Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, California

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Art of the Americas: Identity Crisis M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

 

Robert Colescott, The Brown Grandmother of the Year

 

New interdisciplinary scholarship, a growing debate over multiculturalism, changing demographics, and political activism that has resulted in diverse communities lobbying for representation have prompted many museums to examine their traditional value systems. As a major public museum showcasing American art, the de Young, in particular, has had to reconsider its role in both recording and shaping perceptions of American identities. To address these contemporary concerns, the museum has scheduled an experimental series of exhibitions that draws from a cross-section of the museums' Euro-American, Native American, Pre-Hispanic, Spanish Colonial, textile and graphic arts collections. Entitled Art of the Americas, the series attempts to stimulate response to the question, "How do we define 'America,' 'American,' and 'Americans'?" The series demonstrates that these definitions are fluid and constantly changing.

Organized by Timothy Anglin Burgard, The Ednah Root Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums, each of the four thematic exhibitions juxtaposes artworks rarely shown in the same galleries with brief analytical texts. The series also has included input from Bay Area artists: Frank LaPena was a guest artist on the second exhibition, Pride of Place; Flo Oy Wong is the guest artist on the third exhibition, Identity Crisis.

Identity Crisis will feature approximately 50 artworks of various media that evoke topics relevant to a discussion of identity within a museum context. These themes include the museum as a reflection of cultural values; stereotypes and prejudices; personal identity and history (as seen in the works of contemporary artists; immigration and acculturation; commodification and appropriation; gender; class; and cross-cultural complexities.

 

Winslow Homer, The Bright Side

 

The diverse selection comprises works by Joshua Johnson, Eastman Johnson. Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keeffe, Horace Pippin, Robert Colescott, Kaisik Wong, and Enrique Chagoya-many of these permanent collection works will be familiar to regular de Young visitors. To supplement the exhibition's representation of contemporary artists, works have been borrowed from Bay Area artists Flo Oy Wong, Hulleah Tsinhnahajinnie, Hung Liu, and Yolanda Lopez.

In 20th-century America, one cannot escape the issue of identity; a societal construct, it pervades political, cultural, and personal realms, and has been a central focus of much of the art made in this country during the last two decades. Guest artist Flo Oy Wong, a mixed media installation artist, painter, and arts activist, is among the Bay Area artists creating "identity-focused and self-representational" art. Wong was born in Oakland and always has lived in Northern California. However, her parents immigrated to the United States from China. Her parents' and her own experiences have shaped her work and her feelings about the changing responsibility of artists and arts institutions.

After a recent visit to the se Young, where Wong viewed many ethnically and racially diverse school groups touring the collections, she wrote, "I wondered about the children I saw, about what would feed their souls in a culturally reinforcing way, and with what objects of identity they could connect. Will the de Young provide them and future generations with an enlarged view of their cultural world?

"The de Young should reflect the demographics of Northern California. The acceptance of diverse sensibilities within an American framework from an artist such as myself and others signifies the de Young's understanding of complex multiple canons."

Joshua Johnson, Little Grace McCurdy

 

Topical and timely, the Art of the Americas series offers an innovative use of the collection and fresh interpretations of the works on view. More importantly, it raises issues that will be of primary significance when planning a new de Young for the 21st century. How can the new museum best serve it public? What kind of building should it have and how should it be used? What kind of objects should it show and how should they be shown? How can the art of the past engage today's audiences? These are just a few of the questions that the Art of the Americas series can begin to explore--long before ground is broken for a new de Young.

The Art of the Americas series was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency, and the LEF Foundation.

Read more about the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in Resource Library Magazine


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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