You Are Invited: UMMA's "You Are Here" exhibit welcomes visitors back to the museum with works that help viewers experience the space


Keshawn Warren, Saint Francis of Assisi, 2008

Kehinde Wiley, Saint Francis of Assisi, 2008, oil wash and graphite on paper, in artist's frame. © Kehinde Wiley, Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York.

​​In March 2020, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) was closed to the public along with countless other businesses and organizations after the announcement of a global pandemic caused by COVID-19. During that time, we were offered virtual exhibits at UMMA; then, in June 2021, in-person exhibits resumed followed by the October 2021 reopening of the museum’s classic Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch Apse, revitalized with bright, vibrant walls and artworks that interact with visitors’ senses. 

UMMA’s first exhibit in the remodeled Tisch Apse is You Are Here. Curator Jennifer M. Friess writes about the joys of our renewed ability to come together in person, but she also notes that we still carry the past two and a half years with us: “While it is exciting to be together again and to see the world slowly reopen, we are also deeply impacted by what we’ve been through. This exhibition holds both of those feelings.” 

​​Even works that have been in the space for decades seem imbued with new life.

The classically inspired marble sculptures by Richard James Wyatt (Flora, 1850) and Randolph Rogers (Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, 1861) stand on either side of Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Keshawn Warren. Wiley’s subject is, like in his other works, posed in the style of a historical painting of royalty.

In Saint Francis of Assisi, 2008, Keshawn Warren assumes the stance of the patron saint of animals and environment as depicted in Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the DesertFraming this work by Wiley in the center of the apse, the marble sculptures become part of a new landscape and are contextualized in a new way.

In these 19th-century works, Eurocentric beauty standards are replicated in a “revival of idealized Greco-Roman subjects,” which contrasts with the diversity represented in surrounding works by Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Catlett, Shigeo Fukuda, Xu Weixin, and many others.

The new is not only framed by the old but, in some cases, by old stories.

Rogers’ Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii was commissioned by the university in 1858, becoming the first work in the collection. Rogers considered Ann Arbor his hometown, linking the piece further to the community. The wall text notes, “It has been a steadfast presence at UMMA for over a century and serves as a reminder of where our collection began." 

​​The exhibit asks visitors to experience the space, fully. While some components of the exhibit are available online, the exhibit, as Friess says, is “designed to remind visitors to be present where they are: to look and feel and be at UMMA, in person at the museum. It also reminds visitors where they aren’t: at home, isolated, connecting with each other virtually.”

Untitled, Sounding Sculpture by Harry Bertoia, for example, can be viewed online, but it cannot be experienced fully in this virtual sense. The piece is meant to be played as an instrument, to be interacted with, to be heard reverberating through the often quiet space of the museum.

​​From selecting works that encourage viewers to consider physical space and texture, to the project playing on two LED screens near the old main entrance, UMMA asks us not only to consider where we are but where we are not.

White Cube / Black Box is a collaborative project between UMMA, the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS), and Stamps School of Art and Design. Using facial recognition to evaluate the diversity of the collection revealed both “limitations of racial representation within UMMA’s collection and the limitations of the technology itself.” Computers trained to recognize faces, for example, often do not recognize non-white faces. UMMA curators ask us to consider representation by asking, “Are YOU here?” The project used technology and data sets to evaluate UMMA’s collection through multiple lenses: Who is represented in the artwork? Who made the artwork? Who was in charge of the museum during particular periods of time, and what types of art did they collect? Finally, what can be improved to change technology that is functioning inadequately? 

​​Another partnership with the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance adds a sensory component that can be experienced both in and outside the gallery. Students worked with professors Matt Albert and Roshanne Etezady to create compositions specifically to be played alongside certain works of art. Untitled, Sounding Sculpture, though itself an instrument, is paired with “Piano Trio in F# minor” performed by Darcy Trio. Each musical work has an accompanying description:​​

Harry Bertoia embodies the fierce and passionate character of the third movement of Arno Babadjanian's Piano Trio. The pointed, high-rising structure of the sculpture is reflected in the sharp bowings and accented attacks in the third movement. The chime-like resonance from the Sounding Sculpture intertwines seamlessly with the dissonance and the intensity of the music as well, all the while the listening and viewing experience is enhanced. 

​​The careful selection of sound for each piece goes further here, as the musicians worked to pair their performance with an ever-shifting and chaotic instrument set out for public consumption. Each label in the gallery has information about the work of art, and those with Musical Labels contain a QR code that links to the corresponding musical performance, which can also be found on UMMA’s website

​​You Are Here asks us to be present, and to engage with artworks in ways behind just looking. It further asks us to consider who else is with us, and who might have been or continue to be excluded.

As curator Jennifer M. Friess says: “Come visit and play the Harry Bertoia sound sculpture to announce your presence in the gallery. After all, you are here.”

Don’t be afraid to strum that sculpture (with care). I did!

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"You Are Here" is available during UMMA's regular hours and will be on view through May 7, 2023.