It’s fascinating to see how arts institutions dedicated to the work of a single artist or movement work to develop their audiences and areas of interest. In the case of the Clyfford Still museum in Denver, finding ways to keep the work and legacy of a single 20th century American painter fresh is an ongoing challenge.
Beyond exhibiting the artist’s work from as many different angles as possible (how soon will they run out of angles, one can’t help but ask?) the museum regularly develops projects that are only tangentially connected to Still.
For example, in the summer, I attended a baseball game at the Rockies Stadium with a bunch of museum fans. The link? Still was a big baseball fan. And in the coming weeks, the institution will host “DiSTILLed,” a handicrafts and cocktails night, and co-host a screening of the movie Persepolis with the SIE Film Center. I guess the artist liked a tipple while working on his needlepoint. And here’s how the museum is going about justifying its interest in screening Vincent Parronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s animated film based on Satrapi’s luminous autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution: “After the film, join Bruce MacIntosh (Denver Comic Con and Comics for the Classroom), Stephen Brackett (the Flobots), and Vincent Piturro (chair of Metro State University film department) for a panel discussion that will address the symbiotic nature of the comic-strip format and the moving image, illuminating Still’s own process from drawing to painting and painting to drawing.” So there.
In the latest and most ambitious of its efforts to broaden and deepen people’s understanding of Still’s life and work, The Clyfford Still Museum just announced the launch of a research center. “Multidisciplinary in its approach, the CSMRC will develop programs and research encompassing the period in which Clyfford Still’s art flourished – circa 1920 through 1980,” the organization declared in a press release. “The Research Center will foster humanities-based engagement with the Clyfford Still Museum collections, its archives and the manifold ideas they embody.”
Envisaged as a series of projects rather than a physical space, the center will run a fellowship program, prepare and distribute scholarly publications, and conduct symposia and other public programs. The first research center-oriented event was a recent symposium organized by the museum which took place in New York.
The core audience for this new endeavor is the academic community — and as there are currently no art history PhD programs being offered in the state of Colorado, having a research center dedicated to this field goes some small way towards filling a hole in the local scholarship landscape.
However, as Dean Sobel, the museum’s director, explained to me on the phone, the fellowship program is being set up to attract not just art historians from universities, but also thinkers across many disciplines, from composers to philosophers to poets. “Clyfford Still was interested in ideas,” Sobel said. “We want to use our collections and facility as a vehicle to broaden knowledge not just about Still but about the humanities more broadly.”
The Clyfford Still Museum isn’t the only art institution to have a research wing attached to it. The National Gallery in Washington DC and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, NM are other examples of art institutions outside of academia with a research mandate. But there aren’t many museums that choose to go in this direction. Sobel thinks this is because the larger museums, with their broader mandates and much more obviously public appeal, can’t so easily leverage something as focused as an academic program. “Many museums find it hard to do this kind of stuff because it doesn’t have much return on investment,” Sobel said.
The niche-iness of the Still Museum might give it an edge when it comes to developing ways to link the arts and the humanities. As Sobel put it: “What would seem like a luxury for a general museum, is possible for us.”