Leah Sweet, the Lynch Curatorial Coordinator of Academic Programs at the Johnson, shares how the collection was able to spark ideas for faculty while our permanent collection galleries remained closed.

During an entire academic year under the limitations of pandemic teaching, I devoted my role at the Johnson to strategizing how to uphold the Museum’s commitment to sharing our collections and galleries with Cornell students, faculty, and staff. While almost all course visits to the Johnson this year were scheduled as independent viewing appointments to keep a safe environment, we were also able to bring people together effectively, and enjoyably.

Whenever I watched a group of students safely spending time viewing art together, I knew that our approach to pandemic teaching was successfully fostering connections not only between people and the Museum’s physical collections, but also connections between people through our collections. Many of those moments were carefully planned, but some were truly of the moment. During the preparations for Fashion in Transit, a hybrid project of in-person installations and online exhibition for “Curating Fashion Exhibitions” (SHUM 4651/6651, ARKEO 6651, VISST 4651/6651), I witnessed two classmates in different countries using Zoom to discuss Faith Ringgold’s Seven Passages to a Flight quilt from the Museum’s collection.

The work of figuring out how to teach with the Johnson’s collections blossomed in so many other creative ways. Since our permanent collection galleries were closed this academic year, a major component of this experimentation took place in a new curricular gallery that hosted the special exhibition Extraction, Consumption, and Resistance, which I curated to explore the implications of how humans have conceptualized nature in different times and places through art. This exhibition was a semester-long collaborative project with four professors from three different schools that interrogated attitudes toward the living world, whether from the viewpoint of natural resource management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (postdoctoral scholar Xoco Shinbrot and Associate Professor Peter McIntyre), historical concepts of luxury from the business school (Associate Professor Kathryn LaTour), or the intertwined dispossession of Native sovereignty and African enslavement in the Americas in the College of Arts and Sciences (Assistant Professor Tao Goffe).

With the whole of the permanent collection at our disposal, I consulted with each professor to select art for their class and then incorporated these works and others into a larger exhibition that emphasized comparative observation. The result was an exciting juxtaposition of artworks from across all of the Museum’s collection and also highlighted new acquisitions such as Wendy Redstar’s photo, Rez Car (My Home is Where My Tipi Sits) (2011) which was one of the most popular works in the exhibition.

Dozens of other courses investigating nature and questioning rural-urban divides from across campus, including many new partners, came to visit the curricular exhibition this semester. One particularly compelling example was a midterm project that Associate Professor Jennifer Minner and I developed for her course  “Art Re-building Cities” (CRP 3850/5850) in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. This special-topics seminar explored creative practices for visualizing, constructing, or re-building the socially just and equitable city. I first held a class via Zoom that introduced students to the exhibition as well as some basic curatorial and interpretive strategies. The midterm then tasked the class with visiting the exhibition in person (or via digital images) and then creating a concept for a theoretical “mini-exhibition” that related the art on view at the Johnson to class themes such as recovery, care, and city memory, as well as salvage and reuse in the built environment.

Students each drafted a proposal that put three objects in dialogue: one artwork from the curricular installation; one artwork selected from the Johnson’s permanent collection or from another museum’s collection; and an everyday object that relates to the care, maintenance, and recovery of cities, such as a toy or a tool. Students had to place this mini-exhibition within a specific area of the Johnson’s building or another public location such as a park or a bus shelter, and also imagine how their installation would encourage visitors to interact with and understand the three objects together.

The resulting projects suggested exciting, imaginative ways to consider how art can awaken public consciousness about our connections to place. The students’ choices also reflected how artistic practices can help shape and interpret a city’s past, and how instilling curiosity about the built environment, social histories, cultural landscapes, and collective identities can translate into greater care and stewardship for place and socially just cities.

At the Johnson, Extraction, Consumption, and Resistance provided students with unrushed, intimate encounters with the works for close looking, reflection, and discussion with fellow students. Moreover, it created a space that encouraged Cornell faculty and students working on the same topic but separated in various schools and departments across campus to be enriched by mutual, cross-disciplinary inquiry at the Museum. Faculty and students saw how their shared interest in the Caribbean plantation’s environmental impacts and commodification of goods and people—an anchor point of the exhibition—dovetailed with other topics raised by each of the three collaborating faculty such as water sustainability, tourism, and urban ecologies. Given the enthusiastic faculty and student response, even amid a pandemic, the potential for this approach in the future seems significant.