The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University Celebrates its 40th Anniversary

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Grandassa Models, Merton Simpson Gallery), ca. 1967, printed 2018. Inkjet print. Gift of the Allen-Niesen Family: Kim, Keith, Kelsey, and Kyle, 2019.13.2. Image courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery and The Kwame Brathwaite Archive
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When the Block Museum first opened its doors more than 40 years ago, I had a good friend, Janet Rossow, who volunteered there and spent hours raising funds and helping to get the fledgling gallery off to a good start. She would be very proud of what  the Block Museum has become. From the beginning, it enhanced the look and feel of the campus. Fast forward to September, 2021 and the Block Museum has grown up.  It is over 40 years old and has made its mark on the world scene, becoming well known and well respected.  And it is ready to receive visitors  in person after the long stretch of online offerings.

The exhibition includes more than 80 new acquisitions highlighting the Block’s new collecting strategy including diverse narratives. While the underlying question of how artists, artworks and museums shape and challenge our understanding of the past has long been there but this year’s celebration brings these ideas to the forefront.

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University celebrates its 40th anniversary and the full reopening of its galleries with the exhibition ““Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection.”


The exhibition is on view Sept. 22 to Dec. 5 at The Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.

“We are thrilled to welcome our audiences back to The Block to join the conversation around these extraordinary artworks that are now part of the museum’s collection,” said Lisa Corrin, Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director. “In the past year, so many of us have been thinking deeply about questions of history, asking how we arrived at this moment, and how we might envision new futures.

“One thing I hope the exhibition communicates is the ways in which The Block is seeking to expand our thinking about not only what we collect, but also how we collect, and why,” said exhibition co-curator Kate Hadley Toftness, senior advancement manager, grants and collection council. “Taking stock of this fact is exciting and rewarding, but also a challenge.”

Dawoud Bey, Untitled (Chicago) 1993. Polaroid color prints. Gift of Sari and James A. Klein in honor of Lisa Corrin and Peter Erickson, 2014.4.5a-b. © Dawoud Bey. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago

I had the opportunity of talking with Kate Hadley Toftness about the exhibition.

Would you say that the thrust of the programming at the Block is taking a new direction at 40 and after the pandemic?

The interest in the way art presents the past and how histories are told have been an ongoing story at the Block Museum. This exhibition highlights the ways we have built this perspective into our collecting strategy. It showcases works o art acquired over many years and our ambition to continue diversifying the collection
in the futures. The exhibition draws attention not only to what we hope to collect, but also to the question of how these decisions will be made and who will have a say in them.

 

Louise Lawler, Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts, 1990. Three printed wine glasses, glass shelf, and two brackets. Gift of Peter Norton, 2016.4.23. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

How long has work been directed toward the 40th Anniversary Celebration?

We’ve been working on Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts, and its related publication for
several years. I should note that the exhibition is also the culmination of a larger “Thinking
about History” initiative at the museum in recognition of our 40th anniversary. This exhibition was postponed from last Fall in the hope that more of our community would to be able to engage with the exhibition in-person. We want people to discover these amazing works and to know they are available as a resource for teaching and
research.

Myra Greene, Undertone #17, #23, #51, 2017-2018. Three stained glass ambrotypes and acrylic shelf. Purchase funds donated by Richard and Susan Rieser. Image courtesy the artist and PATRON, Chicago

How do you think that viewers will benefit from a deeper understanding of the how and why items are selected for an exhibition?  

Being more transparent about the behind- the- scenes process of museum collecting allows for a greater understanding of who holds power in the telling of history, not only art history, but the past more broadly. These ideas were explored in an undergraduate seminar my co-curator Essi Ronkko and I co-taught with Professor Hannah Feldman last Spring, which used the Block as a case study for critiquing museum collecting
practices. Ultimately the students recommended a work of art for Block’s permanent collection,
which is on view in the exhibition, along with five other works brought into the collection by way
of student recommendations. It was important to us to give agency to students, and we found
as many ways as we could to bring other voices into the curatorial process to understand what
makes our collection relevant and compelling. The book features over fifty short essays authored bystudents, faculty, staff and alumni from diverse disciplines offering their perspective on individual objects. This is reflected in the exhibition as well—each label is authored by these different contributors.

Victor Diop, Juan de Pareja, 2014. Pigment inkjet print. Purchase with funds from the Irwin and Andra S. Press Collection Endowment, 2016.9.2. Image courtesy of the artist and MAGNIN-A, Paris

Are other art forms a part of this exhibition?

Other art forms such as dance, music, poetry are often integrated into exhibitions or featured alongside
exhibitions at the Block. In this case, we are hoping to demonstrate how the Block’s art
collection also serves disciplines beyond art and art history, creating entry points for discussion
and inquiry for such wide-ranging fields as Environmental Studies, Journalism, and Materials Science.

Fred Wilson, Untitled (Venice Biennale), 2003. Chromogenic print. Gift of Peter Norton, 2016.4.62. © Fred Wilson.  Image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery

Was there a target audience for this exhibition?

While this exhibition particularly highlights the museum’s collection as a resource for students and faculty, we always seek reach the broadest possible audience with our exhibitions and programs, which are free and open to the public. This aligns with our recent digitization of the collection and the launch of our new online database, eMuseum. The timing of the launch was ideal in that it has allowed us to continue sharing our collection even while so much activity shifted to a virtual format over the past year.

Thank you for your contribution, Kate.

In addition to their display with the exhibition, all exhibition works can be explored within the museum’s online collection database , a tool for teaching and learning with art. The exhibition and related publication consider the works within four key themes Institutions Critiqued; Critical Portraits; Reframing the Past; and Place and Memory.

The Northwestern family can take pride in what the Block Museum has become, certainly Janet would.

Photos are courtesy of the Block Museum of Art