March 5, 2004

Former Guard Discusses Development as Artist

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With biting humor and brilliant introspection, New York-based contemporary artist Fred Wilson gave his seminar, “Speak of Me as I Am: The Venice Project” last night at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The seminar, given by the Africana Studies and Research Center and co-sponsored by the history of art department, focused on Wilson’s development as an artist.

Wilson first gained an interest working with museum spaces when he worked as a guard in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Being a person of color allowed me to wear all these hats that let me see how museums work,” Wilson explained.

While working as a guard, Wilson became fascinated with the way exhibits and artifacts were arranged in museums. He found that the way art was presented affected the way people interpreted art. Wilson has since then made his life’s work out of arranging museum spaces in ways that “bring the historic into the realm of the museum.”

His job of arranging the exhibits at the National Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland “changed my career and changed their museum,” said Wilson. At the National Historical Society, Wilson became interested with the understanding of historical and racial patterns that could be found from an analysis of what museums choose to exhibit.

“Things in view tell you a lot about the museum, things in storage tell you even more,” said WIlson of his experience. Through his use of humor in exhibits, Wilson was able to make a cutting commentary on the turbulent racial history of Baltimore that had gone previously unseen.

Working with museum spaces at an art museum in Seattle and Venice, Italy gave Wilson more canvases to create his unique brand of racial and historical commentary through the arrangement of art. Wilson tries to push the boundaries of people’s expectations, explaining that the “power of museums is to make something you know to be true seem like it can’t possibly be true.”

Working to arrange exhibits in ways that enhance a culture’s complexity, Wilson’s exhibits themselves are art. In Venice, Wilson was thrilled to be allowed the opportunity to explore the connections between contemporary and historic Africans in Venice. Wilson emphasized the importance of research in his work, saying, “I’m interested in twisting and tweaking, but I always need a base of knowledge.” He was fascinated to find that “the more you walk around Venice, the more you see the influence of other cultures,” and Wilson tried to mirror the cultural melange in his exhibits at the museum.

True Pioneer

“When you depict someone else, you also depict yourself,” is Wilson’s analogy for museum exhibitions. Through his innovative arrangements of museum space and creation of thought-provoking statements, Wilson has depicted himself as a true pioneer of museum spaces.

Archived article by Sarah Van Duyn