Birthday Presents

Through Jan. 6

Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill 

In mid-September, a huge red orb appeared in six different locations around UNC and Chapel Hill. Wedged in arched doorways and between columns, the site-specific installation invited viewers to re-envision familiar surroundings through an imaginative interaction with architecture in public space. Kurt Perschke’s traveling RedBall Project, cited as the longest-running street-art performance (it began in 2001), was part of a trifecta of happenings commentating the sixtieth anniversary of UNC’s Ackland Art Museum.

Premiering concurrently was UNC alumna Lauren Frances Adams’s Crazy Quilt, a site-specific installation in the museum’s revamped ART& community space—a place for artist lectures, events, and mini-exhibits where students can also hang out and study in a food-and-beverage-friendly reception area.

Made of temporary-adhesive floor-to-ceiling wallpaper, Adams’s large installation is mural-like in its scale and its all-over textile motif. Named after the quilting style composed of irregular patchwork pieces in a variety of materials and patterns, Adams draws inspiration from the decorative arts in combining haphazard scraps of historical happenings, stitching together a revisionist narrative of labor, women, people of color, and LGBTQ history in North Carolina. By provoking questions about how history gets created and using her access to the North Carolina archives, Adams created a “microcosm of the Ackland,” says Lauren Turner, the museum’s assistant curator.

While the red ball has rolled on to other cities, Crazy Quilt remains on view through March. Also still on view, through the new year, is the third and largest of the projects the Ackland unveiled in September. If Crazy Quilt is a microcosm of the museum, then the exhibit Birthday Presents is a macrocosm: a broad collection of global work organized roughly into two categories, “The Art of Our Time” and “The Historical Collection.” The latter ranges from Han Dynasty earthenware sculpture to twentieth-century African ceremonial masks and Japanese ceramics, as well as a significant number of Abstract Expressionist prints and paintings.

It is no secret that the Ackland is a premier Southeastern destination for its archival wealth in prints, which is why lithographs, screen prints, and drawings make up the bulk of the exhibit. It includes three Rembrandt etchings, an Edouard Manet lithograph, four Lee Krasner lithographs, two Adolph Gottlieb color screen prints, a Sam Francis lithograph, and a Sister Mary Corita Kent screen print.

The unifying thread is the method of acquisition: The pieces represent the largesse of the museum’s donors. Complementing the Ackland’s 2011 exhibition Carolina Collects: 150 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art from Alumni Collections, in which UNC alumni loaned their private collections to the museum, Birthday Presents is a compilation of pieces that have been given to the Ackland or promised to it in commemoration of its anniversary.

A museum’s permanent collection is established through innumerable means, but university museums can face fairly restricted budgetary allotments for purchasing new pieces to expand their permanent collections, often relying on annual funds and institutional endowments. Thus, exhibits are frequently dependent on loans from other institutions or private collections to keep them fresh and interesting.

When collecting institutions like the Ackland acquire pieces, art acts as a kind of energy source, a potential waiting to be utilized and maximized in different contexts in the museum. Chief curator Peter Nisbet describes it as “adding batteries to the storehouse.”

Meanwhile, for non-collecting contemporary museums (such as CAM Raleigh), the very idea of a collection is a financial burden that imposes limitations, but also opportunities to create innovative, unexpected exhibits.

Art historian Claire Bishop discusses conflicting theories of building permanent collections in her book Radical Museology: Or, What’s ‘Contemporary’ in Museums of Contemporary Art? Beyond the expense of building and maintaining a collection, Bishop writes, “to many curators, the historical weight of a permanent collection is an albatross that inhibits the novelty so essential to drawing in new audiences.”

As recent studies have shown—including “Igniting the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums,” which ran for seven years at the Dallas Museum of Art—experimental exhibits typically attract a broader audience, especially among the younger demographic, by provoking contemporary political issues and encouraging social-media spreading. Spectators who might think of a traditional museum as stuffy or elitist can now frequent museum spaces that have reconfigured their programming and outreach to be more democratic, accessible, and interactive.

On the other hand, Bishop argues, “The permanent collection can be the museum’s greatest weapon in breaking the state of presentism because it requires us to think in several tenses simultaneously: the past perfect and future anterior.”

In other words, a permanent collection provides a foil, a context for the contemporary exhibits to dialogue with and react to. I believe that the Ackland’s upcoming December exhibition, A New Look: The Permanent Collection Galleries Re-energized, will attempt to do precisely that.

Birthday Presents demonstrates how the Ackland’s administrators navigate the financial concerns Bishop raises: by cultivating critical relationships with philanthropic patrons and UNC alumni to incorporate key pieces into the collection. The museum seems to accept Bishop’s invitation to rethink its holdings in “several tenses simultaneously” by juxtaposing a more traditional exhibit with Perschke’s transient public work and Adams’s historically significant yet strikingly contemporary installation.

It’s the combination of old and new, permanent and temporary, that helps viewers understand each, validating Bishop’s prognosis that, without a collection, it’s hard for a museum to stake a claim not only to the past, but also to the future.