Challenging Tradition

 

Online Special Loan Exhibition with the Loeb Art Center, Vassar College


Challenging Tradition:

Teaching with Drawings by Women in a College Museum

 

The collecting of works by women, including drawings, has a long and rich tradition at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The weight of that tradition, however, comes with challenges. The nineteenth-century founding and subsequent history of Vassar’s art museum has resulted in a drawings collection that does not align fully with the curriculum today or with the museum’s own priorities. Even the number of drawings by women, while significant, remains a small percentage of the museum’s holdings. Within that group, works by women of color comprise an even smaller portion. An important aspect of our current work is to give focused attention to these drawings and to ensure their accessibility to students and faculty.

As classes from across disciplines use the collection, drawings by women–and specifically by Black, Indigenous, and women of color–serve as invaluable connections between the museum and coursework, while also allowing the institution to tell more inclusive narratives of art history. Beyond their individual significance, such works also provide undergraduates an entry point into other areas of the drawings collection and invite fascinating dialogues with them. A commitment to acquiring and displaying drawings by artists from under-represented groups is essential to maintaining the relevance of drawings to today’s teaching and to the student body in general.

Highlighting and continuing to build these areas of the collection–work that must intensify but has begun thanks in large part to the support of Vassar alumni and others–is key to addressing longstanding inequities manifest in museums and their collections. Moreover, it is a crucial part of instilling a love of the tangible immediacy of drawings in future generations. For the drawings collection of an academic museum to remain dynamic and vital, work by women, and women of color in particular, must not be the counterpoint to tradition; it must be the tradition.

Elizabeth Nogrady
Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

As classes from across disciplines use the collection, drawings by women - and specifically by Black, Indigenous, and women of color - serve as invaluable connections between the museum and coursework, while also allowing the institution to tell more inclusive narratives of art history.

Janet Kigusiuq - River Widens

Drawings by Inuit artists are among the works in the collection used most often by faculty in their teaching. One such class, Environmentalisms in Perspective, explores connections among “the ethical, aesthetic, social, economic, historical, and scientific concerns that comprise the field of environmental studies.” For their Loeb session, students in the course visit the print room to examine works like Janet Kigusiuq’s jewel-toned sheet River Widens and other contemporary works on paper with subjects inspired by the natural world, and compare them to Vassar’s founding collection of Hudson River School paintings on view in the galleries.

Virtual Tour of the Loeb's Hudson River School Galleries

The aim of the show was to present Indigenous peoples and their histories not as part of a romanticized past, but rather to stress "tribal nations' political sovereignty and autonomy."

Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq - Untitled

 

 

Drawings by Inuit women, like this hunting scene by Nancy Pukingrnak Aupaluktuq characterized by bold silhouettes and a flattened perspective, are often selected by students and faculty preparing interdisciplinary exhibitions in the Loeb’s Focus Gallery. One example, entitled Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches in Contemporary Indigenous Art, was organized by a professor of English with students in the American Studies course, Folklore. The aim of the show was to present Indigenous peoples and their histories not as part of a romanticized past, but rather to stress “tribal nations’ political sovereignty and autonomy.” Work from this Inuit arts community was also incorporated into a Focus Gallery exhibition entitled Menagerie in the Museum, the culmination of a Museum Studies course in which students gained first-hand experience of curating, label writing, and exhibition design.

 

Information on Decolonizing the Exhibition

Annie Pootoogook - Ice Fishing

 

 

This view of ice fishing – its dynamism enhanced through the artist’s use of cross-section in the foreground – was used in the course Science and Justice in the Anthropocene (cross-listed in Earth Science and Geography). By looking at works depicting ice and snow by a variety of artists, including Pootoogook, students worked as geologists to identify the types of ice depicted and then discussed the disquieting relationship between our perception and memory of wintry conditions in comparison to the reality of our environment as it is impacted by climate change.  This sheet was also examined by the American Studies/Environmental Studies class From the Natural History Museum to Ecotourism: The Collection of Nature.

Marisol - Untitled

This luminous pastel on black paper was the signature image for a Focus Gallery exhibition Fluid Ecologies: Hispanic Caribbean Art from the Loeb, co-curated by a faculty member in Environmental Studies and Hispanic Studies. The international career of the Venezuelan-American artist Marisol Escobar fit well with the exhibition, which aimed to show imagery that is, in the words of Professor Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “a disavowal of the tropical Caribbean as a tourist’s paradise” and focused instead on “art created from the crossroads of the world.” Through lush colored pencil, crayon, and pastel on black paper, Marisol portrayed hands that appear to caress one another and the page, with limbs radiating colorful halos that enhance the effect of sensuous movement.

Fluid Ecologies virtual exhibition and its accompanying publication

...building these areas of the collection...is a crucial part of instilling a love of the tangible immediacy of drawings in future generations.

Carmen Aldunate - "No, esa no soy yo"

In 2020, in response to the pandemic’s disruption of K-12 art education, the Loeb worked with local art teachers to assess students’ needs for art supplies to use at home during remote learning. As a result, the museum donated materials for more than 800 students, and summer interns designed activity cards and short online videos demonstrating related art projects. Both featured works by Carmen Aldunate from the series No, esa no soy yo (No, that’s not me). In one lesson focused on drawing, Aldunate’s skillfully controlled pencil marks are compared to other pencil drawings in the collection including those by seminal Hudson River School artist Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Information on the Loeb's activity cards

Inez Nathaniel Walker

In 2019, the Loeb Art Center held the first monographic museum exhibition of the self-taught artist Inez Nathaniel Walker. Many of Walker’s drawings, featuring distinctive figures in profile and a vivid palette, and oftentimes composed on notebook paper, were produced at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, where Walker was an inmate in the 1970s. There she met Pat O’Brien Parsons, an art dealer and Vassar alumna who began showing and collecting Walker’s works, many of which Parsons later donated to the Loeb. This subject matter made the exhibition relevant to the course Religion, Prisons, and the Civil Rights Movement, team-taught and cross-listed in Religion and Africana Studies.

"Interior Subjects: Portraits by Incarcerated Artists," by Nicole R. Fleetwood

Video thumbnail

Campus is rich with possibilities for engagement.

Ella Ferris Pell & Evie A. Todd - Tourbook of Sicily

 

 

The Loeb owns several albums of drawings composed by American artists and sisters Ella Ferris Pell and Evie A. Todd as they traveled through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in the 1870s. One of these albums was the subject of study by a student in an “intensive” course entitled Collecting Antiquities at Vassar: Lost and Found in the Loeb, cross-listed in Art and Greek and Roman Studies. As this course invites students “to consider the ethics and politics of collecting, and to explore the changing role of ancient art in the museum and its display in galleries,” it provides an opportunity for the museum to do the same as the Loeb works to study, and share, how works entered Vassar’s collection.

Fidelia Bridges - White Azalea

 

 

Having attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied with William Trost Richards, Fidelia Bridges subsequently made a specialty of delicate renderings of plants and wildlife based on study from nature. Bridges’s White Azalea was featured in a series of mini-exhibitions on the themes of art, science, and technology organized by the Loeb to celebrate the opening of a new building at Vassar, the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences. This refined white azalea on light brown paper was included in a display on botany, alongside other works by women including a watercolor of a velvety peony by “Mrs. Clay of Philadelphia,” and a cyanotype of a wafer ash by Anna Atkins.

Botany virtual exhibition

Betty (Ecke) Tseng Yuho - The Home of the Winds

 

 

This delicate work on paper by Tseng Yuho, also known as Betty Ecke, is composed of collage made from watercolor and handmade papers in a technique called dsui hua and devised by the artist. While The Home of the Winds was given to Vassar in 1969 by Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, alumna and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, this work on paper is rarely studied by students or faculty.  In order to find its curricular connections, more work is to be done. Two key strategies are employed: greater accessibility (in terms of cataloging, photography, and online subject tagging), as well as increased outreach. Which departments might be interested in studying this intriguing work? Perhaps Women’s Studies, Asian Studies, American Studies, Art, History, or International Studies, to name a few. Campus is rich with possibilities for engagement.

Vassar Encyclopedia entry on Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller

Challenging Tradition: Teaching with Drawings by Women in a College Museum
Online Virtual Exhibition, MDNY 2021

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Ave
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604

All images included in this Special Exhibition Viewing Room were provided courtesy of The Loeb Art Center at Vassar College.

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The Loeb Art Center would like to thank Delaney Caballero, Karen Casey Hines, Sheryl McMahan, Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, and Margaret Vetare for their contributions to these virtual exhibitions.