in the same room.
During a recent interview, Susan Lucke, the Collections Manager at the AD&A, took me on a tour of the exhibition and gave her views on art discourse and the role of museums.
Q. What made you want to start working at the AD&A? Were you more interested in the university itself or the museum it houses?
A. I set out to work in art history. I was always involved in artistic projects as an undergraduate and graduate student. I went to San Francisco State University for my undergrad and earned a graduate degree in Art Education at the University of New Mexico. I initially had trouble finding a job and started working for museums. I really liked working in art museums, especially art museums affiliated with universities, so you get to work with students.
Q: Specialist in Art History at UCSB, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, would say that art history discourse has the potential to create value for art and cultural patrimony. Do you think a more informed public can make certain art more valuable?
A: The challenge of museums is to convince people to appreciate art. Authenticity adds value. Considering that most museums are run from a white perspective, it can be argued cultural art from places such as Africa is not valued highly enough. Some people like to look at the visual beauty of the paint. Some people like to look at the history. What’s more valuable?
I like thick gooey pieces with lots of paint; I think they’re wonderful. You can’t say a more informed public would make art more or less valuable. Museums need to cater to all people, not only the educated. This museum is free along with most public museums.
Q: In the past, there has been controversy over how historical items should be kept and displayed. For example, some African figures which are meant to be clothed are often presented in their bare forms. How can we maintain the integrity of the art held in the archives and museums?
A: We try to protect art wherever possible. When on display, fragile things go under vitrines and stay on stands. For example, Pre- Columbian pieces that are easily 1,000 years old are kept under fire-proof vitrines on an earthquake-proof stand. Often, pieces of fishing line are used to hold the items in place in case we get shook. Other times, the items are attached directly to the stands. Finally, we control the temperature and humidity at all times in the museum and the archives. Artist Richard Serra requires a special frame on his paintings that protrudes a bit so that if someone brushes by the frame, they won’t touch the actual painting. We try to be mindful of culture as much as possible. I believe the role of museums is to define culture.
Ayerin Simmerman-Esteem is a third-year UC Santa Barbara undergraduate, majoring in Biological Sciences.