BRATTLEBORO—“We’ve known for at least a year that this exhibit would open on June 24, but we didn’t know it would coincide with the deadliest shooting in American history,” said Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC).
This Friday, the BMAC opens five new exhibits, and the one occupying the main gallery and a smaller side-gallery is called “Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns.”
Like many other artistic endeavors, the museum’s plan for the exhibit was to provoke reflection and discussion.
But the recent mass shooting at Pulse, the queer dance club in Orlando, inspired Lichtenfeld to talk to The Commons about the relationship between art — and those who present it — and the greater community.
“When is it not going to be timely?” Lichtenfeld asked.
Although there are differing opinions on what constitutes a mass shooting, according to data compiled by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 76 days this year where four or more people, not including the shooter, have been shot in a single event. As of June 17, the 169th day of the year, there has been a mass shooting somewhere in the United States about every two days, on average.
The postcards announcing “Up In Arms” have a reproduction of famed Chinese artist Liu Bolin’s photograph “Hiding in New York No. 9 — Gun Rack.”
‘Distinctly American questions’
As explained in the museum’s essay accompanying the show, the photo is from Liu’s “Hiding in the City” series: “Bolin disappears into a background consisting of high-powered rifles and other guns mounted on a pegboard, as in a gun store or gun show. Initially conceived in response to China’s weapons policies requiring government approval of the purchase of knives larger than six inches, ‘Gun Rack’ raises distinctly American questions about the proliferation of guns and the rights of the individual.”
The production of those postcards typically begins a few weeks before the opening reception, Lichtenfeld said. Thus, the cards for the “Up In Arms” show “went into the mail at least a week ago, so many people got theirs the same day they learned about Orlando,” he said.
“Getting the postcard when you’re seeing the news is... well... it’s pretty impactful,” Lichtenfeld said, trying to find the right words for the experience.
“What to make of that?” Lichtenfeld asked, adding, “it’s a regrettable reminder of the current relevance of the issues we’re trying to address and the artists are trying to address in their work. On a societal level, it’s sad these difficult issues are ones we have to deal with so directly right now.”
“On the other hand,” Lichtenfeld said, “that points toward one of the ways a museum like ours can contribute to society and the community and engage in important issues when they’re important and timely, and hopefully contribute to greater understanding and constructive conversation.”
“If we had a crystal ball and knew Orlando would happen, we may have handled publicity differently,” Lichtenfeld said, adding, “it’s too painful for some people to get a postcard with high-powered rifles. I get it, and while I’m not saying anything bad about the art, I get it. It’s the visceral impact” of seeing the art depicted on the postcard.
“We heard from some people positively and negatively,” Lichtenfeld said.
The museum has gotten “about a one-to-one ratio of people saying, ‘I’m so grateful you’re doing this, it’s so obviously timely’... and people saying, ‘Oh my God, how could you send me pictures of guns on the day this happened?’” Lichtenfeld said.
A long-planned exhibit
In acknowledging the awkwardness of the timing, Lichtenfeld had a point he wanted to make clear.
“Because I’m so embedded here in what it takes to put an exhibit together, I’m shocked that for someone who has no idea [of that], they might think, ‘Oh, there’s a horrific shooting,’ and, ta-da, here’s a show about guns.
“It could feel exploitative, like, ‘Let’s capitalize on this event.’ That is not what we’ve done here. I’m worried it appears that way. I find myself needing to explain. This is something we’ve been working toward for a few years. The timing is tragic, but we’ve not scrambled to exploit this.”
Lichtenfeld explained the process the museum staff uses to develop an exhibit, noting two years is the common interval between coming up with a concept and hanging the art.
“It takes a while to pull it all together,” he said.
“Unlike about 98 percent of museums, we’re a non-collecting museum,” Lichtenfeld said, explaining that most museums draw together exhibits from their own collections. BMAC presents exhibits of contemporary art borrowed from artists, galleries, private collectors, and other museums.
Most exhibits are curated by a person and, at BMAC, that person is most often the museum’s chief curator, Mara Williams.
Lichtenfeld said the curator identifies artwork appropriate for the exhibit, makes arrangements for its delivery to the museum, decides how to display the pieces, and comes up with most of the written materials for the exhibit.
“This show had a little bit of an unusual genesis,” Lichtenfeld said.
Initially, he said, Williams planned a show of “iconic images of American identity,” including things like flags, religious symbols, money, and other consumerist images, and guns. But, he said, “it got too big and unwieldy,” so as the time approached to solidify the exhibit’s plans, he and Williams decided, “let’s focus on one piece: guns.”
“Even though the other aspects are cool and important, none of it is as timely or as strongly needing community engagement and discussion as the gun piece. So, let’s go deep with that,” he said.
Starting a conversation
At the museum, exhibits aren’t just about putting some art up on the walls. Special events related to the subject matter constitute the “community engagement and discussion” aspect, such as scholar lectures and live artist events.
In addition to lectures, artists’ talks, and panel discussions, the museum is working with Vermont Performance Lab to present “A Gun Show,” a new interdisciplinary work by the percussion ensemble So Percussion, at the New England Youth Theatre in September.
According to the news release, “The members of So Percussion began working on ‘A Gun Show’ with choreographer Emily Johnson and theater director Ain Gordon in 2012 in the wake of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.” For more information on “A Gun Show,” visit www.vermontperformancelab.org/events.
Lichtenfeld said that, from the beginning, the museum’s intentions were to “start the conversation” about guns, which meant taking a neutral stance.
“We decided... to put up an exhibit that at first glance didn’t read as glorifying guns or as anti-gun,” Lichtenfeld said, “because, frankly, the best-case scenario is, we manage to facilitate constructive dialogue and some mutual understanding. If you feel the dialogue is rigged against you at the start, then you’ve immediately lost the opportunity for dialogue.”
“There’s so much nuanced work out there,” Lichtenfeld said, “and we can put up a quality show without ... glorifying or vilifying.”
Lichtenfeld pointed out the two “most politically-laden” parts of the exhibit come from Linda Bond and Kyle Cassidy. Other artists whose works will appear are Madeline Fan, Susan Graham, Jane Hammond, Don Nice, Sabine Pearlman, and Jerilea Zempel.
Bond, a Boston-area-based artist, contributed four “meticulously rendered drawings in gunpowder and graphite... of guns used in Columbine, Charleston, and two other mass shootings,” Lichtenfeld said, noting, “she’s not going beyond that and depicting dead people, but her artwork requires the viewer to contemplate mass shootings.”
‘Why do you own a gun?’
The other example, which Lichtenfeld described as “politically vehemently ambiguous,” are the 20 or 30 prints of photographs by Kyle Cassidy, a New Jersey-based artist who published a coffee table book of his project, “Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes.”
According to Lichtenfeld, Cassidy and an assistant drove around the U.S. in 2007 and photographed gun owners posing with their guns in their homes. He asked them one question: “Why do you own a gun?”
The way Williams decided to display Cassidy’s photographs furthers the notion “these are regular people posing for family photos,” Lichtenfeld said. Instead of hanging the art in “typical gallery presentation,” they will be placed in vintage frames and hung like “a family portrait wall,” Lichtenfeld said.
“One thing that fascinated us and made us feel this was suitable for the exhibit was that there were all kinds of online commentary on the project. Gun owners said, ‘Finally, somebody depicts gun owners as they really are in a responsible fashion!’ and on the other hand, other people looked at the very same pictures and said, ‘How on earth did you get these lunatics to say these things?’” Lichtenfeld said, noting the photos were a sort of Rorschach test.
“The effect so obviously had to do with their preconceived ideas,” Lichtenfeld said, adding, “that is exactly it: it’s strong artwork clearly not skewed one way or the other. It can’t help but spur discussion.”