Putting the ‘national’ in the National Gallery: Kaywin Feldman wants the museum to serve the people | Museums

Tempietto by Donato Bramante in Rome. The Parthenon in Athens. Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Barcelona pavilion in Spain. The Guggenheim Museum in New York. And the White House in Washington.

All were made into architectural birthday cakes by Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, as a gift for her architect husband. “I’m not a cook, so these are not pastry masterpieces,” explains the 55-year-old man, who used carrots for the minarets of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. “They kind of amuse me.”

It just seems that the custodian of some 156,000 works of art, from Rembrandt to Rothko, not to mention a constant cycle of temporary exhibitions, should be given a creative, albeit unusual, outlet (she also carves pots of peanuts fresh butter).

Feldman became the fifth director of the National Gallery – and the first woman to lead it – in March 2019. A year later, she launched an unprecedented shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and, like other cultural leaders , faced historic racial injustices in the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Today, the gallery features new exhibits that include chronicle the life of African-American photographer James Van Der Zee in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 1930s, and The New Woman Behind the Camera, a radical reassessment. of the impact of women on the history of modern photography.

Sitting in a beige seventh-floor office with one of the best views in Washington, her window is dominated by the west facade of the U.S. Capitol, the scene of the presidential investitures and the January 6 insurgency. The National Gallery, which receives two-thirds of its budget from Congress, is a national treasure that offers free admission and was receiving about 5 million visitors a year before the pandemic.

Feldman says: “I feel like I was hired with a clear mandate from the board which, as they like to say, is to hand over the ‘national’ to the National Gallery and think about how which we serve the American people, because a large part of our funding comes from American taxpayers.

Some of the first steps include strengthening the gallery’s digital strategy and responding to calls from many visitors for better signage around its labyrinthine buildings. She discovered that there was no simple, unifying brand identity. So she created a new logo, combining a conservative typeface and a vibrant color palette, designed by top design company Pentagram.

Then, just over a year into his tenure, Covid-19 struck. The institution weathered the storm better than most. He did not have to make drastic staff cuts and was forced to cancel just one exhibition, although the dates of the others were juggled. Like other museums, it has suffered shutdowns and starts, with its longest period of closure being from November to May.

Even then, Feldman came to work almost every day with a small team of 60 to 80 security and maintenance personnel. Sheltered from the crowds of tourists, she had the privilege of being able to walk the corridors and savor her personal favorites, such as a portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David and La Fête des Dieux by Giovanni Bellini and Titian. But the novelty quickly faded.

“During the first two weeks I was like, ‘Ah! I have the gallery all to myself, I can go to all the galleries and enjoy the collection, ”she says. “I did it for a while and then it got depressing. As fantastic as the works of art are, they need people to bring them to life and I didn’t like the total calm and still atmosphere.

Then came the Black Lives Matter uprising. Having lived in Minneapolis for 11 years prior to taking this position, Feldman was well aware of the local context surrounding the death of Floyd, an African-American man, below the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Museums, theaters and other organizations that have long pretended to stand up for racial diversity, equity and inclusion have faced a new judgment.

Feldman says: “Most organizations, but certainly museums, are all about people and so issues like this resonate. Since I arrived, this is a topic we have been talking about, but the murder of George Floyd only added more urgency to getting the job done and realizing everything we had to do. “

The gallery notably postponed an exhibition by Philip Guston, a white artist whose work depicts hooded cartoon-like figures who allude to the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to criticize white supremacy. Feldman has been condemned, including by some black artists, for apparently trying to dodge possible controversy.

Riding Around by Philip Guston.
Riding Around by Philip Guston. Photograph: to dpa Photo Alliance / Alamy

She defended the decision in an article for the international art magazine Apollo earlier this year: “Guston used these numbers to explore the seeds of racism and the capacity for evil in all humans. His intentions were good, as were those of the National Gallery in presenting the exhibition. But these good intentions don’t negate the trauma we can cause in a public display of images that refer to slavery, lynching and racial terror.

She added: “It is imperative that the National Gallery slow down and truly listen, not only to curators and art critics, but also to our staff and the community at large who have something to say about how whose works affect them. To ignore or reject their very real emotions would be to deny their worth and their free will. We will gain a new understanding of Guston’s work and the important issues the artist raised by listening to people museum directors don’t always hear.

His position has not changed. “This is a very important show for us and to which we are committed and which we are organizing in 2023,” she said. “But between the pandemic and the inability to have in-person conversations and the moment of Floyd’s murder, which made us all think more about diversity and inclusion within institutions, the break was really important. for us. “

Prior to that, Afro-Atlantic Histories, a show about the historical experiences and cultural formations of blacks and Africans since the 17th century, will open in April. This is another that pushes us to expand into new avenues and I always say that in order to successfully host exhibitions that deal specifically with America’s complicated and painful past, museums must come from a place of authenticity, legitimacy, generosity and curiosity.

Feldman estimates that about 90% of the National Gallery’s permanent collection is made up of white artists, but notes that in recent years it has acquired significant works by artists of color, including Native Americans. In October, the museum announced the acquisition of The American People Series # 18: The Flag is Bleeding (1967), its first painting by Faith Ringgold, one of America’s most important black female artists..

The gallery has also diversified its management team, notes Feldman, notably by hiring Kanitra Fletcher as the first-ever curator of African-American and Afro-Diasporic art.

Feldman brings a transatlantic perspective. She was born in Boston but lived in Britain for six to 11 years when her father, who served in the US Coast Guard, stayed at the US Embassy in London. She reflects, “I have such longing for my childhood and my childhood. We lived in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire and I went to a very small English school just up the road where I could walk. It was a very idyllic place.

Feldman then worked in the education department of the British Museum (‘it’s kind of my home museum’) and also did a work project at the National Gallery in London which was a model for the version. of Washington designed in the 1930s by Andrew Mellon. , financier, secretary of the US Treasury, art collector and anglophile.

“It was never his intention that we had a representative showing the entire American art school or Spanish painting,” says Feldman. “It was the idea that they would be just crown jewels, kind of like the National Gallery in London, and they’re really a sister institution to us. We are constantly working together. We are both very generous in lending works of art and are in close contact. It’s a friendship and collegiality that we all appreciate here.

London, New York and other great art cities have become famous for their “blockbuster exhibitions,” hot ticket shows built around iconic artists who have drawn long lines. But Feldman, former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and former president of the American Alliance of Museums, suspects the phenomenon is coming to an end.

“I think the blockbuster era of museum extravagance is going to wane partly because of the wear and tear of works of art and then because of climate change. The environmental impact of these major exhibitions is extraordinary.

“You can have exposure with 60 or 80 different lenders. These are all planes and crates which, if you’re really lucky, get recycled for two more uses, but otherwise they get thrown away. Installations and sets are often thrown away. This is a subject that the field must begin to explore.

She adds: “The part that I find so exciting about this is to think about how we might think differently about the permanent collection. I’m not just talking about making exhibitions from the permanent collection, which is certainly legitimate, but here we have an extraordinary collection of masterpieces. We have the best, so why not think of some new types of installations, galleries and projects to liven up the collection we have? “

The upheavals of recent years have obviously offered the opportunity to stop and rethink a museum as a place of people and objects, a place of responsibility towards the nation and even the planet.

In 2016, Philando Castile, an African American, was shot dead by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Then director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Feldman mounted a small exhibit in response, an expression of connection with his community. The impact remains deep for her.

She recalls: “An exasperated administrator of mine in Minneapolis once said to me, ‘Why does everyone expect museums to solve so many societal problems today?’ I said it’s because museums are about people. We are not just things because the objects we have on the walls were all created by people in particular circumstances, often for people, and we invite people to experience that.

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