In the European and American Gallery of the Fleming Art Museum, a white sheet of paper hangs on the wall in place of an 18th-century painting by Thomas Hudson. It seems a paltry and surely temporary replacement for the 5ft by 4ft oil on canvas – perhaps the gallery version of a “Coming back in 5 minutes” note. In fact, the two-paragraph statement on paper is very busy. It begins as follows: “This space once featured a portrait of Anne Isted (1684-1783), who was a slaveholder.”
The text goes on to explain how the exploitative Isted family acquired their wealth. But that first sentence alone speaks to the sea change currently taking place in the 90-year-old museum at the University of Vermont.
Written by curator Andrea Rosen, the statement observes that this gallery is “full of celebratory depictions of white Europeans and Euro-Americans whose wealth and status were built on the backs of people of color.” In short, such paintings “reinforce white supremacy,” and that is precisely what the museum aims to identify, examine, and extinguish within its walls.
“The Fleming Reimagined” is not the title of a single exhibition but rather a heading for several thoughtful presentations of works from the permanent collection; redesigned spaces for public engagement; and a newly created and strongly worded statement of values titled “A Living Document of Museum Accounts and Transformations”.
Museum staff also court public opinion on campus and in wider communities, including through vigorous appeals in this newspaper. Their intention is to “follow up on feedback with honest and thoughtful responses about past failures and how we are committed to listening to the audiences we serve,” the living document reads in part. Rosen said staff plan to hold meetings every two weeks to review that input and the museum’s responses.
Collectively, these efforts represent a dramatic overhaul of Flemish standards for exhibitions, acquisitions and teaching.
“Having these conversations and self-examinations, and doing everything publicly and transparently, is educational for all of us,” museum director Janie Cohen said. “It’s really uncomfortable at first and then, at a certain point, it’s not uncomfortable anymore.”
For some observers, the museum’s transition may seem too quick. But, as Rosen ironically observed in a telephone interview, “There have been too many years of do not do something!”
Many museums around the world had begun to reevaluate their cultural biases before the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. But that tragedy and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests accelerated Fleming’s plunge into self-reflection, recognized assistant director Chris Dissinger during a tour of the museum.
The staff quickly put together an exhibit for fall 2020 aptly titled “Reckonings.” Museum employees and student interns not only pulled relevant pieces from the collection, but also wrote labels explaining why the artworks spoke of “the moment”. These works can still be seen in a slideshow on Fleming’s website.
This was just the start of a more collaborative approach at the museum. During the pandemic-induced shutdown, staff had the luxury of time off from what Rosen called “the spinning wheel of exhibit planning.” In the new process, all team member got a seat at the table. As a curator since 2015, Rosen admitted it took some getting used to.
“It’s definitely a change for me in my role,” she said. “I’m a little more of a coordinator than a decision maker. But power sharing is essential for change.”
This belief is now written large on a gallery wall: “To truly collaborate is to cede singular authority, something few of us do voluntarily. What creative possibilities exist to make these power struggles and negotiations visible in art ?”
In addition to the thoughtful prompts and values-driven statements dotted throughout the Fleming, visitors will find a wide range of artwork and interactive opportunities.
The exhibition/uninstallation in the European and American Gallery on the second floor is titled “Absence: Seeing and Not Seeing Fleming’s Collection”. In addition to the Anne Isted painting, the ignorance extends to a number of other removed works of art “which have been on display for decades and whose subject matter or background hurts members of our community”, reads an information board. While these pieces of paper say a lot, they can also inspire a viewer to pay closer attention to the works that remain.
On the ground floor, the East Gallery presents a very attractive selection of more recent acquisitions. The choices range from a hilarious cartoon panel by Vermonter Alison Bechdel to a remarkable 3D paper construction by late New York artist Elizabeth Murray to an extraordinary seven-color woodblock print created by Katia Santibañez and James Siena. .
This latest image graces the front of the museum’s Fall 2021 map. The print, made by two artists taking turns on its design, “represents the importance of collaboration,” Dissinger said. “To me, that exemplifies the element of trust.”
Part of the East Gallery, currently dubbed the Learning Studio, is filled with work tables used by faculty and students when examining items from the collection. According to Dissinger, visitors are encouraged to listen to their lectures.
Across the Marble Court, the smaller Wolcott Gallery now features the Storytelling Lounge: a group of comfortable chairs in the center of the room are available for scheduled group discussions or for anyone to sit down and contemplate the art on the walls. Again, these pieces come from the permanent collection; some were included in last year’s “Reckonings.” Each of them inspires the creation of stories.
Finally, “Abstracts”, a selection of non-figurative contemporary paintings installed on the balcony, is not to be missed. The pieces “leave room for the imagination”, according to a description from the museum, and “allow us to reconsider outdated traditions and begin to imagine what is to come next”.
Both Dissinger and Rosen noted that people have asked what the museum would do with artworks now deemed offensive. For now, they will be stored along with most of the museum’s 25,000 objects. Rosen said some pieces may be removed for teaching purposes in the future. Then she thought:Can is a racist work useful for education?
Reinvention is a work in progress. For now, Rosen suggested, “Instead of focusing on what happened, what can we put in place?”
Ninety years ago, the Flemish’s first director—zoologist Henry F. Perkins—founded the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, Cohen notes in a written introduction to “Absence.” This year, the Vermont legislature voted unanimously to issue a formal apology for its role in supporting forced sterilizations of individuals considered inferior. Fleming’s staff also extended a collective mea culpa, exposed personal and institutional accounts, and pledged to become an anti-racism organization.
“I think this is our most important moment,” Dissinger said of the museum. “People look at what we do and should be.”