The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

2022 Conference Abstract | Outreach Exhibitions as Institutional Labor

Sara Woodbury, Doctoral Candidate and Curator

For over a century, museums and related cultural organizations in the United States have enabled art access through outreach exhibitions. Usually modest in scale and intended for schools, libraries, and other places normally not used as galleries, these exhibitions perform important community-oriented labor on behalf of their organizing institutions, with the logistical challenges associated with art transport and the lack of profitability from these shows demonstrating an institution’s willingness to engage different audiences. While these exhibitions have circulated since at least 1900, they were especially active during the interwar period, as institutions ranging from museums to the federal government adopted outreach exhibitions as a means of enabling art access. Although large-scale spectacles such as World’s Fairs have received significant scholarly attention in terms of interwar exhibition tactics, outreach shows also merit consideration, both for their role in the history of exhibitions and more broadly through the significance of outreach labor in codifying the art canon. This presentation will explore interwar outreach exhibitions as a form of institutional labor by focusing on two case studies: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Neighborhood Exhibitions Program and the Federal Community Art Center Project (CACP), both in operation during the 1930s and early 1940s. One program focused on expanding the Met’s presence within New York City by sharing its permanent collection with local schools, while the other attempted to introduce viewers to contemporary American art on a national level in the form of local art centers connected through a national art-sharing infrastructure. As I will argue, despite the different motives and subject matter of these shows, both the Met and the CACP relied on traveling exhibitions as a performative demonstration of institutional labor, with both initiatives underscoring an institution’s willingness to work for the local community. 

Check out photos and discussions of outreach exhibitions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:  links to Stephanie Post's “‘Caravans of Art’: The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition Series, 1933–42” and the exhibition webpage for the Met's circulating textile exhibitions (1933-1942).

Sara Woodbury is a scholar and curator whose research intersects the history of museums, mobility studies, and art access. As a curator focusing on American art, she has held positions at the Roswell Museum, Shelburne Museum, and the Dallas Museum of Art. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at William & Mary, with her dissertation focusing on art outreach exhibitions. She also works as a part-time curator with the Barry Art Museum at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The museum’s current exhibition, Motion/Emotion: Exploring Affect from Automata to Robots, is on view through 2022.

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