Conversing With Art

We understand art better than we think
Lesley Wright

Art is a language. Artists communicate with us through color, form, subject, scale, texture, movement, and symbols. We all know how to “read” this language, if we stop and engage with the art. While many of us believe we can’t understand art, I’ve found that we are usually selling ourselves short. Instead, we can be intimidated by dense verbal discussions of art that leap beyond what is before us to complex interpretations and inferences. If we use our eyes and look closely at the work created, we can understand a great deal of the visual language. 

Lesley Wright

Think of a visit to an art museum as a conversation. Walk into a room and decide whom you would like to talk with (which work of art). What questions do you want to ask? What does the art tell you in return? What are its friends and neighbors telling you? Do they get along? 

Curators and exhibition designers (should) present exhibitions so that conversation comes naturally: conversation with the visitor and conversations among the works of art. The very best exhibitions that I visit, no matter how difficult or abstract the art, are ones where I can see that everything is there for a reason. Every piece has a relationship to others, sparks new ideas as I move through the space, or gives me a reason to look again at something I missed before. Being in the room excites my interest, and I want to grasp the argument made by the curator.  

The art on view is the end point in a long process of curating and creating an exhibition. For every presentation of art, someone had to make an inspired series of decisions to generate the conversation we have with the art. Showing art by culture, by chronology, by theme, or by color are all choices, not self-evident schemes.

How do we select the art and exhibitions we bring to Faulconer Gallery? That, too, is a conversation among curators and museum staff, and with artists, faculty, other museums and organizations who specialize in sharing exhibitions with museums. Sometimes we go out and create an entirely new exhibition, born of an idea in a curator’s mind. Sometimes we look for existing exhibitions planned at another museum and available to us. Weaving together these opportunities builds a stimulating exhibition program. Most of our exhibitions come together in about two years, but more complex or highly desirable shows can be in development for three years or more. Sometimes we seize an opportunity and bring a project to the gallery is about six months. 

Faulconer Gallery presents eight to 12 exhibitions a year, large and small. A powerful exhibition might have six works of art or more than 100. What matters most is great art and strong core ideas that can be shared visually with the public. Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions, might work with a single artist on a project created just for Grinnell. Kay Wilson, curator of the collection, may develop an exhibition of prints from the collection in concert with a few faculty members. I may curate an exhibition about art in the Midwest with the Center for Prairie Studies. Or one of us might leap at an opportunity to curate an exhibition that beats with the pulse of contemporary art created elsewhere in the world. 

Exhibitions developed in partnership with others make the conversations in the gallery richer, informed by perspectives honed in other disciplines. Our programming makes some of these discussions available to our audience. Whether we pay to bring an exhibition to our walls or to build out a new idea ourselves, we seek a connection with our campus and community. Through the art we bring to Grinnell and our abundant programming, we hope you can join the conversation.

Lesley Wright has been director of Faulconer Gallery since 1999.

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