The George Eastman Museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting photographs and moving images ranging from the earliest examples to newly created works. Because our institution is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the earliest film archives, our collections are particularly strong in historic works. Yet, the history of photography and moving images extends to the present, and each medium continues with tremendous creative vitality. It is essential that the Eastman Museum actively collect and exhibit contemporary works so that we can present a complete history of these fields to current and future generations.
In June 2014, as part of our commitment to contemporary photography and moving images, the museum renamed one of our exhibition spaces the “Project Gallery” and dedicated it to exhibitions of contemporary works. Since then, the shows presented there have included Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman; Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project; History: Photographs by David Levinthal; Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location; and currently Brian Ulrich: The Centurion. All of these exhibitions except the Peter Greenaway show featured bodies of work completed within the prior two years.
The Brian Ulrich exhibition represents another step forward in our Project Gallery. In this case, the museum committed to the project when the artist had not yet created most of the photographs that were to be shown. Before we invite an artist to present an uncompleted set of works in the Project Gallery, the head curator of our photography department or moving image department gains a thorough knowledge of the artist’s prior work and an understanding of the subject or the objective of the new work to be exhibited. Our exhibition committee then reviews the exhibition proposal and makes a decision on whether to endorse the curator’s recommendation.
There is a leap of faith required in exhibiting unseen work, but there are several reasons why committing to exhibit works while they are still in development can be rewarding. The museum and the artist both face a certain amount of risk in putting new work on view. The artist may benefit from getting a curator’s direct feedback while developing a new project. Although the museum is not directly involved in the creation of the work, it provides a space in which the artist is able to experiment and to test out new ideas away from the immediate pressure of the art market. The collaboration in developing new works for an exhibition can create relationships that benefit both the museum and the artist long into the future.
As the premiering venue, the Eastman Museum offers its members and visitors the first chance to see new work. We also seek opportunities to tour exhibitions of new work to other museums, thus contributing to the field and enhancing public awareness of our mission. Being the first institution to show an artist’s work can play an important role over the long term. Our relationship with David Levinthal, who will be the subject of a major retrospective here in 2018, benefitted from our having been the first museum to show his photographs—works from his groundbreaking Hitler Moves East series—in 1978, and the first museum to show works from his History series, in 2015.
In addition to seeing the works on view in the gallery, Eastman Museum visitors can hear the artists speak about their own work, through gallery talks and selfguided audio tours. For each Project Gallery exhibition, we host intimate conversations between the artist and curator in the gallery. Listening to an artist speak about his or her motivations, inspirations, and methods—while surrounded by the work itself—illuminates the importance of contemporary art in responding to and shaping our culture.
Our schedule of 2016 gallery exhibitions demonstrates our commitment to fostering relationships with living artists and presenting their work within the broader context of the field of photography. One of these, opening at the end of February, is an exhibition of works by Lorna Bieber, the centerpiece of which was still in process when we scheduled the show. Lorna Bieber will be speaking with curator Lisa Hostetler at the museum on February 26.
We have also significantly increased our presentations of Rochester premieres at the Dryden Theatre, often with filmmakers participating at the screenings. In January and Februar alone, we are premiering ten films—at least one per week—including the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015); the most recent works by acclaimed directors Frederick Wiseman and Guy Maddin; the newest film by Johnnie To, as part of a To retrospective series; and the feature debut of filmmaker Soon-Mi Yoo, among others.
We urge you to join us for these special events, only at the George Eastman Museum.
Bruce Barnes, Ph.D.
Ron and Donna Fielding Director
January/February 2016 Bulletin
Photo Credits: Brian Ulrich (American, b. 1971). Uhuburg Castle, Helen, GA, 2014. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Brian Ulrich.