MMA charts a new course from its own collection.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
The Monterey Museum of Art wants to jolt viewers with its new show, Shifting Ground. This is an exhibition that aims to demonstrate the force with which the new executive director, the new curator, and the resolute board of directors have committed to take the museum to a higher level of exhibitions, research and collection.
Their work has begun at the very core of the museum: its permanent collection. Shifting Ground unveils sometimes surprising pieces selected from more than 10,000 objects that the museum has acquired over its 49-year history.
Marcelle Polednik, the director of collections and exhibitions who came to the MMA from New York’s Whitney Museum in the beginning of this year, suited up immediately upon her arrival and delved deep into MMA’s permanent collection.
“We called the exhibition Shifting Ground because we want it to be a revelation,” Polednik says. “We want those who have been visiting the museum for years to be absolutely shocked that we have been storing such dynamic and diverse works.
“For decades, we have displayed such a narrow strata of the collection that its not surprising that the public assumes that we have a very limited focus.”
Over lunch last week, I confessed to Polednik that I am guilty of such assumptions—that the collection includes primarily California impressionists, as well as Ansel Adams and those photographers who famously worked in Big Sur, and local artists who have achieved national acclaim. Polednik grinned, “Yes, that’s what our audiences have seen. But our collection is actually very deep in some areas that will give us the means to engage nationally.”
Having arrived just a few months ago, Polednik is already past auditioning for the approval of her audience. The buzz is all good. She brings well-honed scholarship and a fresh perspective to the task of cultivating new audiences locally while moving the museum into the national limelight.
“I see the museum developing as a center for cutting-edge scholarship in art in the same way that the Aquarium serves that purpose in marine biology,” she says. “The scholarship feeding the exhibitions, the exhibitions providing an educational resource for the community while enhancing the economy through tourism.”
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It was just less than two years ago that the members of the MMA board were forced to look dispassionately at the future of the museum, to decide, in fact, if it had a future. At that time, they decided to expand the organization’s mission, and focus on doing the scholarly and fundraising work that would gain national attention.
To achieve that, they decided to recruit top staff capable of playing in the big leagues. They recruited E. Michael Whittington, a curator with the Mint Museum in North Carolina who had been instrumental in moving that small museum to national prominence.
Whittington writes in the current MMA newsletter: “If a museum’s permanent collection is its heart and soul, then exhibitions are surely its brain…we take our brain very seriously.”
The recruitment of Polednik was another step in that direction. Her plans include using the depth of the collection to develop nationally touring exhibits, collaborating with other museums.
“Our print collection is one of the most extraordinary surprises,” she says. “We have a very rare collection of Matisse prints, one that has never been shown in its entirety. We have prints by artists not known to have produced prints. We also have a remarkable collection of modern and contemporary Asian art, including some surprising lithographs by Dai-Chien.
“Our photography collection of course includes the prominent artists in this region—Ansel Adams, Brett Weston and others—but also a very strong collection representing the most influential international photographers.”
Shifting Ground will be the first opportunity for audiences to see this facet of MMA, and will certainly lay the foundation for its new direction.
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This fall, MMA launched Monterey NOW, a series of exhibitions that spotlight the work of a contemporary local artist. The first NOW exhibit of paintings by Barry Masteller will continue at the Pacific Street MMA through Oct. 22. With this series, MMA intends to build a bridge to local artists by honoring those who, like MMA itself, live and work here, contributing to the community while achieving national distinction.
Hold on to the railings. The exhibition that opens this Friday might be on Shifting Ground, but it appears the shaking is just MMA preparing for liftoff.
SHIFTING GROUND opens Saturday, Sept. 30 and runs through February. 11am-5pm. 720 Via Mirada, Monterey. Free on opening day. Regular admission: $5/general; $2.50/students, military. 372-5477 or montereyart.org.