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Engaging the 21st century audience

Dormant in an archive, art comes to life in an exhibit.

Engaging the 21st century audience by Beth Stafford

Extraordinary research opportunities and outstanding internship options drew Leigh Wilcox to UWM for her master’s degree in art history.

After earning an undergraduate degree in art, she interned at the Milwaukee Art Museum, working with the curatorial staff and observing other museum departments.

A pioneering video, photo and performance artist inspired a research project.

The experience confirmed her passion for curatorial work and guided her next step – entering the master’s degree program at UWM in fall 2012. “At UWM, master’s degree candidates in art history have the option of creating an exhibition for their capstone project – a rare opportunity.”

A graduate colloquium visit by Martha Wilson, a pioneering video, photo and performance artist, inspired a research project for Wilcox. Wilson’s work was to be the topic of a summer 2013 exhibition at UWM’s Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA), Peck School of the Arts.

Presenting Wilson’s work was a challenge. Wilson’s career extends back to the 1970s, and much of the material to be displayed at INOVA was in the form of early video, photographs of performances, and documentary items like magazines and exhibit programs.

Archival materials like this can feel “dead” to 21st century audiences accustomed to lively, interactive engagement. INOVA Director Sara Krajewski asked the class to think about ways an exhibition could bring these documents to life.

Wilcox tackled that challenge by creating reactivation techniques that she hypothesized would animate the archive. Krajewski invited her to test the theory at INOVA.

At specific times during summer 2013, Wilcox sat in INOVA’s gallery at a table with dozens of artists’ books from the collection of Franklin Furnace, an avant garde organization founded by Wilson in 1976.

Using the informational notecard accompanying each book, Wilcox identified themes she called “pathways,” which would help visitors navigate the collection and find meaning. One person might relate to a book’s environmental theme, while another might respond to themes of self-reflection. Through her physical presence in the gallery, Wilcox acted as a guide for visitors and also engaged them through posts to the INOVA Facebook page.

The final Facebook post reflects Wilcox’s discovery that “the archive is not dead, just dormant – and we can reactivate it with the proper techniques.”