Walk up the glass stairs, through the metal doors, across the wooden floor of the peacefully quiet gallery room. Take a left. You can relax as you sit down to discuss what it’s like working at a university art museum with David Robertson, director of Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.
Take deep breaths in and let them out slowly; this is, as he says, a laid-back place of intellectual stimulation, not one bogged down by the economics of creating art shows for profit. It’s a place for students to unwind, view well-planned and thematically coordinated exhibits, and it will hopefully inspire their own creative minds to act and create.
He tells you about the current exhibit being shown at Block – pieces that “focus on European art from the 1910s and 1920s, (all of which) inform each other in some ways and (some of which) have nationalistic influence.”
The exhibit, shown from now until March 18, is called “From the Trenches to the Street: Art from Germany, 1910s-1920s.” The exhibition features art focusing on the experience of war, highlighting the brutality, disillusionment, social repercussions and ultimate tragedy of these years, with artwork by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, among others.
“We need to represent this university in a manner that is appropriate,” Robertson says of the intellectually-challenging shows at Block. “So we go for a more focused approach, a more academically sound approach.”
As stated in its promotional literature, the Block Museum serves as “a vital center for interdisciplinary education, enabling NU students to think and interact beyond their schools and majors through the study and appreciation of the visual arts.” The museum serves as a way for art history majors, chemistry students and RTVF kids alike to find common ground, to experience a community-based environment for learning and expression that is wholly unique and imaginatively satisfying.
As Robertson says, “If you’re not involving the students, then what are you doing here (as a museum)?”
During your visit, also meet Weinberg senior Baylee Shapiro, who works in the Educational Programs department at Block. The museum is a great campus resource, she says, and one that students should take advantage of more often.
“It is sad that so few students know about it, let alone visit,” Shapiro says. “I realize that it would be a complicated effort, but it seems like a waste that there is not an art history or other relevant department course based on the Block Museum exhibits every quarter. Blockout Friday has gone a long way in getting more students involved and visiting the museum, but I would like to see even more.”
Considering the political and social state of affairs in the Middle East, Shapiro says, the current exhibit is more pertinent now than ever.
“The images of war exhibit is eerily relevant to current issues,” Shapiro says. “It would really hit home for a lot of people.”
“Students should be interested in coming to the Block if they are interested in art,” Shapiro continues. “It is free and it is on campus. What more could any student ask for in a cultural outlet? The exhibits change every quarter so there is always something new to see.”
Diana Samuels, another work study student at Block who is a Medill junior double majoring in art history, agreed. “Why not take a half hour after class one day and learn something?” she said. “The exhibitions change every quarter, and cover all sorts of topics – something’s got to interest you.”
Robertson says that organizing a frequently-changing program can be demanding at times, but that it seems to fit with Block’s atmosphere and role on campus.
“It’s been an interesting challenge to go from organizing one show to organizing four a term,” he says. “We thought since it’s a relatively small place, and since most visitors come as a ‘one-shot’ visit, you can come, you can spend a couple of hours and pretty much see everything. We didn’t want to have in one gallery an exhibition of, let’s say, Chinese vase painting and in another gallery an exhibition of European painting — sort of jarring juxtapositions. Rather, we organize our exhibitions so they relate to one another.”
“The building seems daunting and the idea of a museum might be uninviting (to students),” says Shapiro, “but the museum is incredible and unpretentious. Everyone who works there is friendly and genuinely interested in the work they do.”