Putting the ‘national’ in the National Gallery: Kaywin Feldman wants the museum to serve the people | Museums

Donato Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome. The Parthenon in Athens. Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Barcelona pavilion in Spain. The Guggenheim museum in New York. And the White House in Washington.

All have been turned into architectural birthday cakes by Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, as gifts for her architect husband. “I’m not a cook so they’re not pastry masterpieces,” says the 55-year-old, who used carrots for the minarets of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Turkey. “They sort of amuse me.”

It seems just that the custodian of some 156,000 works of art, from Rembrandt to Rothko, not to mention a constant cycle of temporary exhibitions, should be allowed a creative outlet of her own, albeit an unusual one (she also engraves fresh jars of peanut butter).

Feldman became the fifth director of the National Gallery – and first woman to lead it – in March 2019. A year later she initiated an unprecedented shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic and, like other cultural leaders, confronted historic racial injustices in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Now the gallery has a clutch of new shows that include African American photographer James Van Der Zee’s chronicle of life in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 1930s, and The New Woman Behind the Camera, a radical reassessment of the impact women had on the history of modern photography.

Sitting in a beige seventh-floor office with one of the best views in Washington – her window is dominated by the west front of the US Capitol, scene of presidential inaugurations and the 6 January insurrection. The National Gallery, which receives two thirds of its budget from Congress, is a national treasure that offers free admission and received around 5 million visitors a year before the pandemic.

Feldman says: “I feel like I was hired with one clear mandate from the board which, they like to say, is to put the ‘national’ back in the National Gallery and think about how we serve the American people, because our funding in large part comes from the American taxpayers.”

Among the first steps was boosting the gallery’s digital strategy and answering the pleas of many visitors for better signage around its maze-like buildings. She discovered that there was no simple, unifying brand identity so she had a new logo, combining a conservative typeface with a bright color palette, crafted by the top design firm Pentagram.

Then just over a year into her tenure, Covid-19 hit. The institution has weathered the storm better than most. It did not have to make drastic cuts to staff and was forced to cancel only one exhibition, though dates of others were juggled. Like other museums it endured stops and starts, with its longest spell of closure running from November to May.

Even then Feldman came to work almost every day along with a skeleton staff of between 60 and 80 security and maintenance workers. Free from tourist crowds, she had the privilege of being able to walk the corridors and savor personal favorites such as a portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David and The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini and Titian. But the novelty soon wore off.

“In the first couple of weeks, I thought, ‘Ah! I’ve got the gallery to myself, I can go in all of the galleries and enjoy the collection,’” she says. “I did for a while and then it became depressing. As fantastic as the works of art are, they need people to just bring them to life and I didn’t like the total quiet and still atmosphere.”

Then came the Black Lives Matter uprising. Having lived in Minneapolis for 11 years before taking this job, Feldman was well aware of the local context surrounding the death of Floyd, an African American man, under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Museums, theatres and other organisations that had long paid lip service to racial diversity, equity and inclusion faced a new reckoning.

Feldman says: “Most organisations, but certainly museums, are all about people and so issues like that resonate. Since I arrived it’s a topic that we’d been talking about but the murder of George Floyd just added more urgency to doing the work and the realisation of how much more that we had to do.”

Notably the gallery postponed an exhibition by Philip Guston, a white artist whose work depicts cartoon-like, hooded figures that allude to the Ku Klux Klan in attempt to critique white supremacy. Feldman was condemned, including by some Black artists, for seemingly trying to dodge a potential controversy.

Riding Around by Philip Guston.
Riding Around by Philip Guston. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

She defended the decision in an article for international art magazine Apollo earlier this year: “Guston used these figures to explore the seeds of racism and the capacity for evil in all humans. His intentions were good, as are those of the National Gallery in presenting the exhibition. But those good intentions do not negate the trauma we may cause in a public display of imagery that makes reference to slavery, lynching and racial terror.”

She added: “It is imperative that the National Gallery slow down and really listen, not only to the curators and art critics but also to members of our staff and the wider community who have something to say about how these works affect them. To ignore or dismiss their very real emotions would be to deny their value and their agency. We will gain new understandings of Guston’s work and the important issues the artist raised by listening to people whom museum directors don’t always hear.”

Her position has not changed. “It’s a very important show for us and one that we are committed to and we’re hosting in 2023,” she says. “But between the pandemic and the inability to have in-person conversations and the moment of of Floyd’s killing, which caused us all to think more about diversity and inclusion within the institutions, the pause was really important for us.”

Before then Afro-Atlantic Histories, a show looking at the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black and African people since the 17th century, will open in April. It’s another one that’s causing us to stretch in new ways and I always say that to successfully embrace exhibitions that deal with particularly America’s complicated and painful past, museums have to come from a place of authenticity, legitimacy, generosity and curiosity.”

Feldman estimates that about 90% of the National Gallery’s permanent collection is by white male artists, but notes that in recent years it has gained significant works by artists of color, including Native Americans. In October the museum announced the acquisition of The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding (1967), its first painting by Faith Ringgold, one of America’s most important Black female artists.

The gallery has also diversified its leadership team, Feldman notes, including hiring Kanitra Fletcher as its first ever curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic art.

Feldman brings a transatlantic perspective. She was born in Boston but lived in Britain from age six to 11 when her father, who served in the US Coast Guard, had a stint at the American embassy in London. She reflects: “I have such a nostalgia for my childhood and growing up. We lived in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire and I went to a very small English school just up the street that I could walk to. It was a very idyllic place.

Feldman later worked in the education department at the British Museum (“that’s sort of my home museum”) and also carried out a work project at the National Gallery in London, which was a model for the Washington version conceived in the 1930s by Andrew Mellon, a financier, US treasury secretary, art collector and Anglophile.

“It was never his intention that we would have a representative showing the entire school of American art or Spanish painting,” Feldman explains. “It was the idea that it would just be jewels in the crown, much like the National Gallery in London, and they really are a sister institution to us. We work together constantly. We’re both very generous in lending works of art and are in close touch. It’s a friendship and collegiality that all of us here really enjoy.”

London, New York and other major art cities became famous for “blockbuster exhibitions”, hot ticket shows built around signature artists that drew long queues. But Feldman, a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and past chair of the American Alliance of Museums, suspects the phenomenon may be drawing to a close.

“I think the museum extravaganza blockbuster era is going to decline partly because of the wear and tear on works of art and then because of climate change. The environmental impact of these big exhibitions is extraordinary.

“You can have an exhibition with 60 or 80 different lenders. Those are all airplanes and crates that, if you’re really lucky, get recycled for another two uses but otherwise they’re thrown away. The installations and sets are often thrown away. It is a topic that the field has to start stepping up to.”

She adds: “The part that I find so exciting about that is thinking about how we might think differently about the permanent collection. I don’t just mean doing exhibitions out of the permanent collection, while that is certainly legitimate, but we have an extraordinary collection of masterpieces here. We have the best so why not think about new kinds of installations and galleries and projects to animate the collection that we have?”

The upheaval of recent years has evidently offered an opportunity to pause and rethink a museum as a place of people as well as objects, a place with responsibilities to the nation and even the planet.

In 2016 Philando Castile, an African American man, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Then director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Feldman mounted a small exhibition in response, an expression of connection with its community. The impact remains profound for her.

She recalls: “One of my trustees in Minneapolis in exasperation once said to me, ‘Why does everybody expect museums to solve so many of the issues in society today?’ I said it’s because museums are about people. We’re not just things because the objects we have on the walls were all created by people in particular circumstances, often for people, and we welcome people in to experience it.”

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