Friday, January 24, 2020

March Humanities Symposium to Explore Future of Museums

When you think about museums, what comes to mind? Many of us picture an imposing building with artworks and artifacts displayed among velvet ropes, marble columns, and guards who shush you. But there are many possibilities for museums, and the two directors of this spring’s Obermann Humanities Symposium, “What Can Museums Become?”, Joyce Tsai and Jen Buckley, have gathered speakers transforming museums in several innovative ways.

“Museums are not vaults,” emphasizes Tsai, Chief Curator of the UI Stanley Museum of Art and Associate Professor of Practice in the School of Art and Art History, CLAS. “They are meant to be activated by curators, scholars, researchers, and artists to engage with a diverse public.” This “activation” of museum spaces and collections—what it is, what it looks like, and how to achieve it—is the focus of the symposium, which occurs at various locations from March 5 to 7 on the UI campus. Co-directed by Tsai and Buckley (Associate Professor, English, CLAS), the symposium will feature free lectures, roundtables, and presentations by activist-curators, artists, teachers, and scholars who have found new possibilities for museums as spaces for live art, community organizing, and healing.

Symposium topics will include ways museums can enrich, engage, and create communities; the intersections of museums and performance; the potential for museums to deploy their cultural reserves to redistribute power in real, concrete ways; the urgency for museums to move beyond their exclusive cultural and financial status; and ways collections are powerful resources for teaching and research.

Keynote speakers and roundtable scholars represent a range of institutions, including art and history museums, universities, and public art centers. Indeed, says Tsai, “the kinds of questions that we’re asking in this symposium go far beyond the art world. They have to do with how museums understand different kinds of communities and their needs, and how we can align the interests of museums and communities so that they can bolster one another.”

Why Now, Why Here?

“Right now, museums are at a crossroads,” note Buckley and Tsai. “At a moment when history is constantly being rewritten, truth is contested, and the value of public institutions is challenged, it’s vital to ask ourselves how museums can support and sustain living communities and contribute to public, civic, and social life.” Museums, they say, can be centers for the discovery and nurture of ideas, spaces of community connection and gathering, and places that facilitate important, difficult discussions, among other things.

The symposium takes place at an auspicious moment, as the UI’s own Stanley Museum of Art prepares to open in its new building in 2022. Founded in 1969 to support the work and research of the UI’s interdisciplinary MFA students, the museum has always served the educational and research mission of the university. “Our collection has never been of or for the elites,” says Tsai. “It belongs to the people of Iowa and exists to serve the public good.”

Starting with the so-called “Iowa Idea” of the 1920s and 30s, the University was in the vanguard, bringing artists and scholars together in an academic context, a model that was subsequently adopted by other universities. In the 1960s and 70s, the UI pioneered engagements among the live arts—by, for instance, staging artistic performances in campus museum spaces; the university was also a pioneer in the visual and plastic arts.  What will the next phase of museum presence look like for our university, community, and state?

Who’s Who

Tsai and Buckley have assembled an impressive roster of museum thinkers and groundbreakers who will join the UI community for lectures, presentations, and roundtable discussions. The keynote speakers include leaders of major university arts programs and one of the world’s premier museums: 

  • Johanna Burton, director of the Wexner Center for the Arts—renowned for its cutting-edge exhibitions and commissions—will speak to the ways in which a museum space can offer respite and healing as well as exhibitions. Burton co-curated Simone Leigh’s groundbreaking 2016 exhibition The Waiting Room, which included holistic self-care workshops for women of color in a gallery setting.
  • Amelia Jones, Professor and Vice Dean of Research at the Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California, is joining the symposium as an Ida Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor. As a scholar, administrator, and curator, Jones has a unique perspective on how academic institutions can support arts practice and engagement.
  • Michelle Kuo, Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), explores in her work the intersection of art and technology. One of her research interests is Bell Labs’ Experiments in Arts and Technology Program, which brought artists and engineers together to create digital art in the 60s and 70s. As a former editor-in-chief of Artforum—a leading journal on contemporary art—she’s well-poised to speak to the relationships among critics, the market, and leading collecting institutions.

The panelists, who represent a diversity of art spaces and topics, include:

  • Jill Ahlberg Yohe, curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, will discuss her co-curation of an acclaimed exhibition on the work of Native American women artists that included explanatory text in the indigenous languages of the artists.
  • LaTanya Autry, Gund Curatorial Fellow at moCa Cleveland, will discuss her scholarship on museums as sites of commemoration, with a particular focus on lynching museums/memorials and the interplay of memory and public space.
  • Juliet Bellow, Associate Professor of Art History at American University, will bring a historical perspective on the relationship between the visual arts and performance to a discussion about museums and performance.
  • Lane Czaplinski, Director of Performing Arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts, is well known for his 15-year tenure as Artistic Director at On The Boards. He’s interested in how digital recording and distribution can democratize access to performance while also financially sustaining artists.
  • Anaïs Duplan, founder of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies at Public Space One and Program Manager at Recess, an organization that provides residencies, space, and networking and outreach opportunities to artists, will discuss how he engages diverse populations—especially the economically disadvantaged—in his work.
  • Lisa Yun Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago and an associate professor at the University of Illinois–Chicago, will join a conversation about the responsibility of museums to their surrounding communities and ways that museums can advocate for public policy.

Several UI and Iowa City experts will also add their voices to the discussion, including Anny Dominique Curtius (French & Italian, CLAS), Sarah Bond (History, CLAS), John Engelbrecht, and Kalmia Strong (both of Public Space One).

Asking and venturing answers to questions like Why do museums and their collections matter? What’s the role of a museum in the community? What do innovative museum collaborations look like? How can museums stay relevant and be what we need them to be, right now? How can museums create new communities? and, of course, What can museums become?, this symposium will interest faculty, students, community members, and museum professionals alike. Please join us. All events are free and open to the public. View the complete schedule.


The Obermann Humanities Symposium is an opportunity for UI scholars to explore an important topic using the lens of the humanities. Co-directors invite national and international speakers who provide an interdisciplinary response to the theme, and also highlight the work of UI and local experts. The symposium often includes an arts component, as well, as opportunities to share pedagogical approaches.