When Joachim Homann was hired to be the Bowdoin Art Museum’s curator in 2010, he immediately set one goal for himself: to promote student participation.
“I want to bring together the energetic campus body and the amazing work here,” Homann told the Orient in 2010. “The Museum is not just a place for art historians. It is a place for everyone on campus.”
Over the past two and a half years, Homann has worked hard to find ways to accomplish this goal.
“I think the students here are very sophisticated and open-minded,” he said on Tuesday. “They’re not afraid of the museum, and they’re willing to really dig deeper and do something. They don’t only want to digest—they want to contribute something. And that’s really amazing.”
While there was a steady stream of student-driven exhibitions before Homann arrived at Bowdoin, student shows were largely relegated to the Becker gallery—a very small space in the museum dedicated to student-and-faculty-driven exhibits. And while Homann has continued the commitment to student-driven exhibits, he has tried to give students more variety in what they can do.
“We are trying to get students to work on bigger shows or give them more gallery spaces,” he said. “We just try to be as flexible as possible.”
Currently on show at the museum is an exhibition co-curated by Ben Livingston ’13 and Ursula Moreno-VanderLaan ’13 titled “‘We Never See Anything Clearly’: John Ruskin and Landscape Painting, 1840s-1870s.” The exhibit is the product of a seminar they both took last spring with Associate Professor of Art Pamela Fletcher. Although Fletcher had not intended for the course to result in an exhibition, when only VanderLaan and Livingston enrolled, she went to Homann for help. He offered the idea of a student-exhibition.
“I think Ben and Ursula’s show will be reviewed by the Portland Press Herald and we have a press release that we wrote with our New York City advertising agency,” said Homann. “It’s really fun how a small project that comes out of a small class suddenly becomes a really big thing. We love to be that facilitator or catalyst for student ideas and provide them with a means to do it.”
Homann has also instituted academic year and summer internships at the museum. This past summer, he and his three student-interns curated exhibits from the museum’s collection.
“That was one of the highlights of my work with students, and actually prompted a local donor to promise $100,000 to support student exhibitions at the Museum,” he said.
Today, Homann believes the museum staff is even better equipped to work with students than it had been before his arrival. Hiring Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross and Curatorial Assistant Andrea Rosen expanded the resources available to students.
“We are even better prepared than in the past to work with students,” he said. “And when students contact us, they have the possibility of talking with and engaging with people in different phases in their curatorial careers: from an M.A. to a post doc, to me who has 10 years of professional experience.”
Though increasing student participation at the museum has been Homann’s personal goal, his accomplishments over the last two years extend far beyond that. For the past two summers, the museum has exhibited works by Edward Hopper and William Wegman, both high profile artists, and the exhibits have garnered national and international attention. That an art museum at a small college in Maine could produce such widely recognized shows seems surprising, but Homann points to Bowdoin’s history as an important factor.
“One of the unique aspects of working here is that we are working with a collection that is over 200 years old,” said Homann. “It’s a true privilege to be able to open up these horizons for our visitors, for our students and faculty, and to live with these long-term persepctives. I think it helps us to see our own role in our own times differently.”
Moreover, Homann believes the distinction between the academic and general audiences should not be overemphasized.
“We realize that when we do a show like the Hopper show that makes waves all over the country, the students are really excited about it and the faculty is really excited about it too—they engage with it in really meaningful ways,” he said. “We also have academic shows that kind of have a more specialized audience, and respond more narrowly to the academic discussion going on on campus, but these shows generate value to the general audience. The longer I work here, the more I realize, that this distinction between the academic community and the general community is relatively artificial, and that it only gets us so far.”
In 2013, Homann hopes to make headway with two more high profile exhibits: Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture, which will be on view March 26 to June 30, 2013, and Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea, June 29 to October 13, 2013. Homann has been interested in both artists for a long time and eagerly took the opportunity to exhibit their works.
“These are artists that make me really happy when I see their work,” he said. “I have come to realize that if something makes me really happy, then it will make other people happy too.”