Last week the Association of Art Museum Curators announced the winners of its annual Awards for Excellence for curatorial work in 2014 during its conference in New York City. In 2013, the museum’s shunga exhibition Arts of the Bedchamber was nominated for an Outstanding Small Exhibition Award (it wound up losing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). This year the museum’s shunga exhibition series again proved to be a source of kudos—Modern Love: 20th Century Japanese Erotic Art earned an honorable mention for best exhibition or installation by an institution with an operating budget between $4 million and $20 million. Curator of European and American art Theresa Papanikolas was at the conference to accept the honor on behalf of curator of Asian art Shawn Eichman and Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art Stephen Salel. The award winners are chosen by a vote by AAMC members.
“We are deeply honored to have been recognized by the AAMC,” says Eichman. “It gives us confidence that we are making good strategic decisions with the museum’s programming.”
For Eichman and Salel, the shunga exhibition series marked a transition not only in what kind of subject matter can be examined, but how it can be presented. “We began to explore more challenging and innovative subjects in Asian art, and the relationship between traditional and contemporary Japanese art forms,” says Eichman. “We also wanted to take the opportunity to explore different presentation strategies and other ways to organize an exhibition. For example, we wanted to see whether doing a series of exhibitions regularly scheduled over three years would generate increased long-term interest on the part of our audience. We also wanted to be able to explore the subject in more depth than a single exhibition would have allowed. Finally, we wanted to gauge community response to what could be considered a challenging subject with the first exhibition, and then use what we had learned from that in developing the rest of the series.”
According to Eichman, the response from the community surpassed all expectations. “Our biggest surprise for the series as a whole was the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic response we received from our visitors,” he says. “I don’t think we expected the series to be as significant as it ended up becoming. It helped us to reach out to parts of the community that had not previously had an active relationship with the museum, and to expand our audience. We saw evidence of this when anime authors Sakurazawa Erica and Anno Moyoco gave their lectures; the audiences were made up primarily of their fans.”
Shunga also caught the attention of members of the LGBT community. “In October 2012, after I had given a lecture in the Doris Duke Theater on the subject of wakashū [biological males between the ages of 11 and 19 who scholars have begun to describe as a third gender], I was approached by a freelance reporter for Vortex Magazine who was interested in writing about how notions of gender fluidity in early modern Japan might be similar to contemporary notions of transgender,” says Salel. “He interviewed me, and although I believe that the article that he was considering remained unpublished, I was encouraged by the fact that individuals from the LGBT community were interested in the topic and seemed to respond positively.”
In Modern Love, works on view by artists Sakurazawa Erica, Nananan Kiriko, Takamiya Jin, Tagame Gengoroh, and est em dealt with male and female homosexual relationships. “All of the contemporary artists who participated in Modern Love were very helpful in promoting the exhibition,” says Salel. “In particular, Tagame Gengoroh wrote extensively about the show and strongly encouraged his followers to visit the museum.”
“All of us involved with the exhibition series have been very happy to see the positive response from the LGBT community,” Salel continues. “As we said in the conclusion of Shunga: Stages of Desire [available in the museum shop!], this discussion about Japan’s sexual culture and how that culture has evolved over the past three hundred years offers many opportunities for us to consider the many changes occurring nowadays in American culture, including the growing acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals.”
The three-part series was a collaborative effort: Playing major roles in the presentation of shunga were installation manager Larry Maruya and his team, whose exhibition design brought order and engagement to the information-dense shows, and art director Jared Stone, whose exhibition graphics enhanced the artwork, adding an additional spark to the galleries.