The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

Out of the Past: UAMA at Fifty

Anna Bonetti. Ruins of Corinth, 1957

January 18, 2007 – March 18, 2007

Out of the Past: UAMA at Fifty employs the Museum’s extraordinary collections to look back to an earlier era, in celebration of a half-century of growth and change. The presentation recreates the exhibition aesthetics of the Museum’s early years to underscore the role of design in framing our encounter with and understanding of the visual arts. By reconstructing display conventions that may seem quaint today, the exhibition provokes a collision between past and present, offering visitors an opportunity to consider installation design as a medium in its own right – one often unacknowledged, but nonetheless caught in complex relation to history, ideology, politics and taste.

Out of the Past makes explicit the many decisions that comprise museum exhibition design. The most important elements – wall color and texture, framing, labeling, scale, lighting, and juxtaposition – act as unspoken language. In this case, the paneled and brocaded background mounts, elaborate framing, low light levels, and decorative floral accents explicitly refute Modernist installation aesthetics and their articulation of art objects as “autonomous.” By eschewing the spare, “neutral” exhibition design that today prevails as the “white-cube” convention, the domestic flair of early UAMA exhibitions confirmed art as a vital sign of cultural sophistication; if art ownership was the privilege of the few, then exhibitions such as this one aimed to introduce a broader public to its elevating effects. Similarly, the organization of works in coloristic relation, rather than by chronology or intellectual affinity, favored the pleasures of taste (of the curator and the presumed viewers) over other imperatives.

The decision to limit the presentation to decorative, mostly figurative works of Continental origin re-articulates a historical preference for the “high-brow” pedigree and posh interior design of the European aristocracy and invites viewers to consider changes in “taste” over time. To enhance the domestic ambience, works were often presented without identification labels or contextual information. Interpretation, now expected of museum educators and curators, was not in evidence as a part of the exhibition itself. Rather, the exhibition acted as a projection of cultural values; the intended experience was one of civilizing enlightenment, rather than engaged edification.

While this exhibition is an amalgam of many early installations, it relies heavily on the 1971 Kees van Dongen exhibition, designed by then-director William Steadman, Jr. By 1971, such traditional installation design was already retrospective of much earlier, more conservative, anti-Modernist aesthetic interests; as such, it looked to the past. Here, we hope to provide an opportunity not only to step back into history but also to posit revision and reconsideration as essential to any move forward into the future.

More than an elaborate storehouse or showplace, the museum is both a repository for and producer of memory. While museum collecting endows carefully selected objects with cultural value and historical meaning, thereby generating memory at the public level, exhibitions offer artfully designed experiences that enter memory in more personal terms. Out of the Past invites viewers to question both public and private expectations regarding the experience of viewing art in a museum setting and to consider the ways in which museums construct meaning and memory through encounters with art over time.


Download the gallery guide for this exhibition.
(Adobe Acrobat file, may take a moment to download)

Also see the related exhibition, An Abundant Legacy