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Spelman Museum's teenage ambition

Director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee pushes boundaries as the institution turns 15

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It would be putting it lightly to say the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art's mission, "to emphasize works by and about women of the African Diaspora," is unique. "There's no other place like this in the nation," is how museum director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee explains it in her second floor office of the Cosby Center on Spelman's campus. This month, the museum celebrates its 15th anniversary with an exhibition that speaks to Brownlee's ambitions for the institution. "As we crystallize what it means to be turning 15 years old and we think about it in terms of what we want to be when we grow up," she explains, "it is indeed to be the first thought, the first destination when it comes to black women artists. We don't just want to think about African-American artists, we want to think about the diaspora and really give honor to our unique mission. I want us to be a formidable force."

Just below Brownlee's office, 15 X 15: The 15th Anniversary Acquisitions Exhibition is in its final stages of installation. Ten days before the opening, a table of power tools belonging to a pair of burly art handlers dominates the museum's main gallery space. Around it, the shape of an impressive exhibition is beginning to bloom. A constellation-like arrangement of Lorna Simpson's photogravures has burst onto a wall. In one corner, works by collaborative artist teams Bradley McCallum & Jacqueline Tarry and IngridMwangiRobertHutter face one another. An installation of ironing boards by Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons sits, waiting to be brought to life by video projections. As Brownlee walks through the exhibition, there's a palpable sense of accomplishment. And there should be. Whereas other shows here have rightly focused on the artists and their work, when 15 X 15 opens Thurs., Sept. 8, it will be the institution's moment in the spotlight.

The exhibition is centered on 15 works the museum hopes patrons will help it acquire for the permanent collection. But aside from simply growing the museum's holdings, the selected works serve to illustrate the focused, challenging programming the institution has earned its reputation supporting. Under Brownlee's direction over the past 10 years, the museum has worked with and exhibited most of the artists represented on the acquisitions wish list. The exhibition will include works from the permanent collection, showcasing the mission-driven collecting the museum's already accomplished. Those works are cleverly installed to illustrate the relationship between, say, a cowrie-shell-lined elephant mask and Renee Cox's bold political photography.

Under Brownlee's direction, the museum has been consistent in its commitment to contemporary art. She counts iona rozeal brown's 2004 solo exhibition, a³... black on both sides, as an important landmark for the museum. Spelman brought in the New York-based artist's conceptually dense paintings, which explore issues of globalization and identity through the lens of geisha and black face traditions, at a critical turning point in the artist's career.

15 X 15 also features works from the museum's most recent exhibition, IngridMwangiRobertHutter's Constant Triumph, an impressively abrasive and challenging show. An essay about Constant Triumph recently made the cover of Atlanta-based contemporary art magazine Art Papers. Critic Rebecca Dimling Cochran described how the works "plumb the depths of painful experience and explore the cathartic nature of art." The installation Splayed showed female artist Ingrid Mwangi in a triptych of video screens arranged to look like a crucifixion. A disembodied hand drags a razor across her arms, drawing blood, and spelling the words "monogamous" and "polygamy."

When asked about the challenges of running this sort of daring contemporary work in Atlanta, Brownlee responds, "You know, the big joke before any contemporary show is, 'Well, this is probably the one where I get fired.'" Jokes aside, Brownlee says she receives "extraordinary" support from the university in sharing and supporting her vision.

It's one thing to share a vision, it's another to stand by the daring, international programming Brownlee champions. Brownlee's success at Spelman is certainly owed in part to her disarming, professional-but-sincere charm. She talks the business of running an institution with the same ease as parsing the layers of meaning in a Sheila Pree Bright photograph. Her ability to casually and clearly discuss contemporary art that has the potential to confuse or offend is striking.

"I don't tell people what to think," she says. "I feel very strongly that it's not my responsibility or my job or even my right, frankly, to tell people what to think about contemporary art. But it is my responsibility to have conversations about it. Some of the richest conversations I've had are with people who come in with 'I don't like this' or 'I don't like that.' And they leave in this state of euphoria because they've been able to look at something differently."

Brownlee delights in the staging of work and supporting a mission unique to Spelman. As the museum turns 15, she seems possessed with that heady energy of the teenage years: of defining oneself and relishing a little danger. "I do not believe museums are safe spaces," she says. "They are places that you come for ideas, they're about rigorous conversations, they're a place to argue and they're a place to champion your beliefs. I simply believe that taking risks is part of that journey."

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