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Reflections: Artist Impact
Author:
Tracy L. Adler, Johnson-Pote Director
Photo Credit

Janelle Rodriguez

Reflections: Artist Impact

December 27, 2023

I am inspired by a conversation I had the other day with Wendy Wellin, who with her late husband Keith Wellin, founded the Wellin Museum in 2012. She said what makes the museum special is what it’s become: a laboratory, a creative space, a welcoming space filled with ideas, exploration, innovation, and often joy. We can reflect on the dozens of artists whose work has been featured, the hundreds of faculty who have brought their classes, the thousands of Hamilton students who have engaged both through their studies and social events at the museum, as well as thousands of K-12 school children who have visited through field trips and community programs, and the tens of thousands of general visitors, and remember the trace of their experiences that continues to echo throughout the halls and galleries of the museum.

In another recent conversation with our fall 2023 exhibiting artist Rhona Bitner, she said the experience of working on her career retrospective Resound at the Wellin Museum held a mirror up to her work and showed her something both in herself and in the work that she had not seen before. The conversation made me reflect on how, at the Wellin, we are dedicated to both our audiences and our artists. And while we assess the Museum’s impact as it relates to visitorship and engagement and often benchmark success in that way, there could be more discussion about the impact that a Wellin exhibition has on an artist’s practice. 

As a museum collaborating closely with living artists, the Wellin encourages artists to explore new directions and helps design a framework for the display of their work. In Bitner’s case, her photo-based practice meant that she had not seen most of her images printed to scale prior to the show, and certainly had never had the opportunity to view thirty years of work together in dialogue in the same gallery. An exhibition can be a storyboard to an artist’s trajectory and provide a new context within which to consider their work. It’s an opportunity to reflect and make connections between bodies of work which might not have been evident at the time they were created. 

I’ve considered this quite a bit over the years as the artists the Wellin has worked with such as Jeffrey Gibson, Julia Jacquette, Yashua Klos, Sarah Oppenheimer, Michael Rakowitz, and Renée Stout—some of whom were presenting their work in a solo museum show for the first time but all of whom were exploring uncharted innovations in their work—have shared the experience as pivotal. Not just in the final product, but in the exhibition-making and the dedication of the Wellin team to teasing out the critical themes as well as offering expertise and support. They have remarked upon a new expansive understanding of their own work that has arisen through engagement with classes from disciplines as wide-ranging as anthropology, environmental studies, French, history, psychology, sociology, and dance among many others that have offered differing perspectives and lenses through which to consider their work.

I often think about the author Jeanette Winterson who wrote, “There is no discovery without risk and what you risk reveals what you value.” On the one hand, the statement infers that we protect what we value, but on the other it means we take risks because we hold risk as a value in itself. When we collaborate with artists and they are making new work for exhibition, there is risk but also a great deal of trust. We are asking the artists to take risks too. To trust us with their work and their ideas. They trust that we can support the creation of a show that honors—in Bitner’s case—a lifetime of work.

 

Director Tracy Adler and artist Rhona Bitner stand in front of exhibition title wall.
Photo by Heather Ainsworth

 

 
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