Cantor's art experiment: sit on the floor, write on the walls

Photo: L.A. Cicero. Question Exhibit

Curatorial assistant Winfield Coleman and John Listopad, curator of Asian art, discuss the presentation of objects in the exhibit "Question," on view at the Cantor Arts Center.

Photo: L.A. Cicero. Young visitors

Young visitors to "Question,"an exhibit on view through Jan. 2 at the Cantor Arts Center, scribble on the white walls of a passage leading into the Pigott Family Gallery.

Visitors to Question, which opened July 14 at the Pigott Family Gallery at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, will find nearly every museum-exhibition convention one can think of turned on its head ­ beginning with the giant upside-down question mark built to resemble a packing crate outside the entrance. A passage leading into the gallery, painted white and studded with pencils on strings so that visitors can scribble on the walls, serves further notice that rules are about to be broken.

Inside, dozens of works selected from across the Cantor Center's collections, including etchings, paintings, photographs, sculptures and religious objects, are on display. "Display," however, scarcely begins to describe their presentation: Price tags dangle from some works; other paintings and sculptures aren't accompanied by labels at all. A Joan Miró print is among a handful of works, including one done by a 4-year-old, hung with magnets on a curvy vintage refrigerator. A nkisi figure from the Congo ­ a piece one would ordinarily see exhibited behind glass ­ rests in a corner on a triangular patch of sand; nearby cushions invite viewers to sit on the floor. A ceramic jar from Japan lies in pieces in a box, with handwritten notes about an upcoming repair. Centuries-old portraits by European and American artists hang on steel mesh panels as if they were in storage.

Question, which will be on display through Jan. 2, 2005, is filled with alternatives to what visitors typically experience at art museums ­ which is exactly the point, say center staff and designers who worked on the project. The installation was conceived as one that would engage the entire center staff in rethinking how exhibitions are presented to the public, said Patience Young, curator for education.

In fact, center staff call Questionan experiment rather than an exhibition ­ the project is subtitled "An experiment that provokes questions about art and its presentation in museums" ­ and even that term is debatable. "Experiment implies that there will be a specific outcome," but in this case, it's unknown whether there will be one or not, said center director Thomas Seligman at a press preview last week. "We're trying to learn something from this project."

Staff began work by throwing out their assumptions about exhibits and letting questions drive the process, Young said. One starting point was questions asked by museum visitors (including the single most common query: "What do things cost?"). Teams of curators suggested others, and staff ultimately tackled 19 more, including "Is there such a thing as bad art?" "Why should I look at something that is disturbing?" "Have I looked at this object long enough?" and "This looks like something my child could do. Why is it in an art museum?"

Typically, a single curator might work for five years on an exhibit, Young said. To create Question, all members of the center staff were invited to take part in rounds of discussion and hours of often intense debate that were held over an 18-month period, Young said. ("The curators did not have a unified response to the questions," a docent explained to a group of visitors last Sunday.) The center also invited volunteers, university faculty and staff, and colleagues from other Bay Area museums to participate.

As discussions were under way, exhibit designer Darcie Fohrman and artist Michael Brown were brought in to give physical shape to the points of view that were generated. Fohrman once was an exhibit designer at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and many of the installation's hands-on features are evocative of a children's museum. The gallery is divided into color-coded areas where visitors are invited to peek under flip boards, type their thoughts into a keyboard that automatically projects them on the wall, sketch and write. A low murmur of recorded voices sound in the hallway, and in one corner visitors hear a recording of a debate about the distinctions between art and craft.

Designers wanted to avoid the "museum hush," said Fohrman. "In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We wantpeople to ask strange questions and say, 'I don't get this.'"

Novel approaches are employed strategically in the installation. For instance, red pencils and sketchbooks are supplied near Red Block, by John McCracken, to encourage visitors to spend more time looking at the sculpture. Center staff had noticed that although individual visitors tended to pass by it quickly, the sculpture provoked spirited discussion in classes and among tour-group members. Along with the price tags that accompany some works are explanations of the various factors that determine the perceived value of objects to curators. And the Congolese nkisifigure sits in sand on the floor because, as a nearby documentary photograph shows, it traditionally was included in informal daily life.

Although many works are unlabeled ­ "Labels may answer questions too soon," Young explained ­ sets of notebooks identifying the works are available in the gallery for visitors to leaf through. The notebooks also include short essays distilling curators' responses to the exhibit's organizing questions and point visitors to objects in other galleries where questions continue to pop up. ("What is he thinking?" a playful sign asks, near Rodin's The Thinker. "Who decides what is art and who is an artist?" asks a sign near a figure made of earth, bones, blood and expectorated kola nut juice in the Africa gallery.)

Early response from visitors to the installation has been very positive, Young said. (And prolific ­ the white walls leading into the gallery are filling fast with penciled doodles, musings and, yes, questions.) "We just encourage people to come and be open minded," she said.

In addition to the installation, the center will offer a series of special events with the exhibition, including:

  • Weekly discussions with staff about the questions that art raises, held Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m. through Nov. 24.
  • Docent-led gallery conversations on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 19.
  • A Thursday night film series on the south lawn on July 22, Aug. 5 and Aug. 19.
  • A free conference, "The Nature of Inquiry," with faculty presentations on formulating and researching questions, on Saturday, Nov. 6, at 1 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium.