When I first visited the Museum as an art history student at Duke University in the early 1990s, I spent many hours wandering through its free collection, then housed solely in East Building. When I returned to the campus as museum director and CEO last November, nearly 25 years had passed. I’ve dedicated my first year as director to delving into this institution’s fascinating history and appreciating its incredible expansion as I continue to envision its bright future.
Who was more literate? Cleopatra or Ptolemy II? In this interchange François Le Moyne's 18th-century portrait of Cleopatra intrudes on a block from Ptolemy II's temple at Sebennytos in ancent Egypt (left). Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, was smart and politically savvy. She was also the only Ptolemaic ruler who spoke Egyptian and read hieroglyphs. Ptolemy II built the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but he could not have read hieroglyphs on the temple addition he built at Sebennytos.
I believe now more than ever that the Museum’s greatest asset is its free collection, which includes outstanding works of art made all over the world and encompassing so many interesting stories across time. I came to the Museum as a curator with extensive experience in collections and a commitment to re-evaluating the art historical canon with a view to making the narratives told by museums more varied and accessible to diverse audiences. It is with that eye that I began to assess opportunities to present the NCMA’s collection in new ways.
I asked the curatorial team to begin imagining the collection as a dynamic toolbox that could be shown in different permutations and incorporate interpretive tools as well as live performances on an ongoing basis to provide multiple perspectives and points of entry. The initial stage of this project was launched this fall through a series of artwork conversations we’re calling Interchanges: Cross-Collection Conversations.
This series introduces the concept of cross-cultural, cross-temporal installations. Recognizing the often-strict borders between art historical genres and time periods, we are breaking these boundaries by moving artworks around to challenge and interrupt preconceptions. Works chosen for Interchanges, marked by gray labels, offer opportunities to contemplate timeless topics as well as current issues and debates.
Who's got the power? Artist Kehinde Wiley (his work is on the right) spontaneously discovers his models on the street and then asks them to choose poses and settings appropriated from paintings found in art history books. Reinventing traditional portraiture, while questioning who is represented in the portraits found in museums worldwide, Wiley states, “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.” An immediate response is found in this gallery filled with portraits of the privileged (young Louis XV, for example, at left), presented in majestic settings and lavish clothing intended to convey the subject’s status, prestige, power, and wealth.
Themes being explored include gender and racial identity, the tendency to favor Western countries in art history, geographical barriers, the traditional versus the contemporary, and the abstract versus the figurative. These installations highlight points of connection—inspiration drawn by contemporary artists from the past—and they also ponder distinctions: how is the fleur-de-lis motif used in 18th-century French art versus 21st-century American art?
Interchanges reminds us that all art is contemporary when made, and all art eventually becomes part of history.
A total of 37 gallery interchanges will take place by the end of 2020; they’ll be installed on a rolling basis, so there is always something new to discover. On your next visit, you may encounter Julianne in Vain (2009), by contemporary North Carolina artist Scott Avett, displayed next to The Lute Player (circa 1620s) by Gerard Seghers in the Kunstkamer Gallery; an Amy Sherald portrait paired with a Van Dyck portrait in the Contemporary Gallery; or a Nick Cave “Soundsuit” placed on the masquerade platform in the African Gallery.
Contrasts of light and dark: Contemporary artist and musician Scott Avett is deeply influenced by Old Master artists including Caravaggio and his followers, whose paintings have a heightened naturalism, dramatic lighting, and shadowy backgrounds. Here Avett echoes the intense chiaroscuro and theatricality of Gerard Seghers's The Lute Player (left, circa 1620s), leveraging the drama of light and dark in the evocative portrait Julianne in Vain (right, 2009).
I invite you to visit, reflect, and then join the conversation on social media to debate the questions raised. Tag us on social media @ncartmuseum and use #NCMAinterchanges. And join our curators for free monthly Second Sunday tours of Interchanges, where you can learn about the themes they’ve explored in their pairings.