By Mike Harris ’93 MA | Photography by Martin W. Kane
When students become absorbed by a work of art, something magical happens.
It’s a small moment of transformation, curator Emily Stamey says. Stamey is one of the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s curators who lead Dillard Sessions, where classes engage with objects not currently on view in the galleries.
“They get this one-on-one experience with the work of art, and then they can share with the larger group for a bigger conversation. I’m always blown away by the different things students will bring up – a new detail in the artwork, a comparison to music, something else that resonates with them.”
More professors than ever before are bringing their classes to the Weatherspoon, according to Ann Grimaldi, the Weatherspoon’s curator of academic programming, whether to see current exhibitions or to undertake more pointed learning experiences in the Dillard Room.
Students in Grogan Residential College came during their first weeks on campus with their history, art, or foreign language classes. Professor Emilia Phillips brought her Queer Poetry & Poetics seminar of upperclass students in September to study several works by self- identifying queer artists.
“I walked them through a step-by-step analysis of one of the artworks that we had pulled out,” Stamey says. “Then they broke into smaller groups, and each of them took one of these individual art objects, came up with their own ideas, and then shared them with the class.
“It’s an incredible conversation.”
Top left, Emily Stamey, curator and head of exhibitions, speaking to students during a Dillard Session; top right, (l to r) Laura Levin, programming and engagement intern; Caitie Nagy, CoWAM group leader, Ann Grimaldi, curator of academic programming and head of education, Juliette Bianco, museum director, and Angelica Henry, CoWAM group leader; bottom left, Destiny Hemphill, coordinating coordinator of community engagement; bottom right, CoWAM student social event.
Walk into the Weatherspoon, and two student interns greet you at the welcome desk and share with you about the exhibitions. Juliette Bianco, the museum’s Anne and Ben Cone Memorial Endowed Director, has made sure UNCG students are front and center at the museum, both on staff and among its stakeholders. In the past four months, more than 800 students and faculty members have participated in 70 tailored class experiences involving nursing classes, literature classes, religious studies classes, freshman honors colloquiums, and many others.
The Weatherspoon experience is a two-way street, Bianco explains. “Our practice embraces the students’ impact on us as much as it does our impact on them.”
The museum’s contemporary art collection has a national reputation. “The Weatherspoon is one of the best institutions of its kind in the Southeast,” Bianco points out, and features artists who are wrestling with very timely issues. “It’s the art of now,” she adds.
And this work – the art and the engagement – is above all else generative: a person creates meaning when they interact with creativity in this place and in these ways. The learning can happen on a larger scale, too. “Generative dialogue through community engagement can be a driving force for finding new meaning in art,” Bianco observes. “Focusing on community itself and fostering open conversations that generate new knowledge are the ways in which a museum like the Weatherspoon can stay relevant and meaningful in people’s lives.”
It all comes down to “deciding with, notdeciding for,” she insists, thereby positioning the Weatherspoon at the forefront of change in the museum field. “We do not see our roles as protectors and imparters of information here at the Weatherspoon, and everyone else is the ‘audience’ or ‘visitor.’ We are all participants. The art comes alive when we engage in dialogue, and those community conversations will lead to a better future.”
Along these lines, admission to the museum remains free, and membership became free as of May 2021. “We’ve doubled our membership in four months as we’ve worked to foster a sense of belonging on campus and in the community,” Bianco says.
Three gifts, part of the Light the Way campaign, will help propel the museum forward.
A grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art will be used for the museum’s three-year project Leading with Objects: Engaging the Community in Institutional Change, a collaborative effort to reconsider, reinterpret, and re-present the Weatherspoon collection. It will also extend upon its new racial equity plan. Destiny Hemphill came aboard in October as Coordinating Curator of Community Engagement, a position made possible by this grant. She will facilitate broader access to the museum’s American art collection through community-driven dialogue.
A Henry Luce Foundation grant will allow the Weatherspoon to join the Museum Partnerships for Social Justice Project, for collaboration on anti-racist project models and practices. The leaders of four museums – the Weatherspoon, the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – will collaborate. The Weatherspoon will closely partner with the Mississippi Museum of Art.
The Weatherspoon will become more energy-efficient as it renovates a gallery’s lighting system thanks to a grant from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, as part of the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative. This initiative is the first nation-wide program to support energy efficiency and clean energy products in the visual arts.
As an educational institution, the Weatherspoon has long cultivated student leadership skills.
Student perspectives from diverse backgrounds in North Carolina and well beyond have shaped the museum since 1941, when its first director, Gregory Ivy, placed original works by then-contemporary artists like Picasso and Matisse in Elliot Hall (now the EUC) for more students to experience.
Many know the late Maud Gatewood’s story of helping to unpack Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” (1949-50) when it arrived on campus from New York City. As she and a graduate assistant handled the crate, “I nearly put my foot through it, but I didn’t,” Gatewood ’54 recalled years later. The promising student from rural Caswell County was by then a highly regarded artist in her own right, thanks in part to her formative experiences at the Weatherspoon.
Students today enjoy those experiences as well. Many have joined the new Weatherspoon student group, CoWAM. Laura Levin, an art history and women, gender, and sexuality studies major, is the museum’s programs and engagement intern and a key member of CoWAM. “Coming in, you are not expected to be an expert on modern and contemporary art,” she says. “You are not expected to leave with all the answers either. There is an openness that allows visitors to experience exhibitions and programs in a way that speaks to them.”
Other students, including Azaria Gadson, a senior dance performance and choreography major, have been hired as project-specific interns. Gadson is helping with the much- anticipated exhibition “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And,” opening in January: “I get to learn so much about the visual art world while working closely with artists that I admire, which inspires my own work.”
Museums can seem daunting to a lot of people, says Angelica Henry, who studies art history and arts administration: “The Weatherspoon does a wonderful job of making the space welcoming and accessible to all.”
And Caitie Nagy, a BFA in K-12 art education major, applauds the fact that the entire Weatherspoon collection is also accessible on the web site. “But you definitely should come by and check it out!”