Thursday, July 1, 2010

Art Camp in Pictures

I took a bunch of pictures at Art Camp last week and have been meaning to post them, so here they are, in all of their ridiculous, messy glory:

Creating creatures and environments

Painting pink penguins

Chatting with Mr. Byron

This fold-out chalkboard divides the two studios.  Cool.

A giraffe in Africa

Mixing colors can get messy...

 Thank goodness we have plenty of aprons to go around!

Working hard on her imaginary roller coaster

It all culminates with an art show for parents and family on day 5

Parents, admiring their students' work

Learn more about the DIA's summer art camps and see pictures from better photographers than myself at and

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Drama with the Custer Flag

It's why we pay lawyers to represent us in court and doctors to cure what ails us and exterminators to take care of those ants that keep coming back.

We trust these people to take care of our needs because they are skilled in their professions and are more or less experts at what they do.  They have a mastery of a profession that others do not.

So why are museums so freely criticized by those who do not understand the laws and processes surrounding museum operations?

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea that museums hold the public's objects and promises to take care of them... forever.  On the one hand, I am pleased when the public feels a sense of ownership for the objects in the museum.  On the other hand, I hate it when the people feeling ownership are completely illogical.

I think it must be common knowledge that people who rant on message boards and leave irate comments IN ALL CAPS at the bottom of web articles are not people to be reasoned with.  But darn it if I won't try!

This rant stems from a civil war (or, "war of northern aggression", as I've learned it's called down in Florida) flag that has ties to Custer (from Monroe, MI) and is owned by the DIA... but now the museum has plans to sell it.

The flag, complete with commemorative Custer illustration.

So, here's the story:
On June 25, 1876,  George Armstrong Custer, the pride of Monroe, led the 7th Cavalry into battle against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne near the Little Bighorn River in Montana. It was not, shall we say, Custer’s finest hour. All 210 men under his immediate command died in the massacre. So did Custer.

As a burial detail surveyed the carnage a few days later, Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson discovered a tattered swallow-tail American flag, known as a guidon, hidden beneath a dead soldier. He picked it up, folded it and squeezed it into his pocket. Four years later, according to an 1895 Free Press report headlined “Memento of a Massacre,” the first written document of the flag’s history, Culbertson gave it to Rose Fowler, whose husband was a military man. After Mr. Fowler died, his wife married another soldier and retired to southwest Detroit.
Eventually, Rose sold the flag to the DIA for about $50.  Now, the DIA has decided to put the flag up for auction at Sotherby's, where they expect it will sell for somewhere between 2 and 5 million dollars.

Currently, the DIA's collections budget (their budget for buying new art) is about $3 million.  If the flag sold for the expected amount, it could more than double that budget.

Fantastic, right?

Well, some people aren't so thrilled and they're even writing goofy letters to the editor about it.

There are so many ridiculous things in this article, I don't even know where to start...

"This isn't a piece of surplus artwork; this a priceless piece of history"
Exactly.  It's not art!  I agree that the flag has value, but so does all of the "surplus" art in the museum.  The flag doesn't fit within the mission or collections policy, so it simply has no place in the DIA.  There are no civil war historians on staff, thus there is no one to interpret the work.  There are no other civil war objects in the collection, thus there is no context in which to display it.  Should the flag remain in the DIA, it will stay in storage; unseen and unexplained.  Forever.

"give the people of Michigan time to donate and raise money so that the flag could stay here"
Seriously?  There have been countless fundraising campaigns over the years to support the DIA.  Did you donate then?  At the risk of sounding cliche, I will ask, given the economic troubles in Michigan at the moment, is raising $5 million to keep a single flag really at the top of everyone's priority list?

"I highly doubt that the soldier who gave his life protecting this flag had this in mind as he tucked it under his body."
Well, I guess we'll never know.  An art historian probably can't tell you much about the circumstances under which this flag was salvaged.

I know I'm playing the devil's advocate here. I mean, I worked at a historical museum for several years. I am not one to try and devalue historical objects. However, historical objects belong in historical museums, with experts than can interpret them correctly.

"Imagine if this flag ends up in Russia, China or the Middle East"
Wait... what?  Is this guy for real?

On other message boards and comment threads, people are all up in arms about the idea that there may be blood on the flag.  I've seen a lot of civil war flags (our historical museum had a hugely impressive collection of them) and many of them do have blood, dirt, grass stains, etc. from the battles-- so it is very possible that this flag does indeed have some blood on it.
So here's what people are saying about that:

"If this is Native American blood, wouldn't this fall under the various repatriation acts that require the flag to be returned to Native American tribes involved with the battle?"
Now, I don't claim to be a NAGPRA expert, but I know what the acronym stands for, so I feel that qualifies me enough to comment on this.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act exists to (rightfully) protect Native American graves, remains, and funerary and religious artifacts.  I don't believe that blood spattered on a flag qualifies as any of those things.

"If this is the blood of an American soldier, shouldn't it be returned to the family of the soldier who died possessing it?"
We don't know who that soldier was.  We only know who picked it up and put it in his pocket-- and that guy willingly donated it to Rose, who willingly sold it to the DIA for $50.  Why is nobody mad at Rose Fowler?  There was no DIA curator at the battle of Little Bighorn, going around and ripping flags out from under fallen soldiers. 

"If this was a flag used during a U.S. military operation, isn't it the property of the U.S. government?"
I can't say for certain that the flag was not, at one time, government property.  What I do know is that enough time has passed that the DIA does legally own the flag and can do with it what they please.

There are also many comments lamenting the sale as the DIA's "shameful" way to "make a buck".  I know I don't need to say this to any of my peers, but the money earned in the auction of the flag will not pay anyone's salary, nor will it keep the lights on in the galleries.  That money will be used exclusively for the purchase of great art-- art that will enrich the DIA's collection and serve the museum's mission of "creating experiences that help visitors find personal meaning in art".

The value of this flag comes from the story it can tell-- yet that story will not be heard and meaning will not be garnered if it remains in storage at the DIA.


Yes, yes, I know. Some of my peers may be thinking, "Jess, you're an educator... why are you always ranting about accession numbers, relative humidity, exhibition planning and other things that are outside your chosen realm of museum work?"

Well the answer is that I simply enjoy museums as a whole. I see most functions of the museum as being interrelated. If the art is not cared for and understood, then how can I be expected to educate the public about it? What do I say when a kid asks me, "Why is it so cold in here?" or "What are those little numbers for?" or "Why can't we touch anything?" I think it's important to know about all aspects of the museum if I am to speak confidently as an educator and representative of the museum.

On that note; today I was working with some labels.

As a part of the 125th Anniversary Project, labels need to be fabricated to accompany the repro paintings that will be installed around Metro-Detroit. Thus, I was charged with making a draft of the text for these labels (which will later be approved by a curator).

We have selected 40 paintings to be reproduced, so Michelle and I went into the museum's database (The Museum System, or TMS-- which I must say, is a lot cooler than ARGUS, which is what I used at the history museum) and printed out the information on each of our 40 pieces. This document contains all of the information that one would find on a wall label, but it's in a much different format. So my job today was to reformat all of the information into labels that mimic those used in the actual DIA galleries.

This would have been fine, if I had any idea what format the DIA uses for their labels. I looked on our website and found nothing, so I had to sneak down into the galleries. The DIA is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so all of the lights were off, and the galleries were technically "closed", but I have a little ID badge that says "Staff" so just let them try and stop me!

I managed to snap a quick picture of the first label I saw. It was for this work of art:

I've come to really love this painting over the last two months. I don't recall ever seeing it before, but now I spend a few minutes looking at it every day as I wait for the elevator. I can see it from the third floor balcony and it has grown on me.

Anyway, I used this label as a template, eliminating the interpretive text below the tombstone information.

It's not a pretty picture, but it served the purpose of showing me how to format my labels. I thought I was being pretty clever.

So with my example established, I began rearranging the information about each of the 40 paintings. As I was going through the list, I was struck by a few entries that I found particularly interesting.

The first piece ever accessioned by the DIA (Detroit Museum of Art, at the time) was Reading the Story of Oenone, 1883

The accession number is 83.1... which means the museum bought the painting the same year it was made. What was so great about this painting that the DIA decided this is what will start their collection? And why not a great classic masterpiece? Why a contemporary (for the time) piece? I find this very interesting.

There were several others that the DIA bought shortly after their completion.

A Day in June was purchased in 1917, just four years after it was made. I can't help but think that perhaps the Detroit Museum of Art began as a rather progressive institution, willing to invest in controversial impressionist paintings and contemporary artists.

Every art history student I've spoken to hates this painting:

But it's a Detroit treasure. Visitors love it and it may very well be the most visited and most recognized painting in the museum. I think its only competition would be the Van Gogh self portrait. So I was a little surprised that it was only accessioned in 1954. That seems so recent! As a citizen that has patronized the DIA for many years, it is difficult to fathom that The Nut Gatherers has not always been at the DIA. I mean, there was a time in my parents' lifetime when they could not go see the Nut Gatherers. I mean... my dad would have been 2 years old when it was accessioned, but still!

In the early 90's, it seems like a there was a change in the collections policy. Granted, I am looking at an extremely small sample from the collections database, but around 1993, suddenly the credit lines (list of people who gave money to purchase-or donated--an artwork) grew from one or two lines to some that are a whopping 15 lines of text! Dozens and dozens of donors are suddenly being listed on labels.

I have a theory on this.

Perhaps, as the museum's collections policy became more refined, the DIA began to deaccession donated works and sell them (of course, putting the resulting funds into an account exclusively for the purchase of more art). As the account was used to pay for new art, ALL of the names of ALL of the people who contributed must then be present on the label.

Of the 40 works on this list, those with the longest credits were accessioned in 1977, 1993, 1995, and 2002.  To me, that points to a more recent change in the collections policy and some deaccessioning and redistribution of funds.

And speaking of  deaccessioning and redistribution of funds... have you heard about the drama with the Custer flag?