Art Institute of Chicago - Job Perks

There are some serious perks to working at as large and historic an institution as AIC. Working in a department that is granted access to much of the museum multiplies these perks considerably.

While training, I was taken into one of the modern and contemporary art storage rooms to color correct several digital files. I’ve spent some time in collections storage in previous positions and have toured many others, but I’ve not encountered anything like it. There is rack after rack filled with amazing oversized paintings. To be able to spend time, however brief it may be, up close to works I’ve admired seeing on the gallery walls is wonderful.


I’ve also been able to walk through the museum before it was open to the public. I needed to compare how some works were published in a catalog to the originals, and it was a treat to explore the galleries without anyone else around. It was so peaceful, and I found myself looking at works much more carefully than I’ve allowed myself to do in the past. I’m looking forward to more solo exploration in the future.

 

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National Public Housing Museum - Spring Cleaning

The National Public Housing Museum organized a spring cleaning session in their offices earlier this season. A researcher using the collections and I teamed up to create an up-to-date inventory of the materials stored on-site. She has been combing through visual materials to write a dissertation on how the CHA sites were portrayed, and has been a huge help in identifying people and places depicted in photographs.

 

From the filing cabinets and piles of materials, we attempted to break everything down into potential categories: library and reference material, archival material, collections material, and research material. We then evaluated potential collections to determine priority for conservation and/or digitization. I bundled the physical materials together by category, and photographed objects for the spreadsheet for reference.

 

While there are still some objects stored off-site, this was a good opportunity to take stock of what will become the foundation of the museum’s collections and archives. It is helping to shape our discussions on creating a collections management policy. And it was also a wonderful opportunity for me to take a peek at some of the treasures NPHM has already accumulated and been gifted.

 

Art Institute of Chicago - Imaging Production Specialist

I’ve moved from a contract position to a full-time position at the Art Institute of Chicago. This means I’m no longer working on singular projects, but I’m digitizing the film archives of collections and exhibitions documentation, editing files from the digital archives, and fulfilling internal and external image requests. It’s nice to transition to a new job when you’ve already been working in the department for half a year, but I still have much to learn.

Having worked in the imaging department of three LAM institutions in Chicago, it’s been interesting to compare how each gets things done, and what priorities are. There are always strengths and weaknesses. I’m happy to be working with equipment that is fully up-to-date at AIC, and while there’s never enough man power in non-profits, it’s nice to be working with a team of nearly a dozen rather than two or three other professionals.

This is an image of the department’s Imacon drum scanner. I’ve never had the chance to use one of these types of scanners before, and the quality of the files it creates certainly is impressive.

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Chicago Cultural Center - Theo Jansen's Strandbeests

The Chicago Cultural Center hosted an excellent exhibit of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests this winter. I’ve long admired his mobile creatures, so it was wonderful to have the chance to see them up close. On display were black and white photographs of the beasts in action, a wide variety of the handcrafted pieces used in the sculptures, some hands-on demonstrations of engineering principles, and several retired Strandbeests. There were wranglers on standby for daily demonstrations, showing how the beasts harness and store wind power for self-mobilization.


I love the combination of engineering and aesthetics that go into Jansen’s work, and the exhibit showed off this pairing beautifully.

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National Public Housing Museum - Telling Stories Telling Belongings

The National Public Housing Museum recently organized Telling Stories Telling Belongings, an event that has successfully brought the community together for several years. This time around, they partnered with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and it took place in the newly refurbished Jane Addams Resource Center in ABLA. The focus was on the near west side of the city. In spite of the dreary spring weather, more than 70 people were in attendance, and many came with objects and stories to share.

The event was split between individual presentations by volunteers wanting to tell their stories and group story-telling sessions. It was a great way to bring people together, and I was heartened to see several people exchanging contact information at the end of the event.

One of my favorite objects and accompanying stories was one that Tammy brought to share. She was excited when she approached the table where representatives from the Hull-House Museum were having volunteers sign paperwork, and where I was photographing objects. From a ziploc bag, she pulled out her original birth certificate and a few black and white family photos. It turns out she was born in the Jane Addams Homes, formerly on Cabrini Street, as part of a midwife program being tried out in the 1950s. She explained how her mother much preferred this option to making regular treks to the hospital to see her doctor. She was able to stay home and rest, and received excellent care from a visiting professional. We were all equally excited about her story, and she was incredibly engaging when talking about this connection to public housing and her experience there to the audience.

Another wonderful story came from Ms. Ida. She brought in a painting her son Jeffries created when he was 7 years-old, she entitled “1383: a Front Yard.” The painting depicted a large tree surrounded by beautiful flowers, bees, and butterflies, and a smiling sun watching over the scene. She explained that her son injured himself, and they sought housing in one of the low-rise CHA buildings since the elevator in their high-rise was frequently broken. Once they settled into their new home, her son was adamant that they plant a huge garden in their collective front yard. His injuries prevented this from happening, so instead he created his wonderful painting.

I am so happy I was able to attend this event, and better yet, was afforded the opportunity to help document it. Seeing such a diverse crowd representing so many decades of history in the area coming together was really amazing.


Please head on over to the National Public Housing Museum’s blog to read more about the event.

 

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Art Institute of Chicago - Journeys from Xanadu

I’ve been working at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Imaging Department as a Post-Production Technician for the last few months, on a temporary basis. The project I’ve been focused on is retouching photographs for an upcoming publication, released in conjunction with an exhibition:  Journeys from Xanadu: Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects from the Barbara and David Kipper Collection.

A new approach for the department is being undertaken with these images, in which the object is masked from the background. A new, standardized background with set RGB values is created, as are new, uniform shadows. The goal with this post-production work is to create as cohesive a visual effect as possible in the images. For some objects, this was a fairly straight-forward process. But many items in this collection had intricate beadwork, fabric, and metalwork, which made the masking process a challenge.


The catalog will be released and the exhibit opens in June, and I’m excited to see the final products of this work.

 

Masking examples

Masking examples

New backgrounds, new shadows

New backgrounds, new shadows


Idaho State Penitentiary - The challenge of historic prisons

While visiting family in Boise, I visited the Idaho State Penitentiary. This historic site functioned as a prison from 1872 to 1973, and it is comprised of complex of buildings surrounded by an imposing stone wall. Over 13,000 inmates lived here while the penitentiary was active. Prisoner riots in the 1970s over living conditions led to its closure and it was placed on theNational Register of Historic Places the year it closed.

 

I picked up a quarterly issue of Clog at the Chicago Architecture Biennial on prisons and architecture. The dozens of articles by architects, reformers and activists, and prisoners shed light on a variety of issues that relate to this type of architecture. This publication helped put into context my visit to the historic penitentiary. When prisons were first built, they were meant both to punish those deemed to be criminal and protect society from the prisoners. There was often little consideration for the physical, much less the psychological, well-being of the inhabitants of these buildings, given these goals. This explained the cramped, dreary quarters and what to me seemed like uninhabitable windowless boxes that were solitary confinement.

 

There was also an essay discussing the recent trend of historic prisons as horror-gazing. Historic sites face the challenge of competing with other entertainment and cultural attractions. Some make the decision to dramatise some historical aspects in order to appeal to a wider audience. Idaho State Penitentiary has capitalized on this trend, offering haunted tours and a Halloween haunted house. Sensationalizing what was indeed a place of great misfortune and unhappiness can trivialize it. It’s a fine line to walk between experimenting with the identity of a former prison and exploiting the reality that many faced while residing here.

 

I’m glad we visited, though the trip took a toll on us, and I left with more questions than I started with thanks to Clog.

 

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - SC Johnson Campus Visit

Sadly, the first Chicago Architecture Biennial has come to a close. I’m happy I was able to attend some of the programs and spend time exploring the extensive exhibits at the Cultural Center. I also had the chance to get out of the city for an interesting day trip thanks to one of the sponsors. S.C. Johnson offered free shuttles and tours of their campus in Racine, Wisconsin throughout the biennial. I took advantage of this opportunity, and neither the Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings nor the locally-purchased Danish kringle disappointed.

 

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National Public Housing Museum - After the Plan: What Happened to Public Housing Families?

While the National Public Housing Museum doesn’t yet have facilities open to the public, they’ve continued to provide excellent programming for the community. They organized a panel discussion about Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. After the Plan featured academics Mary Pattillo and Amy Khare, as well as CHA Assistant Director of Resident Engagement (and NPHM board member) Crystal Palmer, and Housing Choice Partners Executive Director Chris Klepper. The panelists discussed the fate of public housing residents after the demolition of so many housing units, each from their unique point of view.

I appreciated the fact that given the diverse background of the individuals speaking, both the positive and negative outcomes of CHA resident relocation were addressed. The improvements in existing public housing units were discussed, including health and safety measures and access to resident services. The benefits of moving, the “opportunity area” effect, of improved physical and mental health, higher income, better grades for children, and higher college enrollment for teenagers were also addressed. While residents forced to moved may have faced discrimination in a new community and a difficult housing market, some believe the benefits outweigh or at least counterbalance the downsides of remaining in traditional public housing buildings.

The more critical view of the Plan for Transformation took into account the recession, and how outside circumstances led, in part, to a failure to create housing at the rate the CHA demolished units. This has led to a shift in newly vacant land being set aside for housing to any development, including commercial spaces. The question many ask as a result of these priority shifts, is does the Plan actually benefit CHA residents in alleviating high-density poverty, or is it simply shifting the land back to the affluent? As mixed development developments have become the new “solution” to the traditional public housing “problem,” residents are often forced to handle the market economy on their own. And neighborhoods and communities with Section 8 housing, units CHA residents can rent with vouchers, often express a “more than our fair share” mentality about this housing. There is a continued fear of a concentration of the underprivileged and a stigma against those from public housing. The poor continue to be blamed for community problems even though crime is a symptom of economic inequalities.


So much of the focus on public housing is the history of the high rise, and its perceived failure. It is refreshing to hear about the work so many are doing to address what is happening now, what the future may hold for those pushed out of the high rises and other traditional public housing units.

 

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - Programs

In addition to the exhibits on display at the Cultural Center and at many other venues across the city, there have been lots of programs for the Architecture Biennial. There are lectures and site tours nearly every day, and I have had the chance to attend two different discussions over the last few weeks: Here Comes the Neighborhood - Placemaking and Transforming Neighborhoods; and Art, Architecture and Community: Catalysts for Social Change.

Here Comes the Neighborhood was a discussion moderated by the curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Juan Gabriel Moreno of JGMA and Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Designs “examined the transformation of urban landscapes and the influence of architecture and aesthetics on community and civic life.” I was particularly interested in their discussion of community buy-in for their projects, and fostering a sense of pride.

Art, Architecture and Community was a presentation by Catherine Baker of Landon Bone Baker Architects on her firm’s project of turning former public housing buildings in Greater Grand Crossing into mixed income housing and a community dance center. She talked about the process, from the additional bureaucratic challenges of working with the Chicago Housing Authority to the evolving understanding of the condition of the buildings themselves to the in-depth process of getting community input for the public space. As a part of the Rebuild Foundation’s complex, this project is an interesting example of taking unused property and reusing it for the good of the neighborhood.

These programs have proved that the Architecture Biennial is more than a presentation of beautiful buildings - it’s an evaluation of all the different forms architecture takes, and how the built environment should benefit those who use these spaces.

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Chicago Architecture Biennial - Exhibits at the Cultural Center

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial opened in October and will continue through January of next year. The expectations for this event were high, though there was a good deal of uncertainty as to what it would look like, and how it might appeal to a wider audience than architects and urban planners. I visited the hub of exhibits and lectures for the biennial, the Cultural Center, and was pleased to see it well attended by a diverse audience.

Every floor featured a number of exhibits dealing with different aspects of our constructed environment. There were models and renderings from international firms solving problems, some of which had been realized, and there were also more abstract representations of architecture. Sou Fujimoto Architects created an installation of dozens of small sculptures on pedestals that, paired with small figures, became found architecture. The playfulness and humor made the work fun to explore. Some of my favorite work was that of Professor Amanda Williams. Her photographs struck me; from the CAB website: “her work centers on color, race, and space… she uses vivid, culturally derived colors to paint abandoned houses on Chicago’s South Side, marking the pervasiveness of undervalued Black space.”

Even after wandering through the building for several hours, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of everything on display. Another trip will definitely be necessary.

 

Photography by Amanda Williams. 

Photography by Amanda Williams. 

Sou Fujimoto Architects. 

Sou Fujimoto Architects. 

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Mos Architects. 

Mos Architects. 

Rua Arquitetos. 

Rua Arquitetos. 

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Studio Gang. 

Studio Gang. 

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Chicago Architecture Foundation Open House

My favorite weekend every year is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see buildings that are often off-limits to the public, many of which have excellent tours. I’ve also used it as a way of seeing parts of the city I don’t often get to explore. This year, I ventured out with friends to see sites in Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, South and West Loop, and downtown. As always, I had a great time, and would highly recommend making sure you’re in Chicago next year for Open House!

Hidden Sullivan stairwell. 

Hidden Sullivan stairwell. 

McCormick rooftop garden. 

McCormick rooftop garden. 

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Bertrand Goldberg! 

Bertrand Goldberg! 

Cermak bridge, Chinatown. 

Cermak bridge, Chinatown. 

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Stockyards, Back of the Yards.

Stockyards, Back of the Yards.

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Architectural salvage yard. 

Architectural salvage yard. 

Former gear factory turned office space, West Loop. 

Former gear factory turned office space, West Loop. 

The Rookery, downtown. 

The Rookery, downtown. 

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Vault in the basement. 

Vault in the basement. 

Zap props, Back of the Yards.

Zap props, Back of the Yards.

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Bridgeport demolition. 

Bridgeport demolition. 

Open Archives at the Art Institute

October is a busy month in Chicago, packed with amazing cultural events around the city. This year, I took advantage of the Chicago Open Archives weekend and visited the Ryerson & Burnham Archives at the Art Institute. The archivist walked our group through highlights of the archives and gave some fascinating background information on the objects on display. Architecture is one of the primary reasons I moved here, so this architecture-centric collection is right up my alley.

 

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Museum of Contemporary Art & John Cage

 

I left my position at Northwestern University Library in August, and one of my last jobs was the digitization of several John Cage scores. I attended an after-hours event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and once again found myself face-to-face with Cage’s unconventional work. It was a fantastic surprise to stumble upon a project I had a small part in and watching others interact with and enjoy the exhibit.

 

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Collection, Building, Action

Preparing for the exhibition Collection, Building, Action at the National Public Housing Museum was a whirlwind experience. From the beginning plans and outline to installation, our small team had around two months to pull everything together. And given the fact that the space used to house the exhibit (and two others, as well) is a gutted former public housing site, there were some interesting limitations around which we had to work. I’m so happy I got to be a part of this project, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the museum in the future.

If you’re in Chicago, take time to visit the Addams Homes to see all three exhibits (up through mid-November), and the rest of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

 

Exploring the museum's collections.    

Exploring the museum's collections. 

 

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Entrance to all three exhibitions in the future museum site: Collection, Building, Action; House Housing; We Next Door. 

Entrance to all three exhibitions in the future museum site: Collection, Building, Action; House Housing; We Next Door. 

Collection, Building, Action - 3D collections items, a slideshow of images, and selected oral histories. 

Collection, Building, Action - 3D collections items, a slideshow of images, and selected oral histories. 

House Housing, curated by Columbia University.

House Housing, curated by Columbia University.

The museum's Youth Advisory Council curated We Next Door, a response to House Housing. 

The museum's Youth Advisory Council curated We Next Door, a response to House Housing. 

National Public Housing Museum & the Chicago Architecture Biennial

 

I’ve been volunteering at the National Public Housing Museum, helping the team to assess what information management systems might work for their collections. While researching the options, I’ve also been working on a plan to help them to develop a collections management policy and some basic first steps before cataloging begins.

I’m also assisting the curator on a temporary basis, helping to select images and objects for an upcoming exhibit at the future museum site. As a part of this process, I had my first tour of the building, the former Jane Addams Homes. I’d walked past the abandoned housing many times, always wondering who had lived there, what it had been like, and what would happen to the last remaining structure. Some of those questions will be answered, in part, in the exhibit, and will be answered more fully once the museum opens. I’m thrilled to be working on this project, both because of the access it will give me to the museum’s collections and this historic site, and because of the potential for this exhibit to raise awareness about the museum. It will open as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial in October 2015.

Interior of one of the Jane Addams Homes units. 

Interior of one of the Jane Addams Homes units. 

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Exterior of the site. 

Exterior of the site. 

De vuelta: Works by Chiacgo Imagist Errol Ortiz

Friends were recently in town for the opening of De vuelta:  Works by Chicago Imagist Errol Ortiz. Our friend had talked about how his father was a painter, but I think few of us who came to the reception realized what an important (and largely missing) part of this iconic group of Chicago artists Mr. Ortiz was. The work itself was absolutely amazing, and it was wonderful being able to see so much of it, spanning the length of his artistic career, in his first solo exhibit. I would highly recommend a trip to see it, the show is up through March 2016 at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

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'Anny Get Your Missile' was one of my favorites. 

'Anny Get Your Missile' was one of my favorites. 

The precision and bold color choices was very appealing to me. 

The precision and bold color choices was very appealing to me. 

Sketchbooks on display. 

Sketchbooks on display. 

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Stencils used for one of the paintings. 

Stencils used for one of the paintings. 

Digitization requests

Most of the patron requests I handle at work involve little interaction between myself and the requestor. This streamlines my work, but it is nice to occasionally meet with patrons to learn about how they are using digitized versions of library collections material. There have been two orders over the last quarter where I did indeed get some insight about projects for which I’m responsible. The first is developing into an on-going collaboration between an international artist, the library, and the Block Museum. His request allowed me the opportunity to work with the Duckworth collection from our Africana special library. The second came from a professor who is working to create an online repository of classic literature dating to Shakespeare’s time for academic research and discovery. Working with original collections material is what’s drawn me to this field, but it’s that much more rewarding when I can learn how others are using our work.

Crops from a few of the Duckwoth images. 

Crops from a few of the Duckwoth images. 

One of the classics being digitized. 

One of the classics being digitized. 

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Panel discussion "Museums and Social Justice: What role can we play?"

Deb Kerr, one of the Museum Studies certificate program professors, invited former students to an event at her museum a few weeks ago. It was organized by the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group and hosted by Intuit:  The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Three museum professionals - from Intuit, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and the National Veterans Art Museum - led a conversation about “Museums & Social Justice:  What role can we play?”  

The event opened with a video of Dr. David Fleming of the National Museums of Liverpool imploring museums not to be dispassionate. There often is this idea that these institutions should be purely educational, and as such, they should be as unbiased and clinical in their approach to their subject as possible. This isn’t a particularly welcoming, compelling, or relevant strategy, though. Christine Bespalec-Davis, the education director at the National Veterans Art Museum, addressed this issue by explaining how their staff encourage visitors to talk through their emotions. They work to promote dialogue for topics that are difficult to discuss, like violence and trauma, rather than simply “stating the facts.” Kelley H. Szany, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center spoke to the power of a story in its ability to form connections with visitors, and the idea of this connection moving visitors to act. Far from encouraging passive observation, they promote activism.  

I hope that over time, the field as a whole can embrace the idea that museums can be educational while still taking a stance on important issues. I would argue that in some cases failing to address controversy or conflict can intrinsically be viewed as taking a stance. With education comes responsibility, and museums need to learn to accept this responsibility and use it for the greater good.  

Deb discussing the challenge and dishonesty of labeling and claiming ownership to Martin Ramirez as a Mexican American outsider artist.

Deb discussing the challenge and dishonesty of labeling and claiming ownership to Martin Ramirez as a Mexican American outsider artist.

Things vs People

This spring, I pursued and completed a certificate program in Museum Studies at the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern. I learned so much during the quarter and walked away with some wonderful resources and connections. What struck me the most in our discussions in class is this shift in museums as a whole - away from strictly serving the role of a repository and towards a space of facilitation and connection. Simply put, museums are trying to be less about stuff and more about people. Part of my interest in and motivation to work in cultural heritage institutions has been the stuff. I feel that there is so much we can learn from unique objects and materials. That being said, I understand and agree with the movement to make these institutions less static, more welcoming, and more relevant to the audiences they are supposed to serve. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the field, and I hope museums, libraries, archives, and galleries can adapt and embrace change.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the House of Terror in Budapest. This institution is dedicated to telling the story of Hungary under fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. Wandering through the exhibition spaces, visitors are immersed in environments - not reproductions of historical spaces per se, but rather rooms meant to illicit emotion. There are objects and artifacts on display, but these are not the focus; interpretive text accompanying objects is minimal, instead there are paper handouts in nearly every room which provide background information to the topics covered. Multimedia elements, interviews and music in particular, are used frequently. The hardships faced under the regime were personalized by individual accounts, and it was clear that the intent with this was to generate a connection between history and visitors. While the subject of the museum may not be a welcoming one, the contemporary exhibition approach facilitates a relationship between those who lived under the regimes and those visiting the museum today. There are aspects to the exhibition I might approach differently, but I did find it to be an interesting example of this user-centered experience we discussed in our classes. 

 

The imposing exterior gives a good indication of the challenging subjects addressed inside.

The imposing exterior gives a good indication of the challenging subjects addressed inside.

Courtyard with victim portraits. 

Courtyard with victim portraits. 

Room dealing with justice under the regimes.

Room dealing with justice under the regimes.

Room dealing with "normalcy" in popular media under the regimes. 

Room dealing with "normalcy" in popular media under the regimes. 

Re-created office of a communist party official. 

Re-created office of a communist party official.