Seeking neither money nor credit, they delved into historical research, explored the narratives of 20th-century artists and their works, and made possible a sophisticated exhibition of world-class art. Who are they?
They’re the Vogel Volunteers, nine Bowdoin students who donated their time, brainpower, and hard work to create the upcoming installation “It’s What You Do With What You View:” Selections from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection in the Zuckert Seminar Room at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
Driven purely by an interest in the art, these first-time curators developed educational materials and planned the layout for the June 28-September 14 exhibition of minimal, post-minimal, and conceptual artworks from the famed Vogel Collection, donated to the museum last winter. They worked under the leadership of museum intern Natalie Clark ’14 and in collaboration with museum co-director Anne Goodyear and curatorial assistant Andrea Rosen.
The Vogel Volunteers program is part of an explosive increase in student and faculty involvement at the Museum of Art in the past year. With the help of Rosen and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross, co-directors Anne and Frank Goodyear are striving to show that the museum is an accessible place for students from all disciplines.
“This is one of the oldest collegiate collections in the whole world,” Anne Goodyear said, noting that the museum originated with James Bowdoin’s bequest of paintings and drawings in 1811. “Art has always been part of the core of a Bowdoin education, and we just want to make it easier for students to take advantage of that.”
Since last fall, the museum has hosted not only the Vogel Volunteers but also four student interns, two special project assistants, seven docents, three summer education assistants, one Gibbons Fellow, and one Mellon Humanities Fellow. Such opportunities have proven to be professionally valuable to students, Rosen noted: several who graduated just last month already have jobs in museums in Washington, D.C.
Bowdoin students are also getting involved through their classes. The past academic year generated an astonishing 214 class visits and more than 2,500 student visits to the museum, with no fewer than 82 courses, 64 professors, and 25 departments involved with the collections during that time. From the previous year, that’s a 30 percent increase in the number of class visits, a 24 percent increase in number of student visits, a 50 percent increase in number of unique courses, a 76 percent increase in number of unique professors, and a 32 percent increase in number of unique departments.
In addition to taking their classes on art excursions, professors are finding other ways to unite their research and teaching with the museum’s resources. In fall 2013, Shu-chin Tsui, associate professor of Asian studies and film studies, and Peggy Wang, assistant professor of art history and Asian studies, teamed up with Montross to co-curate Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists. Hailed by the Portland Press Herald as “one of the year’s best exhibitions in Maine,” the show served as a springboard for a major academic symposium organized by Tsui, Female Embodiment of the Visual World: Women’s Art in Contemporary China.
Later that fall, Romance languages professor Margaret Boyle and seven of her students curated How She Should Behave: Female Archetypes in Early Modern Europe in the Becker Gallery, which subsequently featured another exhibition co-curated by Bowdoin senior Mikala Cooper and art history professor Dana Byrd: Alfred Cheney Johnston: Portrait of a Lost Photographer. In the spring, the Zuckert Seminar Room hosted Frontier Visions: The American West in Image and Myth, curated by a first-year seminar taught by history professor Matt Klingle, while students from film studies professor Sarah Childress’ course “The Reality Effect: Documentary Film” worked with Rosen to curate a cycle of surrealist films called Surrealism in Motion for the museum’s Media Gallery.
Amid all of this academic activity at the museum, what’s unique about the Vogel Volunteers program is that it was motivated entirely by students.
When the Vogel Collection acquisition was announced last January, Bowdoin students were off campus enjoying winter break. “All of a sudden from students all over the country we were getting emails saying ‘this is so exciting – can I get involved?'” Anne Goodyear said. “We wanted to be able to take advantage of their enthusiasm and their energy and their intelligence. We hit upon the idea of creating the Vogel Volunteers, which is not subject to any vetting except that the students be interested in doing this. They could volunteer their time, as much or as little as they wanted to.”
Goodyear and Clark set up a preview session for prospective participants, pulling together a selection of works from the collection and explaining their idea to the students. Those who stepped forward — Julian Tamayo ’16, Katherine Gracey ’16, Tom Rosenblatt ’16, Quinn Rhi ’15, Kiyomi Mino ’16, James Miller ’14, Emily Weyrauch ’17, and Ben Miller ’17 – set to work researching artists and objects from the collection, as well as the remarkable stories of Herb and Dorothy Vogel themselves.
“The Vogels don’t look like radicals, and yet they absolutely exploded a lot of assumptions about what it means to collect art, to invest in art,” Goodyear said. A librarian and a USPS worker who began collecting art in the 1960s, they not only had unusually modest backgrounds for art collectors, “they were collecting art that was not yet considered collectible,” Goodyear said. “And yet they could see the intellectual significance and they believed in it.”
By nurturing the artists they believed in, the Vogels became the center of an ever-expanding circle of artist friends during an exciting period of art history. “Even early on in their collecting, they came to make an impact on the artists,” Goodyear said. Many of those artists are now among the most famous names in minimalist, post-minimalist, and conceptual art, including Christo and Jean-Claude, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Robert Barry, Sol Lewitt, and Richard Tuttle. “The Vogels became giants, but without putting ego first,” Goodyear said. “Their modesty and their warmth made a big impact on the students.”
From late March to the end of May, the students met every other week with Goodyear and Rosen and did presentations of their research, which was incorporated into wall labels for the works. “The Vogels were all about the spirit of artistic collaboration, so we wanted to emulate their process in our own curation,” Clark said. During the final two meetings the group determined the layout of the exhibition, using a map of the Zuckert Room and a box of to-scale images of the works of art.
“The students really did it,” Goodyear said. “They thought about the narrative they were trying to capture, some of the stories about the Vogels that they wanted to get at through the exhibition, and they developed this wonderful installation.” The title of the installation quotes one of Herb Vogel’s pithy sayings, “it’s what you do with what you view,” Goodyear explained. That phrase “seemed like a fun way to be thinking about what we’re looking at on the walls, literally, but then also this question of why does it matter,” she said. “For Herb, the most important thing about art was the way it helped people engage with ideas.”
In that vein, the volunteers each brought their own ideas to the project, Goodyear said. Spanning all four class years and a variety of academic backgrounds, “they gave us a lot in terms of their intellectual expertise and the work they put into this,” she said. “That to me is also in keeping with the Vogels’ spirit.”
One of the most notable messages students got from working with the collection, Goodyear said, is that “there were no barriers as far as the Vogels were concerned; they just went out and did it.” Fueled by passion rather than money or prestige, “they channeled that passion into going out and taking risks with art, from the standpoint of engaging with new ideas.”
The students themselves were able to do their own intellectual risk-taking by taking part in this project, Rosen added. “This was not through a class or a job, there was no success or failure; it was very much just driven by their curiosity.”