Works in Progress

Thursday, January 15th

By Jessica, Harvard ’16

A guard slides a panel to the side, guiding us with a subtle nod through the open space into a closed, empty gallery. On the blue walls of the vacant rooms hang countless brown paper–wrapped parcels. Crowned with white bows, the packages, varying in size and shape, seem like so many presents lined up on Christmas morning, simply waiting to be unwrapped. But, alas, white papers affixed to each parcel warn us against fulfilling our desire to discover what canvases lie beneath the wrapping: “Do not remove cover without permission of director,” each proclaims.

The space in which our class stands is a work in progress, an exhibition not yet ready for the eyes of the public in a cordoned-off wing of the National Gallery of Art. It will be but the day’s first glimpse of the largely unknown early life of an exhibition, a period fraught with diplomatic and cultural consideration.

Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the National Gallery and our guide for the afternoon, leads us from the clean, stately gallery into a vibrant garden of design. Past exhibition posters line the molding, Corinthian columns lounge against the walls, and perfectly scaled replicas litter every surface. We have wandered into the creative playroom of the NGA, the laboratory of Mark Leithauser, chief of design.

It is here we begin to consider the richly complex process of composing an exhibition. From a single black-and-white photograph of a Rodin sculpture is born a gallery transformed into a sculpture garden, a scene from history brought to life. Mr. Thompson and his team take works of art and fashion a new reality in the space of a gallery, orchestrating confrontations with different cultures and inspiring authentic aesthetic experiences.

Later, in another wing of the museum, Mr. Thompson expands upon this theme of the museum as a space for constructing interactions with cultures distant from our own. The table we sit at is covered in stacks of books: past exhibition catalogues featuring the artwork of the Aztecs, Cambodians, Chinese, and many other cultures. These were not simply collections of artistic objects, though, Mr. Thompson explains. Each exhibition represented a dialogue with another country or culture, inspired more often than not by the political developments of the day.

The exhibition with the record for the most visitors per day at the NGA, he notes, followed the conclusion of the Second World War. Featuring masterpieces taken from Germany, Austria, and Japan, the exhibition was a start to the process of repairing the perception of these countries, not as enemies but as cultural nations not unlike our own.

Within the galleries of the NGA, the seeming disparity between diplomacy and the fine arts collapses. Works of art transcend classification as mere mimetic representations of the world and come instead to represent the cultures, countries, and times from which they came.

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