For 50 years, the Palmer Museum of Art has provided the Penn State community with opportunities to engage with art focused on culture, society and pressing issues in the contemporary world, according to its website.
The exhibits demonstrate the museum’s mission to provide education and research to students, faculty, and residents.
Brandi Breslin, Palmer’s director of education, said her job is to focus on how best to provide learning experiences within the exhibits.
She said the artwork is selected not only by a curator, but also by faculty, staff and subject matter experts that most impact communities and ideas.
“We have to think about specific ideas around the artwork,” Breslin said. “How a collection becomes a collection of art, what ideas are inherent in it, what ideas are relevant to the community and the time period, what artwork speaks to all of that – these are the things we think about when we choose art . “
According to Breslin, the Palmer exhibitions are about more than the art itself, and the teams behind the exhibitions often work on long lists that help expand the art itself.
“Other staff members work on what we call a checklist to see if the art is in our collection and assess the items to make sure they are in good condition. For it to be on display, if there’s a need for photography, for example, our prep team gets to work on installing the artwork itself,” Breslin said. “Then there’s thinking about what special machines might be needed and things like exhibit design, paint colors [or] room layout.”
Some of this work has been handed over to Will Bergman, who is Palmer’s chief draftsman. It focuses directly on several key aspects of building an exhibition.
“As the chief curator, for me the exhibition begins when it is announced by the curator. Once the exhibit was announced, checklists were handed out that listed the artworks the curator had selected for the exhibit,” Bergman said. “Then I expose them in a 3D rendering program. These layouts go back and forth between staff until everyone is happy.”
Bergman acknowledged the teamwork and collaboration that goes into an exhibition.
“It really is a team effort and everyone here at Palmer does a great job of supporting each other,” Bergman said. “Everyone has a unique role to play in each exhibit, but we all need to work together to put together the strongest exhibits possible.”
With that in mind, both Bergman and Breslin said this preparation takes a lot of work and time. Palmer plans exhibitions well in advance in hopes of balancing different ideas and having a smooth transition between exhibitions.
“Our exhibition planning process is really looking three, four or five years ahead as we kind of think about balancing our exhibition schedule,” Breslin said. “They focus on different parts of the permanent collection, while also including works that are not in the collection.”
All of this helps the team achieve “a boost of discovery and reflection through the visual arts,” according to Breslin.
Bergman and Breslin aren’t the only Palmer employees with these ambitions. Joyce Robinson, Palmer’s assistant director, expressed a similar idea.
“We try to keep the learning needs of the campus in mind when planning our lineup of exhibitions, always with the goal of fulfilling our mission to present ‘thought-provoking exhibitions and interdisciplinary programs,'” Robinson said. “Crucial to our thinking is also presenting exhibitions that promote inclusivity, diversity, equity and access.”
For Robinson, the organization and planning of events is “key” and helps bring the museum together as a whole.
“In creating our exhibition schedule, [which is] typically nine special temporary exhibitions each year, is a collaborative process involving the curatorial team, the education department, the art processing team and the director,” said Robinson.
Robinson said the Palmer presents two different kinds of exhibitions: exhibitions curated and attended by other institutions, and exhibitions that the museum itself organizes.
Of the Palmer-designed shows, Robinson said, “themes are often suggested by individual curators” or sometimes “by interested faculty on campus.”
As exhibitions close and open, Breslin said people need to remove the connection they form with the idea a piece of art is showing.
“When I celebrate a birthday or an anniversary, I reflect on what I’ve done with my life, what I’ve done in the past year, who I’ve spent time with, what are those important things I’ve done, where I want to go and who I am and what makes me who I am,” Breslin said. “These questions are things I also hope people ask themselves when they connect with an idea we’re showing.
“This art is the particular lens for looking at who we are and connecting it to the idea of his identity.”
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