Photography Rises in Stature in Museums ; Curators Seek to Expand Collections in Effort to Attract Younger Audiences

Article excerpt

Museum directors are realizing that photography exhibitions attract crowds, particularly the young audiences they covet, so they are giving more attention and space to the medium.

On a wintry afternoon, Jeff Rosenheim, the recently appointed head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's photography department, stopped in at its special exhibition galleries. He was checking up on the installation of a new acquisition, a 61-minute video called "Street" by the British-born artist James Nares.

As brilliantly colored images splashed across a 16-foot, or 4.9- meter, screen, teams of art handlers and curators were placing photographs, drawings, sculptures and paintings in adjacent galleries. "This is exactly what we're trying to do," Mr. Rosenheim said, "to show photography in the context of many different kinds of art."

Douglas Eklund, a photography curator who was also on hand for the installation that day, chimed in: "Photography has always been on a long road. But now it's out of the ghetto."

The Met exhibition, called "Street" like the video, opened on March 5 and includes a United Nations' worth of art and objects dating from 3000 B.C. to 1987, chosen by Mr. Nares from the Met's permanent collection.

Everything in some way illustrates the energy and dynamism of street life. There is a Mesopotamian sculpture of a walking figure and an ancient Egyptian limestone relief from the reign of Akhenaten, depicting the king and his courtiers. There are also paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists like Messerschmidt, Goya and Degas, as well as work by contemporary artists including Alberto Giacometti, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. Photography is central to the show too, with images by masters like Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.

"Street," on view through May 27, crosses curatorial divides in new ways for an institution like the Met, having been organized by Mr. Eklund, the photography curator, and Ian Alteveer, associate curator in the department of modern and contemporary art.

It is just one of countless examples of the kinds of exhibitions being organized by museum photography departments across the United States at a time when a large number of new photography curators have taken the helm at major museums.

This recently appointed crop is not a bunch of 20-somethings. They are all seasoned professionals, mostly in their 40s or early 50s, and they are approaching the medium differently than their predecessors. Where the curator of 20 or 30 years ago struggled to be recognized, this generation no longer has to fight to be heard. Museum directors are realizing that photography exhibitions attract crowds, particularly the young audiences they covet, so they are giving more attention and space to the medium than ever before.

In years past, the Met's photography department would never have considered showing a video, let alone acquiring one, as it did "Street." "We started collecting videos when they have an organic relationship to photography," said Mr. Rosenheim, who was promoted to run the Met's photography department in September. Explaining the connection of "Street" to the medium, he noted that unlike films, with a traditional story line, the video -- like a series of photographs -- has no narrative to follow, allowing viewers to dip in and out at random.

The giant screen, at the entrance to the special exhibition galleries for prints, drawings and photographs, stops visitors with the video's hypnotic street scenes around Manhattan. The high- definition colors make everything look more real than real. There are children of varying ages and street vendors, and tourists and business executives traversing different parts of the city. There is a gritty shot of Broadway one moment and bustling Columbus Circle the next, the mashup of crowds on the sidewalks of Lower Manhattan and the statuesque buildings along Park Avenue. …


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