In my Latin American art class this semester (Spring 2020), I’ve created a few new in-class activities that have worked really well. One of the best has been a curatorial acquisition activity. As of late, when creating activities for a flipped classroom environment, I’ve wanted more “real world” examples for art history students. [Side note: This has been HARD!] I wanted to give students a little taste of what some careers might do or use as they learned about specific content. Thus was born my curatorial acquisition activity.
In some ways, the activity is closely related to the (in)famous “unknown” essay that art historians love to give to students on exams. For this particular activity, students read a number of essays about secular art in the Spanish and Portuguese Americas.
Here are the “basics” reading they completed
- Dr. Ananda Cohen-Aponte, “Portrait Painting in the Viceroyalty of Peru,” https://smarthistory.org/portrait-painting-viceroyalty-peru/.
- Video: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, “Crowned Nun Portrait of Sor María de Guadalupe,” https://smarthistory.org/crowned-nun-portrait/.
Other types of secular art:
- Dr. Rachel Zimmerman, “Albert Eckhout, Series of eight figures,” https://smarthistory.org/eckhout-series/.
- Video: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Screen with the Siege of Belgrade and Hunting Scene (or Brooklyn Biombo),” https://smarthistory.org/screen-with-the-siege-of-belgrade-and-hunting-scene-or-brooklyn-biombo/.
- Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, “Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo, attributed to Juan Rodriguez Juárez,” https://smarthistory.org/spaniard-and-indian-produce-a-mestizo-attributed-to-juan-rodriguez/.
- Check out Chicana artist Delilah Montoya’s “Casta Project”
- Dr. Rachel Zimmerman, “Mestre Valentim, Passeio Publico, Rio de Janeiro,” https://smarthistory.org/valentim-passeio-publico/.
I also had a student complete a student-led discussion of “Miguel Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” (more info here) https://smarthistory.org/cabrera-portrait-of-sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz/. (More on student-led teaching ideas to come!)
They had a variety of great basic readings, so how could I put this into practice? For an hour of class time, I had the students complete the following assignment:
You’ve read a number of essays that cover all the basics of secular art in the Americas: folding screens, portraiture, and other elite goods. The basic essays also identify important themes and mechanisms by which secular art circulated or even came into being. Rather than me simply re-lecturing on this material, I am asking you all to engage in an activity that asks you to use your knowledge of what you learned in the readings and videos. Here is the activity for today. It is based on a real-world scenario about curatorial responsibility and acquisitions. Curators actually do this.
You are a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Your primary responsibility is the “care, presentation, interpretation, and acquisition of works of art in the collection. This means that a work of art under the curator’s care, and works under consideration for acquisition, must be thoroughly researched in order to ensure their authenticity, quality, and historical importance. Acquisitions—whether through purchase, gift, or bequest—should be guided by the mission of the museum as well as by the curator’s expertise. Therefore, curators, having specialized knowledge, should be involved in the decision to acquire a work and then in presenting the object to their museum’s acquisition committee.” [borrowed from CAA’s Professional Practices for Museum Curators]
Recently, a series of artworks have come up for sale that are from an impressive private collection that has artworks from the Spanish and Portuguese viceroyalties, which just so happens to be an area that your curatorial department wishes to expand. However, you have to be able to convince the museum’s acquisition committee of the need for the acquisition. The provenance data for the objects has gone missing or was lost long ago, which makes the desired acquisition harder to support. Still, you are an expert in the field, so you feel confident that you can decide whether or not the objects up for auction can fulfill your mission as a curator.
Using your expertise, you will need to make a 3 pitches to the museum board about why you should or should not purchase the three following objects based on the following criteria.
Your curatorial department is looking to ideally collect objects that “speak” to the following, although if an object makes a particularly strong case otherwise you might consider it:
- The viceroyalty of New Spain
- Issues of representation, race, and identity
- A primarily secular object
I also included color print outs of the 3 objects, which included a folding screen, a portrait of a ñusta, and Luis de Mena’s painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and castas.
The activity then proceeded as follows:
Make your case for each of the following objects up for auction.
- First, write your curatorial notes for each object in the following manner:
- What is the object?
- What is its subject matter most likely?
- What is its style/representational manner? [As an aside, we’ve talked at length about the problems and challenges of assigning stylistic labels originally intended to describe European art, so this question was to get them to revisit this idea.]
- Where does it come from most likely?
- How does it meet or not meet the criteria above?
You and your team need detailed notes that relate each object to ones for which you have clear information. You will need to comb through scholarship/readings and your knowledge of other artworks to support your case.
- Second, after you’ve completed notes for each object, you will need to explain to the acquisitions committee why they should or should not acquire each of the objects based on your curatorial needs. You are asked to do it in this fashion: Acquire? Yes or no, with justification as to why you’ve made this decision.
The student responses were EXCEPTIONAL. I was so impressed! They took it seriously and they gave detailed, thoughtful responses. It was such a joy to read their explanations. The students enjoyed the activity, and it prompted several conversations about what a curator does, which I also took as a “win.”
The next time I teach this class, I will likely have them pair up (or even form small groups) and actually make the pitches as short presentations.