Art That Sees the Big Picture

Block Museum Director Lisa Corrin explores visual language to help drive interdisciplinary research at Northwestern

By Matt GolosinskiMay 15, 2017

The Block Museum of Art occupies a modest physical location on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, but it exerts an outsized impact on the University’s academic and cultural life, says its director, Lisa Graziose Corrin. And that influence is growing.

“We’re small but mighty. We are a window to the University’s diverse brain trust — our faculty and students,” says Corrin, an award-winning scholar who joined Northwestern in 2012, after more than three decades in curatorial leadership at various cultural institutions. Throughout her illustrious career, she has radically reimagined the museum. In doing so, she has helped create spaces for art that encourage people to ask urgent questions about history and the world, while also providing a place for reflection and learning that connect campus and surrounding communities.

“Art and creativity operate at the intersection of many fields,” Corrin says. “This ‘and/and’ synthesis is at the heart of Northwestern’s academic culture, where students can pursue multiple majors in different schools and bring them together in unique ways. The Block’s model, similarly, reflects this ambition. Virtually everything we do has involved faculty and students as researchers, as curators, as part of our programs.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Corrin and her team have been transforming the 37-year-old Block into a dynamic teaching and research hub that spurs interdisciplinary conversations through innovative art exhibitions, lectures, and workshops. Corrin says that the creative process isn’t confined to an artist’s studio. Because it involves experimentation and trial and error, that process is at the heart of science and entrepreneurship, too. It’s a process that can help engineers and others more fully embrace iterative practice. That outcome, in turn, could result in fresh ways to approach tough challenges to improve the lives of millions of people, such as by finding breakthrough solutions to provide clean drinking water in developing nations.

In fact, the Block has partnered with the McCormick School of Engineering on a series of art and engineering lectures, bringing to campus renowned artists such as Pedro Reyes, who was profiled on the PBS series “Art 21,” and a “citizen-scientist” Dario Robleto, an artist featured in the Block’s “If You Remember, I’ll Remember” exhibition. Corrin also is exploring opportunities for the museum to catalyze future initiatives at The Garage and the Kellogg School of Management. The Block routinely collaborates with Northwestern University Libraries, an arrangement that proved integral to the success of last year’s critically acclaimed retrospective on avant-garde artist Charlotte Moorman, an underappreciated but influential cellist, performance artist, and curator whose extensive archives are located at Northwestern. The exhibition traveled internationally and was named by New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, one of the nation’s top 10 exhibitions for the year.

Art Unbound

Such ambitions align well with Corrin’s professional experiences and her early love of art history. She grew up on Long Island in an Italian-American family whose vacations often involved visits to historical sites, like Colonial Williamsburg, Plymouth Rock, or else cultural institutions — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where her father began his career photographing art, including the restoration of The Cloisters. Her father, Patrick J.  Graziose, who died last year, opened his portrait studio, Gray Studios, in Floral Park, New York, the day his daughter was born, but took the family to the Met where he taught Corrin how to visually analyze art. Corrin says she still considers the Met like home.

“As a teenager, art works that I saw at the Met were windows through which I found views on to other modes of experience,” she recalls. “Art teaches us that we are not bounded by where and how we grew up, or the values we have internalized. It teaches us to ask questions and it challenges our assumptions.” 

It was a 10th-grade European history course in which she was asked to research French Impressionism that started it all for Corrin. During her class presentation about her research, she discovered that her eyes were the chief means by which she made sense of her environment.

“I am an intensely visual person,” she says. “This experience taught me the power of images in constructing how we understand our world. I was young. I didn’t even know what a curator was, but I knew I had found my passion.”

It wasn’t until later, though, that Corrin knew she was going to be “a museum person.” A first generation college graduate, she went to Virginia’s Mary Washington College as a Regional Scholar and, with the support of the Grellet Simpson Memorial Scholarship from its alumni association, attended the University College in London. Many of her classes took place in the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In 1997 she returned to London as chief curator at the Serpentinte Gallery, one of Europe’s premiere institutions exhibiting contemporary art.

 “My mother, a voracious reader, loved history and read me poetry from a young age. Summers included reading programs at the local public library. My father introduced me to his love of art  and music.  On many Sundays, we would gather as a lively extended family, eat Italian feasts, and then my dad would bring out his accordion and we would sing along.  My memories of history, reading, art, and music provided the backdrop for what became my predisposition towards art forms that combine disciplines.”

Visual Language Matters

That interdisciplinary work infuses the Block’s vision. Corrin is a proponent of art’s intrinsic merits — art for art’s sake — but she also says that global art, past and present, offer a springboard for thinking about ideas and issues that matter today. Engagement programs at the Block focus on art as a lived experience.  She also thinks that it is important for students to learn how to “read” the world of images critically and that a keen sense of how images operate is vital even for those who rarely set foot inside a museum.

“The visual is a language,” Corrin says. “We teach our students how to analyze images for the messages they send. When we look at images of a political rally in the newspaper or on TV, every element has been calculated to convey a specific ideological message. Even a candidate’s tie has been chosen strategically. That reality is a construction that is carefully composed, edited, framed. This is as true in mass culture as it is in art.”

Art’s critical lens can also be turned on the museum space itself. This first happened early in Corrin’s career when she was a curator at Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum, a “nomadic,” museum without walls founded in 1989 by George Ciscle, a mentor to Corrin. The two wanted to break down the assumptions  hat people had about art, artists, and museums and to change the ways in which audiences experienced art.  They did this by working directly with communities on projects, and sometimes these projects involved sequestering other museums.

Their most recognized project took place in 1992 — a partnership between artist Fred Wilson, The Contemporary, and the Maryland Historical Society, a distinguished institution whose holdings told the story of that state’s “great white families,” but without any reference to its long history of slavery or the involvement of its founders in the Colonization Society, which wanted to send freed slaves back to Liberia. Absent, too, from the museum was the presence of prominent African Americans, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or the astronomer Benjamin Banneker, all of whom lived in or significantly impacted Maryland history.

Wilson’s installation asked, “Whose history is being told by the Maryland Historical Society?” The question held special relevance for holdings that showcased objects reflecting the collecting tastes and interests of an antebellum-era gentleman: ornate silver, carved furniture, portrait paintings, ship models, genealogical tables, and duck decoys. Maryland’s collusion in the slave system, its impact on African American Marylanders, or mention of their achievements and contributions to Maryland history were omitted from the museum’s displays.

Life-Changing Art

Fred Wilson’s s groundbreaking installation, “Mining the Museum,”set out to redress this balance, by figuratively shaking the Historical Society’s holdings until they revealed a hidden history in friction with its dominant narrative.

Working with the Society’s collection, Wilson juxtaposed objects in new ways to unveil the  complex truth within them. A display of silver wine goblets appeared in a display case with a pair of slave shackles and was labeled “Metalwork, 1723-1880” to demonstrate how, according to Corrin’s canonical essay in the book about the project, “museum classification, by hygienically separting history into clean compartments, creates a tidy structure of institutional denial.” Wilson’s display pointed out that we can look at the lavishly decorated goblet from the point of view of the wealthy family who owned it or from the perspective of the enslaved individual who poured the wine into it.

Another dramatic display, “Modes of Transport,” combined a model of a slave ship with its inventory of human cargo, a sedan chair, and an antique baby carriage. However, the carriage had acquired a disturbing passenger — a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Nearby, a photograph of enslaved women depicted them with similar carriages, vehicles for transporting wealthy white children, a reminder that cultivation of racism begins at birth.

In “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960,” Wilson arranged period chairs like spectators around an authentic whipping post used to punish slaves and, later, outside the Baltimore City Jail, African American prisoners. The tableau chillingly foregrounded the complicity that enabled institutional bondage and brutality to flourish. Fred Wilson would go on to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1999, and “Mining the Museum” is considered a landmark among 20th-century exhibitions. The associated monograph edited by Corrin also received accolades, among them the George Wittenborn Award by the Art Libraries Society of North America.

“Fred Wilson’s art changed that way I saw myself, my role in museums, and my ethical responsibility to history,” says Corrin. “Fred’s work made me think very hard about ‘difference’ and made me intensely aware of the privilege I hold in this society as a white person charged with representing others in an institution in the public trust. It also taught me how museums shape knowledge and act as purveyers of cultural values. It is my responsibility to ensure that the Block is aware and humbled by this position of power, that we use our platform to present diverse perspectives, and that we honor creativity in its many voices and forms across cultures and time.”

Working with Wilson and Ciscle would influence Corrin in her subsequent tenures at the Serpentine Gallery in London from 1997-2011, at the Seattle Art Museum, at the Williams College Museum of Art, and today at the Block. She cites the Block’s 2015 exhibition “Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies” as a significant example of how the Block has considered collecting art from non-western and non-European cultures and how the context of the museum, a western invention, transforms their meaning.  The exhibition was curated by Northwestern art history professor Rob Linrothe, with a team from the Block led by its associate director of curatorial affairs, Kathleen Berzock, an African art expert.

“The exhibition had extraordinary loans from major museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The kinds of questions it raised were ideally suited to a university art museum,” says Corrin. “One aspect of the exhibition was to consider how these objects got from Kashmir to museums via Tibetologists and scientists who, with the best of intentions, believed that in the interest of furthering knowledge it was acceptable to remove these objects from a sacred site, such as a temple, and put them into another ‘temple’—the museum. These displacements resulted in both a deconsecration of the objects and a loss of their intended meanings within the cultures who created them.”

Exploring ‘Multiple Histories’

At the University, the Block works in an environment in which critical inquiry in the interest of teaching and learning is the primary mission. Exhibitions at the Block like Collecting Paradise promote innovative scholarship and also ask big, bold questions.

Says Corrin: “We offer a different texture than other museums. We showcase art, yes, but the way we do this allows us to explore complex questions and multiple histories that exist in simultaneity, rather than to try to cancel one history out in favor of another. In these efforts, we try to look at history with fresh eyes and to ask about how it was written, by whom, and what their perspectives may have been.” 

That’s something the Block did in the Charlotte Moorman exhibition, A Feast of Astonishments, says Corrin. “Here was a woman who was almost entirely left out of art history because she did not fit the categories that shaped the stories it told in her time. She was an individual whose creativity was multifaceted and resistant to classification. That was the point for her and other experimental artists in the 1960s and ‘70s: to be creative, to redefine the very definitions of ‘art,’ ‘music,’ ‘performance,’ to keep them all vital.”

Corrin says that the best university museums today are not  “trophy halls” that showcase donor generosity in the form of in-kind gifts of art. Like the Block, they are committed to a serious teaching mission. They remain the training grounds for the next generation of curators and art historians, and, in addition, are integral to cross-disciplinary discovery.

“McCormick School Dean Ottino and I often talk about how the most exiting work is being done today in any field is at the intersections of many fields,” says Corrin. “Where we find convergence, we find innovation.” On Northwestern’s Evanston campus, the Block is part of a major recent investment that created the Arts Circle, which combines the University’s excellence in theater, visual arts, music, film, dance, and the literary arts. But the Block’s partnerships extend well beyond the arts.

“The Block reflects the DNA of Northwestern and its unique strengths and legacies. It does not stand apart from this great university but is nourished by, and in turn nourishes, Northwestern.” says Corrin. “As part of this knowledge ecosystem, the Block is integrated into every corner of the intellectual and social life of our students.  What we do is linked symbiotically to the curriculum — across all the humanities, STEM fields, and the sciences.”

Corrin says that as Northwestern continues to infuse a global perspective across its curriculum, so too, does the Block. The museum’s exhibitions, collection, and visiting artists represent a wide diversity of backgrounds and global views. She says that the recent speaker series, “Visual Vanguard: Global Leaders at the Block,” invited museum directors from as far away as Lagos and Doha to connect with students about innovative arts practices abroad.

“We have invited artists from around the world to campus to meet with neuroscientists, robotics experts, engineers, bioethicists, as well as art historians, anthropologists, poets, and music theorists,” says Corrin. “We have even collaborated with the Center for Wrongful Conviction at the Pritzker Law School. Many of our faculty are invested in ‘the visual’ and use our exhibitions, our collection, and our engagement programming to support their teaching. They develop new courses in conjunction with Block exhibitions and their students often curate exhibitions as part of their coursework.

“The potential impact of a campus art museum like the Block is limitless.”