A New Speed

I’ve forgotten how to go to museums — or at least, I’m not good at it anymore. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but now that I go to one five days a week for work, I don’t excel at it the way I used to, which makes museum-going as a social activity difficult. As soon as I step through the doors of a museum, my work brain turns on. I start analyzing and critiquing, which makes it kind of hard to enjoy things until I’ve been to said museum two or three times.

Zelda and her brother got to experience this in full force on our short jaunt back to Louisville a couple weeks ago. On Easter Sunday, the three of us went to check out the newly reopened Speed Museum. The Speed had been closed for the larger part of three years while it underwent major renovations, opening back up to the public in March, two weeks before our visit. The renovation gives the museum nearly twice the space it had before and definitely updates its look. This was the art museum I grew up with, the first museum where I had a job (read: unpaid internship, because non-profits), and I owe it a lot. I hadn’t been back since that 2010 internship, and I was excited to see how much it had changed. The answer: a lot.


 We entered through the new building, a contemporary-looking concrete and glass structure with sleek finishes and an admissions desk that lit up. We were greeted at the door and given fancy new maps of the layout, in a lovely blue that the Speed seems to have adopted as the new color of their brand (coincidentally, the same color that my current employer is phasing out). Upon this first interaction, my brain automatically went to the work place: I wonder if those are volunteers or paid employees, I wonder what their title is, whose purview are they under: Visitors Services, Engagement, Security? My first job at my current institution involved greeting people, so I know how sucky a job it can be for long periods of time. Because of this, I try to go out of my way to genuinely talk to people who are greeting me, because I know how much a legitimate human interaction can brighten up your entire day. It’s the same reason that once you’ve been a server, you are automatically nice to other servers: You’ve been in their shoes. You know where the blisters start.

So we’re three steps into the museum, and I’m already thinking about work. We came on a Sunday, which (thanks to a hefty donation by the Brown family, basically the Mafia of the Ville) meant it was free. Honestly, I was a teensy bit disappointed, because I really like flashing my museum badge to get free admission. Museum employees have each other’s backs! But for the most part I was thrilled because FREE MUSEUMS ARE AMAZING. Everyone should get to see art. Everyone.


As we made our way to the permanent collection, I still found myself comparing and contrasting in my head. The first two galleries in the new layout are themed “Discovery” and feature pieces from each of the collections that will be given more context later — a sort of visual introduction to the Museum. This isn’t uncommon in encyclopedic museums, but I think it works best in a museum of the Speed’s size. My own institution does it, but it’s almost too much at first, so it overwhelms rather than informs or contextualizes. At the Speed, the Discovery galleries give the casual visitor an idea of the collection, and allow a more art-experienced visitor to make cross-collection connections. Plus, it highlights objects that might otherwise be overlooked; placing things out of context is often a good way to engage visitors more.

The collection is wonderfully highlighted in the new space, and there is a noticeable effort to get visitors making connections with the art. In addition to including and highlighting their non-Western art (an area where many American museums, and art history in general, fall by the wayside), there’s also an effort to engage art on a local level. The museum includes a “Kentucky Collection,” which highlights the history and culture of the state, encouraging visitors to see the scope and importance of art on the local and global level.


I also appreciated the amount of information the visitors are given. There’s a lot of opinions about museum wall labels (I know right? Those little placards on the wall next to paintings? The ones you skim over, if you read them at all? A lot of work goes into what those should say and precisely how much they should say.). A lot of people think that labels should be minimal, allowing visitors to interpret the art in their own way. But this often gets pushed to an extreme where visitors aren’t given enough information to stay engaged. I appreciated that the Speed didn’t venture too far one way or the other. Some objects were given additional information to help visitors contextualize the whole gallery, but we weren’t inundated with unnecessary information, or subjective opinions.

Where the renovation shines is in the new contemporary galleries, with a ton of space for some of the collection’s amazing works from more recent times. The contemporary works are housed entirely in the new 62,500-square foot north building. The sleek modern space, designed by Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY architecture, allows the contemporary collection the space to shine and lets the form of the museum complement the art that’s inside it. It’s here that we (figuratively) met our new favorite art patron, the Reverend Al Shands, whose name graced every other wall label with promised gifts to the museum (and prompted a quick Google search to find out just who this generous dude was — a story worthy of its own post).


As for me, still in work mode, I could only marvel at the basically empty first floor of the north building and think, this is a killer event space, they’re going to do so well with this –also those benches are awesome…am I the only person who notices benches in museums? To be fair, the benches were really cool, especially if you’re someone who’s had to deal with both patrons complaining that there’s nowhere to sit and and museum professionals complaining that the benches aren’t the right aesthetic. I love a healthy balance that way, and the Speed nailed it. We spent a few minutes imagining what it might have been like to have prom in the space before we headed to the small gift shop (a bit disappointing, and lacking in both bumper stickers and magnets, which were what we were after). After that, it was a quick hop, skip, and a car ride to coffee and chocolate chip cookies. We may have only been home for 24 hours, but Please and Thank You is not to be missed.

All in all, I am so excited about the new Speed. The renovation has brought life back into a place I loved when I was younger, and is getting even more people engaged in art. My only big complaint? The photography policy is super confusing, and not clearly labeled or explicitly explained on the wall labels or really in the map. But aside from that, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, much to my pleasant surprise. I was a little bummed we didn’t have time to check out the new and improved education center, but there’s always time to go back. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for this place and what it will bring to my home. After an afternoon well spent, we headed out into the bright sunshine with smiles, a sense of discovery, and as many informational pamphlets as fit in my purse…you know, for research.  

Scout’s Must-See Artworks in NYC

I spend a lot of time in museums ( it helps that I work in two of NYC’s largest). I also have a degree in art history. And thus I feel somewhat qualified to advise you, gentle reader, on what to see in this intimidating city of art. There’s practically a museum on every corner, and in every borough, and I highly encourage you to visit all of them for hours on end. However, I realize that not everybody has time to fit a plethora of museums into their NYC vacation schedule, or their scant days off. I get it: Not everyone has the time or the patience for that.

A few years ago, my mother had roughly two hours to spend in the Louvre (for that museum, two hours is not enough, two days is not enough… I’m not entirely sure that two weeks would be enough). So she asked me, her art history-oriented daughter, to make a list of must-see pieces that she could enjoy while she was there: the quick and dirty guide to the Louvre. She was shocked when my list didn’t include Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. I warned her that it wasn’t worth it and she’d just be disappointed; her time would be better spent focusing on the giant room that houses Rubens’ Marie de Medici Cycle (she paid a visit to ole Mona anyway, and was accordingly disappointed).

Seeing the massive amount of art in New York on a weekend trip is a little like attempting to see the Louvre in two hours. So I’m here to distill it for you, down to the must-see pieces. And also to point out the ones that maybe aren’t worth it: Dali’s Persistence of Memory is honestly better in reproduction, I promise. (But if you must, you must, just don’t blame me if you’re disappointed).

Note: Art is a subjective thing. These are my must-see’s based on my personal taste (which is why most of them are from the 19th and 20th centuries), and on art historical importance. Also note that museums often shift which parts of their collections are on view, so some pieces may not always be displayed.


View of Toledo, El Greco (1596 – 1600) – Metropolitan Museum of Art: The oldest work on the list. I love El Greco for his lines, for how far ahead of his time the distortions were. The clouds are my favorite part of this landscape. They seem to convey emotion and mood more than any other artist working at the time.

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Demoiselles D’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907) – Museum of Modern Art: One of Picasso’s most famous works, and possibly the one that best shows the influence of native African Art on his style. While I prefer the later Three Musicians, this piece is one of the best examples of his quintessential style.


“The Woman in Gold” (Adele Bloch-Bauer I), Gustav Klimt (1907) – Neue Galerie: A work storied in history: Stolen from the original owner by looting Nazis, this painting has had movies, books, and many, many articles written about it. Plus Klimt is one of those artists whose work, in all its gilded detail, is best appreciated in person.


My Egypt, Charles Demuth (1927) – Whitney Museum of American Art: I love this piece. Demuth is painting a simple grain elevator in his Pennsylvania hometown, but he depicts it as grandly as the monuments of ancient Egypt.


The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago (1979) – Brooklyn Museum: One of the most important pieces of feminist art in existence, this installation traces women’s history in the traditionally female setting of the supper table, with places set for significant figures from across the centuries. The details are my favorite part; I can see it multiple times and always notice something new.


“Portrait of Madame X” (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent (1883-4)  – Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent is one of the most important artists in the American Art canon. But my favorite thing about this painting? It was considered highly scandalous when it was first painted, because originally the strap of Madame X’s dress was falling off her shoulder. Nineteenth century gasp!


Woman Ironing (La Repasseuse), Pablo Picasso (1904) – Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum:  A far cry from Les Desmoiselles, Picasso produced this painting at the end of his Blue Period. I like this version of Picasso, where his figures have not yet reached the abstraction of Desmoiselles or Guernica, and where the emotion and the effort of the work really shows through.


The Savage State from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, (1834) – New York Historical Society: I think I have a thing for clouds. I just love the dichotomy in this landscape, the storm about to overtake the unsettled paradise.


A Storm In the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, Albert Bierstadt, (1866) – Brooklyn Museum: I may be a little biased when it comes this painting. I stood next to it for seven hours a day, four days a week, for the first three months I worked at the Brooklyn Museum. Also, clouds!


Louise de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1845) – The Frick Collection: Ingres’s crisp, bright colors always amaze me, and I love the sort of coy, enigmatic look that the Comtesse is giving the viewer.

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Dempsey and Firpo, George Bellows, (1924) – The Whitney Museum of American Art: Bellows is one of my favorite artists, and his inclusion in this list might simply be because of that fact. In this work, he’s taken a common, working-class subject and elevated it to the scale and composition of a grand history painting.

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Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni, (1913) – The Museum of Modern Art: One of the foremost artists of the Futurism movement, Boccioni emphasizes movement and dynamism in his sculptures and paintings.

191760Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper (1930) – The Whitney Museum of American Art: I love Hopper’s stillness, the narrative achieved with so little action. He’ll forever be one of my favorite artists.

So those are my top artworks in New York. Maybe they’re not the most famous, but they’re the ones that make me feel things, and that’s what art should do. Go forth, my friends — the museums await.


Gilded City

There’s a corner of the American Wing at the museum where I work that has always been my favorite. It’s the one that highlights John Sloan, William Glackens, George Bellows, George Luks, and the rest of the artists known as The Ashcan School. The corner in question features scenes of city life — crowded thoroughfares and fish markets, tenements and the original excavation of Penn Station. It’s a tribute to interpretations of city life in all its gritty glory.

I’ve always loved this particular period of art history, and of American history in general. The Gilded Age, straddling the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was an era of rapid economic growth, robber barons and political machines. My fascination with this particular period began my senior year in college, when I took not one, not two, but three seminars dedicated to discussing it. The Gilded Age was a time not just of immense economic change but also of artistic innovation. Over in Europe, you had the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, the Expressionists, the Cubists, and other Avant Garde movements. Here in America, we followed Europe’s example with our own spin on Impressionism — folks like John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing who churned out dreamy portraits of the upper crust in their Newport mansions, sailboats on the Cape, etc. These works were hugely popular in their day, and continue to be an important part of how we define this period of American art history. But even more interesting for me are the artists who devoted themselves and their art to the flip side, the underbelly, the huddled masses in all their poor, tired, hungry reality.

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1909 (Brooklyn Museum)

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1909 (Brooklyn Museum)

This is what I love most about the Ashcan School. Sloan, Glackens, Bellows, Luks, and artists like them took the ugly corners of this country (and especially of New York) and painted them for the world to see. These were the things that made the age gilded and not golden. Those giant Newport mansions were just a veneer for the underlying social, economic, and political issues plaguing the country. As industrialism expanded and rich men became richer, the lack of labor laws created horrible workplace conditions. The gap between the rich and the poor widened, population booms forced more and more people into the same space, and living conditions worsened as a result. Sargent and his colleagues painted the gold. The Ashcan School painted the cracks.

So what brought me to this particular place in the museum on this particular day? Well it’s finally decided to be summer here in the city, so I left my sweltering apartment earlier than usual and arrived an hour before my shift, trying to take advantage of how cold they keep this place as soon as it hits 70 outside (a stark contrast to my own AC-free abode). I’ve worked at the museum for a year and a half now, and I’ve seen its offerings a hundred times over, but whenever I have a moment to wander I always find myself back in the American Wing. Sometimes, I skip right past the images of Brooklyn in the first room, other times I linger at the jazz-infused Stuart Davis or the the skeleton painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, but most of the time I head directly to the four paintings by the Ashcan artists. I think my love for the American collection stems from the same place as my love for doing Zelda and Scout. It’s about the many, hugely varied narratives that make up America, and the crazy patchwork of humans that call it home. Hearing and seeing these stories teaches me so much about the country where I’ve spent my entire life, yet which still holds a million corners and characters I have yet to get to know.

John French Sloan, McSorely's Bar, 1912 (Detroit Institute of Arts)

John French Sloan, McSorely’s Bar, 1912 (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Art has always been a huge part of how I process emotions (and the occasional existential crisis). Rothko and Whistler soothe me when I’m stressed; J.M.W. Turner reminds me why I fell in love with studying art in the first place. And when I’m in crisis over New York (which is often, because it so frequently makes me crazy), I turn to the Ashcan artists — to Bellows’s tenements and workersSloan’s pubs and city corners, and Luks’s crowded streets.

I’m approaching my three-year mark in this city, and with it comes a lot of self-reflection. I always told myself this would be a long-term but temporary home, a place to be while I was young but not a place to grow old. So as another year passes, I find myself thinking about what I came here for and if I really want to stay. From the moment I moved here, something about Year Three served as a benchmark in the back of my mind, a significant enough chunk to be able to look around, reevaluate, and see how I felt about sticking around for another three. Three years in, I thought, I would have spent significant time at a “grown-up” job, share an apartment with one roommate (currently, I have four), and feel established in the city. Three, I thought, would be a crossroads, and a good time to figure out my next step.

George Benjamin Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street), 1905 (Brooklyn Museum)

George Benjamin Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street), 1905 (Brooklyn Museum)

But as usually happens in life, nothing has turned out quite like I expected, and a year that I thought would bring answers has only brought more questions. And so I find myself staring introspectively at a painting by George Luks in an oft-overlooked corner of the American Wing on a weekday afternoon. Most of the Ashcan School paintings, especially the ones on display here, highlight the city I now call home (at least for the moment), along with a handful of the other nameless people that made their lives here before I did. There’s something comforting about Luks’s vision of a crowded Hester Street in 1905. People have been coming to this city for ages. They’ve been searching for their lives and their purpose in New York for 391 years. And I’m one of them. I too have been on Hester Street on a busy morning, in my own way. I’ve felt what those people felt.

So maybe looking at these paintings doesn’t necessarily make me feel good about living in New York. But it does make me feel okay about seeing the cracks in a city that so many other people see as golden. If there’s one thing the Ashcan School can teach us, I think it’s that seeing those cracks and making something out of them is worth the work.