Reimagining the Museum Experience

By Shaquille Heath

The director of the Cantor Arts Center speaks to us about why art museums should be thinking in more contemporary ways.

Cantor Arts Center Director Susan Dackerman is bringing in diverse new artworks — and hires — that represent the future of fine art at Stanford and beyond. (Spencer Brown)

Within the 1891 Greek Revival building that houses the Cantor Arts Center, visitors encounter portraits by John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, along with antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome. Installations by Do Ho Suh that explore issues of migration and cultural identity as well as by Josiah McElheny that merge cutting-edge art and physics are also on view. Together, the sevariant works are part of Susan Dackerman’s vision for what a 21st-century museum should be — and a year and a half into her tenure as the director of the Cantor, her imprint on the Stanford institution is taking shape.

“We had an opportunity to build, from the foundation up, a new way of being an art museum on a university campus … to be contemporary,” she says, adding, “It means featuring more historic art forms in contemporary ways.” Take the recently acquired Titus Kaphartar portrait, Page 4 of Jefferson’s “Farm Book,” part of a series that depicts enslaved sitters as freed men and women. This fall, Mark Dion — a 2019 Guggenheim fellow in fine arts — will unveil a cabinet of curiosities that draws on the Stanford family’s collection, including articles procured by Leland Stanford Jr., who was well-traveled by the time of his death in 1884 at age 16.


— Susan Dackerman, on her inclusive vision for the Cantor Arts Center

Before joining the Cantor in September 2017, Dackerman spent a year as a Getty scholar and consortium professor at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Prior to that, she was the curator of prints for the Harvard Art Museums, holding the role from 2005 to 2015. The opportunity to lead the Cantor instantly piqued her interest. “I was at Harvard during a period where they were reimagining what an art museum could be on a university campus,” she recalls. “I wondered what it would mean to lead an art museum [on a campus] that was so much about the future and technology, and their investment in the arts.”

For starters, there’s the student audience to consider. According to Dackerman, Stanford students are more interested in the art of the present than the art of the past. The latter, however, makes up the majority of the Cantor’s collection. With an eye on broadening the scope of works in the museum, Dackerman hired two key staff: Padma D. Maitland as assistant curator of Asian art and Aleesa Alexander as assistant curator of American art.

“When you say ‘American art,’ you often think of landscapes of the Grand Canyon, and the discovery of the West— that’s one version of American Art,” says Dackerman. “On an academic campus everyone is talking about what it means to be American in a more nuanced way.” For example, Lush Life #2 by Roger Shimomura features a beautiful Japanese American woman in elegant clothing. Yet, if you look closely, you’ll see she’s standing in frontof an internment camp.

Maitland, whose studies have centered on South and Southeast Asia, is focused on showcasing Asian contemporary art in nontraditional areas. “We talk about Asia like it’s a single place and not individual countries, each with multiple cultures within,” observes Dackerman. “The focus here at Stanford has traditionally been on East Asian art. In this area, we’ll be thinking about this expanded view.

Previously a fellow in modern and contemporary art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alexander has been tasked with reinstalling the modern and contemporary art galleries. In February, she opened The Medium Is the Message: Art Since 1950. “I wanted to highlight work by artists of color, in order to tell amore exciting — and accurate — narrative about art made in the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries,” says Alexander. This spring, she helped bring in self-taught artist and musician Lonnie Holley, whose works are currently on display. “He engaged with students, made site-specific assemblages, and performed live in our galleries.”

The Holley programming exemplifies Dackerman’s belief that museums today should be inclusive gathering places, where art is used as a spring-board for conversation.

Another case in point: In October, the Cantor opened BLKNWS by the award-winning artist, curator and director Kahlil Joseph (he worked on Beyoncé’s film Lemonade). With BLKNWS, Joseph, the inaugural visiting artist in the university’s new Presidential Residencies on the Future of the Arts program, employs a two-channel video projection and reimagines the news from an African American perspective. The work is now part of the 2019 Venice Biennale. “It’s a new way to think about art,” says Dackerman. “What art does and what’s possible in a museum.” Ensuring Cantor visitors see art through a holistic lens — 21st century, indeed.

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