Over the past nine months, big changes have happened in the second-floor galleries of the original 1927 museum building. Curator of contemporary art James Jensen oversaw the creation of a new installation of the arts of west Africa, the Pacific islands, ancient Latin America and Native Americans of North America. Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American art, oversaw the reinstallation of American art from the colonial period to the 20th century. They report on the just-completed project.
From James Jensen, curator of contemporary art:
For the first time, more than 160 selected works from the museum’s holdings of the arts of west Africa, the Pacific islands, ancient Latin America and Native Americans of North America—many of them not exhibited before—are now on continuous view.
The collection includes several masterworks, among them an Olmec stone head from the first millennium BC being shown publicly for the first time in more than 40 years, two 5th-century BC terracotta sculptures from the Nok people of present-day Nigeria, a superb carved wood Lulua female fertility figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rare carved wood tino aitu ancestor figure from Nukuoro atoll in Micronesia, and an early 20th-century Chilkat robe from the Pacific Northwest made by the Tlingit master weaver Anisalaga (Mary Ebbets Hunt), one of only 11 known robes made by her.
More than 100 works from the Pacific, Africa and the Americas—ancestor and deity figures, ritual/ceremonial and prestige objects, domestic containers, weapons, dance masks and musical instruments—have been installed in four sections.
The arts of the Pacific have returned, including many different works on view from cultures across Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. The museum’s collection has particularly strong representations of the peoples of Melanesia, especially the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea.
Among the African works presented (pictured above) are excellent examples of ritual works and ancestor sculptures from sub-Saharan west Africa down the equatorial region to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ancient Latin American art is represented by several major stone sculptures, as well as ceramic works from west Mexico to Peru, including several particularly fine examples from the Mayan culture. Native American works from the North American continent span tribes from the northeastern Woodlands to the Southwest, California/West Coast, and the Pacific Northwest (Alaska and Canada).
The galleries were created around 1960 out of large unfinished attic spaces and for many years served as the museum’s temporary exhibition spaces until the opening of the Henry R. Luce Pavilion Complex in 2001.
Last spring the galleries of 18th to 20th-Century American Art, The Pacific Islands and the Nancy Ellis Gallery of the Art of the Philippines were closed. Those American and Pacific works were removed and stored temporarily in the Nancy Ellis Gallery of the Art of the Philippines, which will reopen soon without changes. Old asbestos-laden ceilings were removed. Gaping holes remained when the old ceilings were gone, and new ceilings were installed as well as new light tracks. In addition, the large windows facing into the Central Courtyard which had been mostly covered in the past, were uncovered and restored to their original appearance, transforming the feeling of the spaces. The galleries are now high, minimal, and airy, suffused with soft daylight from the large windows, which have appropriate UV-blocking film and scrims on them to protect the works of art.
From Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American art
The new American art gallery features examples of painting, sculpture, furniture, and silver that cover the history of art in North America from the colonial period to the 20th century. Works by William Jenys, Charles Wilson Peale, and Thomas Sully demonstrate how artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, realizing that America’s legacy lay in the hands of its people, turned to portraiture to document and record the likenesses of its most prominent citizens.
Landscape paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, William Guy Wall, and Jasper Cropsey show how, beginning in the second quarter of the 19th century, captured America’s most spectacular places to advance the aesthetic, moral, and philosophical principles deemed to be unique to the new land. Rounding out the display is a selection of modernist works, which point to the influx of European methods approaches on the American art scene, yet also preserve the specificity of landscape that gives American art its unique sense of place.