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How art holds us through crisis

Curated by grad student Rikki Byrd, “Behold, Be Held” highlights what we might have taken for granted prior to the pandemic

Third year African American Studies graduate student, Rikki Byrd has loved art as long as she can remember.  As a child, she and her mother would often visit the local art museum in her hometown.

"We rarely went to look at something in particular, but just enjoyed spending time in the museum's galleries," Bryd recalls.  "My interest in art was further developed during my time as a graduate student in New York."

Byrd, who is also a 2020-21 Block Museum of Art Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, combines her passion for art and academia in her premiere art exhibition at Northwestern, “Behold, Be Held”.  The exhibition is also the Block Museum’s first ever outdoor exhibition and showcases more than a dozen pieces from its permanent collection of 6,000 artworks. 

“I wasn't able to curate an exhibition inside where we normally experience art,” Byrd said. “That became a really fascinating challenge for me to think creatively about ways museums can engage their audiences in a very public way.”

While access to the museum remains limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, the exhibition uses the windows of the building’s façade and neighboring Barber Theater, and community partner Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) as an outdoor gallery.

‘What art can do’

“Behold, Be Held” celebrates the power of community and connection. Made up of large-scale reproductions, the exhibition invites visitors to reflect on how art holds us through moments of crisis including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Behold, Be Held
Rikki Byrd. Photo by Sean Su

“I really selected works that represented those subtle gestures that we've missed out on in the past year: the closeness the getting together with people, and dancing and celebrating, or even those moments of self-care, and those moments of just enjoying time with yourself.”

Bryd drew inspiration for the title of the exhibit from “Plastic”, a song written and performed by Moses Sumney. She often meditated to Sumney’s music as she decided which works to include.

“I think this project has helped me in my own meditative space in thinking about what art can do,” Byrd said. “I hope people walk away [from the exhibit] with really thinking about how art holds us in moments, especially in moments of crisis and upheaval, and how art really informs our thinking and the way that we engage in the world.”

“At the Block, we believe that art is a springboard for exploring current issues and ideas,” says Lisa Corrin, The Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director. “We hope that Behold Be Held might spark moments of personal recognition and conversation about how we are experiencing this moment together.”

Community collaboration

Byrd and Erin Northington, the Block Museum's Susan and Stephen Wilson Associate Director, Campus and Community Education and Engagement collaborated on the exhibition with the museum’s longtime partner Youth, Opportunity United (Y.O.U) and its program The Leadership Project. That initiative challenges students from Evanston Township High School to explore the intersections of race, gender and class through research, art and discussions.

This spring, the students focused their discussions on how white supremacist structures, like the school-to-prison pipeline, impact young people. The students worked with Byrd to select two artworks for “Behold, Be Held” to support these ideas. Both selections appear on the windows of the Y.O.U. building at in Evanston.

IMG 9799Works from "Behold, Be Held" at Y.O.U. in Evanston. Photo by Sean Su

The self-guided tour of “Behold, Be Held” includes a code that you scan on your phone. Visitors will then be directed to the exhibit’s website for images of each piece of art, and the student reflections on their two pieces

“Behold, Be Held” is free and open to all. The exhibit is on display on the windows of The Block Museum, Barber Theater and Y.O.U. through Aug. 22.