Imagine inviting someone into your home and asking them to decorate it. They would have free reign to use anything you had available—in the attic, the basement, the garage. The only stipulation is that their selections would need to visually tell a story about living in your house.
Oh, and this is to celebrate your anniversary.
The Rockwell Museum in Corning did something very much like that when they asked artists (and brothers) Steven and William Ladd to guest curate the 40th Anniversary Rockwell Museum Art Exhibit, on view from September 30 until mid-January. Only known to the Corning region through their work displayed at the Corning Museum of Glass, the Ladds were especially thrilled with the invitation and the chance to dig through the Rockwell’s 5,000-piece archive and create a special exhibit for its fortieth anniversary.
Deciding what gets displayed in a museum, and how, is a process light-years beyond just filling empty wall space. The curator at the Rockwell is Kirsty Harper Buchanan, and her goal is to draw visitors into “a visual dialogue” with the pieces she selects. For instance, placing this painting near that sculpture gives them both deeper meaning. Using the natural light on this wall enhances an object here, while protecting a less durable piece from the same light over there. If done well, museum curating creates a more dynamic exhibit that engages a visitor in a meaningful experience.
Across the museum industry, most places get to exhibit 3 to 5 percent of their collection at any given time. Through Kirsty’s efforts to use space more efficiently, 12 percent of the Rockwell collection is available for visitors to enjoy.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of The Rockwell Museum, founded in 1976 by local business owners Bob and Hertha Rockwell to house their vast personal collection, a special exhibit was certainly in order. In 2014, a name consolidation, from The Rockwell Museum of Western Art to simply The Rockwell Museum, followed a new mission statement, which was to place their core collections into the larger context of American art. The following year The Rockwell was honored with the designation Smithsonian Affiliate, one of some 200 in the country, and the only one in Upstate New York.
Within the context of this new philosophy—that their artwork is not just about the American West, but actually tells the story of the American Experience—the Rockwell looked for artists who would help them articulate that experience by regrouping parts of the collection.
“One of the best way to see your collection through fresh eyes is to have guest curators,” Kirsty said. “Even just the choice of the pieces they want says much about the artist.”
The selection of the Ladd brothers to curate such an exhibit might seem an odd choice, as they have never shown in the
Rockwell, had never stepped foot in it, in fact. They are tactile artists, using beads, fabric, and other objects to create their pieces, and the brothers have a strong sense of artistic inclusion that appealed to the Rockwell.
The pieces the Ladd brothers have selected depict themes like childhood, travel, ceremony, and war. And, taken in their intended groupings, the pieces tell stories to those whose eyes can hear them.
“It was a huge honor to be asked to guest curate for the Rockwell,” said William. “We have always enjoyed our time in Corning. Such a great energy. And we felt it again in the Rockwell.”
Deciding what pieces of the Rockwell collection to include in the exhibit consisted of going to the warehouse and pulling things out of their storage.
“Kirsty was terrific,” William said. “We spent hours dragging pieces out, pairing them with other things, going back for more. We would just see something and she would get it into play for us to consider.”
The Rockwell staff was equally as complimentary about the artists.
“Steven and William, because they work with objects in their art, see things in a unique way. They had the idea to use some of our antique rifles as artwork themselves, not just as historical weapons,” Kirsty said.
Steven and William immediately saw the fortieth anniversary as a chance to tell forty stories through the exhibit, largely relating to their childhoods in Missouri. “There were stories behind each of the museum’s pieces,” Steven said, “and that just naturally grew into telling forty stories.”
And the Brothers Ladd certainly fit well with the Rockwell mission to take the intimidation factor out of great artwork. though well respected in the art world, there isn’t anything elitist or stuffy about Steven and William. They laugh constantly and conversations are sprinkled with jokes and familial teasing. The brothers, who work out of a New York City studio, approach art with great passion, primarily for its ability to draw people together.
“We have three core values that rule our lives: spend your life doing what you love, be focused and disciplined, and collaborate. Getting to work with the Rockwell has been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with a great museum,” William said.
The Rockwell (www.rockwellmuseum.org) is located at 111 Cedar Street in Corning and has its own parking lot. The museum is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free for kids and teens. To view work by the Ladd Brothers and learn about their art, visit www.stevenandwilliam.com.