Welcome to ArtsGazing

The Collections Edition

Collecting is always a little bit of a tricky thing. First, it’s actually harder than it looks. It’s never just an assemblage of things, absolutely not. The basic framework to create a collection is people, places, things, and time periods, all combined with a specific viewpoint or reason for all the pieces to come together. A bad collection doesn’t narrow down the guidelines, a good collection does, and a great collection takes the rules and adds one thing more: a sense that this compilation is only the beginning of the learning process for the collector or a future audience.

Helen Levitt, New York City, 1939. Vintage gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Laurence Miller Gallery.

Second, once it’s been assembled, collections can start to get a little repetitive unless some imagination is applied to the grouping. If this seems to be counter-intuitive, our ‘Opening This Week’ choice, the Laurence Miller Gallery’s show Body of Evidence, shows how a great collection keeps viewers focused and engaged. Using themes of family, evidence, individuality, and performance, the gallery gives context to the diverse selection of modern photographs and drawings on display, blending two distinct mediums into one aesthetic moment of pleasure.  

Deity figure (zemí) Taíno, Dominican Republic (?), ca. A.D. 1000 Guaiacum wood, shell, H. 27 in. (68.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979. Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A third problem with collections is sometimes people think that once items are assembled, identity and purpose of the objects are permanently fixed. It isn’t true, of course, but years of museum-going gives the public a strong impression that once something is in an officially sanctioned space, labelled as an item of historic importance, no one needs to examine or think about it ever again. Fortunately for New Yorkers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is taking steps to change this lazy thinking with mini special exhibits highlighting aspects of their permanent collections. In our ‘Gallery Shows’ section we feature a review of Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean, one of their latest shows examining the objects and culture of the Taíno, Native peoples living mostly in the Caribbean region. Because they had an oral tradition and a smaller population than their South American counterparts the Aztecs and Mayans, documentation on their culture comes mostly from the Spanish invaders and archaeological finds. The niche display style within the larger wing of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is very effective, allowing the Taíno works to be seen at their best. The show itself is intriguing, raising far more questions then there are answers, exactly what an archaeological-based exhibit should do.