How do artists, artworks and museums shape and challenge our understanding of the past? The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University celebrates its 40th anniversary and the full reopening of its galleries with the fall 2021 exhibition “Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection.”
The exhibition will be on view through Dec. 5 at The Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.
Highlighting more than 80 modern and contemporary artworks recently acquired by The Block Museum of Art, the exhibition considers its constantly changing understanding of the past through the lens of artistic practice. The museum-wide exhibition and accompanying publication with Northwestern University Press marks the culmination of a major multi-year initiative to acquire works of art that encourage critical thinking about the representation of history.
“We are thrilled to welcome our audiences back to The Block to join the conversation around these extraordinary artworks that are now part of the museum’s collection,” said Lisa Corrin, Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director. “In the past year, so many of us have been thinking deeply about questions of history, asking how we arrived at this moment, and how we might envision new futures.
“These new acquisitions are representative of the way that our curatorial team, under the leadership of Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs, have allowed such meaningful questions to inform and hone their collecting strategy. Our focus has evolved to ensure that our artworks represent many narratives, are deeply relevant to the lives our communities and catalyze dialogue about our complex world,” Corrin said.
Covering the entirety of The Block’s upstairs and downstairs galleries, the exhibition features work by a wide-ranging selection of artists exploring the idea of history, such as Dawoud Bey, Shan Goshorn, the Guerrilla Girls, Louise Lawler, Kerry James Marshall, Catherine Opie, Walid Raad, Man Ray, Edward Steichen and Kara Walker. The exhibition borrows its title and an entry point from a work in The Block’s collection by conceptual artist Louise Lawler, “Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts” (1990), which draws attention to barriers that exist within the art world. The artworks on view each raise similarly provocative questions about how art might help us reflect on, rewrite or reimagine history.
In addition to their display with the exhibition, all exhibition works can be explored within the museum’s collection database, a campus-wide tool for teaching and learning with art. The exhibition, publication and digital collection consider the works within four key themes Institutions Critiqued; Critical Portraits; Reframing the Past; and Place and Memory.
“One thing I hope the exhibition communicates is the ways in which The Block is seeking to expand our thinking about not only what we collect, but also how we collect, and why,” said exhibition co-curator Kate Hadley Toftness, senior advancement manager, grants and collection council. “Taking stock of this fact is exciting and rewarding, but also a challenge.”
The exhibition also includes several works that came into the collection through student guidance and input. These contributions include “Undertone #17, #23, #51” 2017-18 by artist Myra Greene and “Quarantine Blues” (2021) by Leonard Suryajaya. Both student-led acquisitions for The Block’s collection, the works were the focus of undergraduate seminars critically investigating museum collecting practices.
This unique collaborative process extended throughout the creation of the exhibition publication, which includes voices from Northwestern students, faculty, staff and alumni in essays, research and wall labels. Within the publication, more than 50 short essays reflect the multidisciplinary perspectives of more than 20 different academic departments, including anthropology, African American studies, art history, art theory and practice, classics, communication studies, comparative literature, economics, education and social policy, engineering, English, gender and sexuality studies, journalism, history, materials science, performance studies, psychology, radio/television/film, Spanish and Portuguese, and sociology.
“For our anniversary we really wanted to represent our identity as a shared University resource and source of inspiration for teaching, learning and research,” said Essi Rönkkö, exhibition co-curator and associate curator of collections. “The project exemplifies the ways in which works of art can encourage critical thinking across fields of inquiry.”
Lindsay Bosch is senior manager of marketing and communications at The Block.