The current exhibition at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass seeks to confront a range of social concerns -- from racist violence to explorations of gender identity -- through the work of varied group of contemporary glass artists. Located in a small Wisconsin city and once known primarily as a showcase of historic paperweights, the Bergstrom-Mahler is an unexpected venue for such an exhibition, and perhaps the broadly disparate works don't quite fit under the vague umbrella of "diversity." But the exhibition titled “Reflecting Perspectives: Artists Confront Social Issues of Diversity and Inclusion” also provided a venue for more confrontational works that encourage viewers to question belief systems and likley challenged viewers with other ways of approaching the world than their own.
“We’ve been taking interest at the community level to work to elevate the position of art in society. It’s relevant to people today— art has the power to deliver a message, to showcase work that resonates with areas that are of concern, like issues of diversity and inclusion,” Jan Smith, director of the museum, told the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet in a telephone interview.
Smith said that the exhibition was designed to recenter how museums are imagined in the public sphere— as social issues continue to accumulate, perhaps museums can become a stronger platform for addressing concerns and considering change. Smith noted the “relatively new trend” that museums are taking broader steps to confront social issues.
“It seems to be important commentary on our times and what the needs are; we are presenting the museum as a contemporary neutral platform for public conversations. Museums provide opportunity for civil discourse and conversations.”
Glass specifically, Jan Smith said, carries the potential to explore social issues. Jan Smith noted how the dimensionality of glass allows it to adopt a variety of meanings and explore symbolic meanings.
“Glass as a medium to convey beauty and hold metaphors is its strength. Issues of transparency, fragility, strength, human engagement and connection are all metaphorical elements of glass,” Smith said. “It’s malleable in the ways it can be worked, it’s a multidimensional material, it can provide an outlet just by the way it’s manipulated. There are so many ways glass can convey that poetic aspect.”
Smith said that artists who approached glass from an angle of diversity were specifically chosen for the gallery. Artists showcased include Joyce Scott, Tim Tate, Helen Lee, Pearl Dick, Raven Skyriver, Patrick Wadley, John Moran, Preston Singletary, Marcus Amerman, and Einar and Jamex De La Torre. The work ranges from neon signage to large-scale sculpture, and each piece loudly speaks its individual voice.
Joyce Scott’s work on display includes Lynched Tree, which depicts an upside-down woman shaped as a tree splayed on the ground amongst glittering discarded materials. Helen Lee’s Infinitive blares adages through blue neon, in a powerfully simple and compelling comment on society. And in Tim Tate’s The Midnight Garden, mirrors are utilized to bring viewers face-to-face with themselves, seen in conjunction with dark and fascinating creations.
However, the variety in tone and narrative throughout the work may leave the gallery scattered. The museum brought in a broad range of artists, Jan Smith said, as to not limit the gallery's reach among social issues. In order to pick artists and work to display, Smith said the museum sought out social issues to cover, not necessarily art itself.
"We wanted to cover a variety of bases within diversity and inclusion, and use these broad topics as initial points of departure," Smith said.
In bringing the exhibit to the small Wisconsin town of Neenah, Smith said the museum worked to facilitate what they expected would be difficult conversations. In order to mediate dialogue, the museum brought in individuals stationed throughout the gallery to engage with viewers. Responses, Smith said, were that visitors found the work and the conversations that resulted as “engaging, thought-provoking, and rewarding.”
IF YOU GO:
"Reflecting Perspectives: Artists Confront Social Issues of Diversity and Inclusion"
Through September 22, 2019
Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass
165 N. Park Ave