Behind the show

The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art

Elizabeth Catlett, <i>“Homage to Black Women Poets,”</i> mahogany, 1984.

Elizabeth Catlett, “Homage to Black Women Poets,” mahogany, 1984.

Recently I visited the Crocker Art Museum’s new show, The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, and came away impressed. First, I stood in the doorway, making a quick survey of the work as a whole. From that vantage point, there were several pieces that would keep me in front of them for a good length of time—once I began to plot my course around the room to give each object a fair turn.

Then the eye candy was over; it was time to leave the room and digest what I’d seen. For this show, Dr. Walter Evans, a Detroit surgeon who has amassed one of the largest private collections of art by African-Americans, intended to create a chronological survey of the African-American fine-art tradition in the United States. The pieces date from 1848 to 1997. Trying to put all of that into perspective—while dwelling on some of the paintings themselves, so rich in personal narrative or significant for their portrayal of culture—is an enriching educational experience.

What we don’t see, and we never seem to think about, is how a show like this happens. Setting up an exhibit that packs a punch is not an easy thing to do, but when it’s done well, we often don’t even notice when the little things—lighting, arrangement, the color of the walls, the show’s brochures or catalogs—are perfect. That’s important, because anything that we the viewers notice might detract from the impact that a show has.

Wanting to know more, I spoke with Craig Jones, who handles marketing for the Crocker Museum; he hooked me up with Scott Shields, the Crocker’s curator of art, and Stacey Shelnut, the curator of education. Jones led me through the museum, and after a sudden turn we ended up in an area the public doesn’t see: the offices, the work area where business is conducted. Sure, I knew the Crocker had offices, but for some reason I’d never dreamed that they were so contemporary, with cubicles even. Real business is conducted here.

Then Shields and Shelnut explained how it works—how exhibition review committees get together to select traveling shows, how a curator initially puts an exhibit together, how the museum targets an audience, raises money and educates the public. Everything is done with strategy in mind. The Crocker plans its exhibits three years in advance, and the staff spends all day, every day, sorting details: One show may be extremely popular and will raise lots of money, which can help subsidize a less-popular show that features equally important work. Decisions must be made. For which shows do you print a brochure that can be produced easily and locally? Or should you go to the trouble of printing a catalog, which involves almost a year’s preparation? Then, as it comes time to set up the show, you must direct three to four technicians to spend a few weeks painting walls, adjusting lights and improving the physical space.

Many of us never consider these aspects of presenting an exhibit. For perspective, after talking to Shields and Shelnut, I revisited the Evans show. This time I spent less time concentrating on art and more time concentrating on the presentation. I couldn’t help but feel that the people of the Crocker Art Museum, or any of the countless other museums I’ve visited in the past, who spend so much time and effort on an exhibit, really want me to enjoy it. And aside from the take at the door, they seldom find out if I do or not.

But in the case of the Crocker—and this exhibit in particular—I was not only impressed with the work and the scope of the collection, but with the Crocker Museum for bringing it to Sacramento and doing such an excellent job of presenting it to the public.