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Thursday, September 16, 2004

A New Approach to Making a Permanent Collection Relevant

It always feels good to be able to cheer on the home team when they're on a roll and are out in front of the rest of the league.

No, I'm not talking about the Yankees and the AL East here.

The Whitney is responding to current events in a way that could serve as a model for other art museums looking to make themselves more relevant to the daily lives of their audiences.

In a new approach to using its focus galleries (two separate spaces on the fifth floor and the video gallery on the second floor) the Whitney has begun mounting small, timely exhibitions of work from the permanent collection centered on topics of current interest.

On view now on the fifth floor is Memorials of War, a single gallery show of permanent collection works that explore war, its aftermath, and strategies for memorializing the lives lost. Mostly works on paper (with the exception of a Chris Burden sculpture and a powerful Edward Kienholz maquette for a large memorial), mostly focused on Vietnam, this small show is timely, engaging, and emotionally moving. Also on view, in the second floor video gallery, is a film and video program called War! Protest in America which combines works from the Vietnam era with pieces made as recently as last year.

On the schedule for later this month in the other fifth floor focus gallery is a presentation of Jacob Lawrence's War Series which focuses on the Second World War. This series has not been shown in New York since Lawrence's Whitney retrospective in 2001-2002. For my money, this series is as good as (or maybe even better than) his more well known Migration Series.

This approach to programming small spaces with timely exhibitions of permanent collection work is a new one, as far as I am aware. I would be happy to see other museums start making use of it as well.

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