In celebration of African American History Month, the Central Library exhibition, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, opened on February 1 in the Getty Gallery and will run through May 25. This exhibition is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and toured by the Mid-American Arts Alliance.
Organized by the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and curated by Dr. Maurice Berger, the show “examines the vital role that visual imagery played in the fight for racial and social equality from the 1940s through the 1970s” and “traces how images and media disseminated to the American public transformed the modern civil rights movement and jolted Americans, both black and white, out of a state of denial or complacency.”
A collection of photographs, television clips, ephemera, and historic artifacts are displayed throughout the gallery, illustrating how media and pop culture drove the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. The walls of the gallery come alive with compelling, almost hypnotic images of figures from the Civil Rights Era. A supplementary exhibit, A City Engaged, features framed images from the Los Angeles Public Library archives which feature local leaders of the movement.
One would never know that just over a week ago this space was a void: blank walls and empty, echoing space. So what is this alchemy that occurs, transforming this nothingness into something vibrant and alive? How does it happen? Let’s take a look behind the scenes. This magic is made possible thanks to Los Angeles Public Library's Exhibition Committee with help from the team at MICRONAUT. MICRONAUT is a program and exhibition management firm founded by Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon. They recently partnered with the Los Angeles Public Library to bring new exhibits to Central Library. Catherine Sturgeon interviewed Sam Mellon about the process of mounting this exhibition from start to finish.
You and your partner have an impressive amount of experience as curators, exhibition designers, and scholars. How did you come to collaborate and start MICRONAUT?
Claudia and I started MICRONAUT informally in 2009 to develop an exhibition idea that resulted in Speaking in Tongues: Robert Heinecken and Wallace Berman 1961-1976. It was a part of the first round of Getty Museum Pacific Standard Time exhibits that occurred in 2011. After the success of that exhibit, we continued to curate exhibits as guest curators at various institutions around Los Angeles. In 2016 we formalized our partnership “side-business” and officially formed MICRONAUT.
What would you say are the guiding principles of MICRONAUT?
We are all about exhibitions! MICRONAUT really was founded on a passionate interest in artistic expression, creative display, and scholarly interpretation. Claudia and I bring really diverse skills to the table from over five decades of combined experience, so we like to think that MICRONAUT is uniquely suited to deliver full-service exhibition solutions and management. We envision, research, design, and realize museum-quality art exhibitions from start to finish.
Would you briefly take us through what’s involved in the process of mounting of an exhibition?
Well, every exhibition is different really. In the case of a traveling show like For All the World to See, it starts with identifying the show, figuring out its availability, and considering whether it is a good fit for the Los Angeles Public Library. We submit the concept to the Exhibition Committee where a joint decision is made whether or not to move forward with it. From there we consider how the exhibit will look in the space, and whether supplementation is necessary. In the case of this show, we felt the gallery was far too large and cavernous to simply install the traveling show, which consists of units that free stand in the middle of the gallery. So, the exhibit, in the end, is actually comprised of the cases and structures that tell the For All the World to See story, but on the perimeter walls, I have designed wallpaper sized images of figures from the Civil Rights Era drawn from the Los Angeles Public Library archives. I build a digital model of the gallery and the exhibit and we layout these images to see how that changes the feel for the room. We felt there still was more that the Los Angeles Pubilc Library could add to the overall exhibit and so on the back wall of the gallery is a supplementary exhibit titled A City Engaged which features 13 framed images from Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection (mostly from the Rolland Curtis Collection and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Archives). In collaboration with Christina Rice and the Exhibition Committee, the images were selected by MICRONAUT. Christina wrote a text panel for the exhibit. Through several months of planning, revisions, and fine-tuning of our design, the exhibition arrived in 15 large crates. Everything pops out of the boxes and assembly begins. Thus begins two weeks of very intensive work; executing months and months of planning. It’s really the best part of organizing an exhibition: those final hours where all the planning and envisioning becomes real and the exhibit literally comes to life right before your eyes. I never get tired of that!
What is the most challenging part of the process for you?
Oh, boy…what part isn’t? I suppose it’s trying to control the things you can’t control! Time—timing and shipping—always stresses me out! Will the truck show up? Will the crates arrive? Will the crates fit through the door? Will there be a place for the truck to park? Did we budget enough time? Will we open on time? That crunch in the last two weeks of any exhibit can be the most stressful—but strangely the most satisfying—time of any exhibition production. The thrill of pulling it off, and overcoming all of those challenges is so fulfilling in the end.
What is the most satisfying part of the process for you?
About two to three days before we are finished and you really can see your vision come together. As a designer, I like that moment even better than once it’s finished. I feel like when it’s actually finished, a little depression sets in. It’s like releasing a thing out into the world. You have to let go, and move on. That’s always a little sad for me.
What do you hope people will glean from this exhibit?
Well, of course, this exhibit marks the beginning of Black History Month and reminds us of how recently our country was, in my opinion, so backward in terms of our attitudes towards race. As a guy that grew up in the 1970s, I look at this exhibit and realize how so much of this material had an effect on me and my attitudes towards an integrated society. I, of course, didn’t realize I was being influenced at the time. I think the exhibit shows how media not only changed the minds of one generation but formed the minds of another. This exhibit is incredibly timely with the state of things in our country at the moment, so I hope this exhibit reminds viewers of just how recently media was used to change the opinions of many Americans about race relations. It also gives us pause to think about how media can be used today, one way or another. It’s an interesting look at the power of media on a population.
Is there a work in the exhibition that truly resonates with you?
Well, there are so many. I am particularly fond of all of the wallpaper images we put around the room from the library's archives. They tell a story without having to say a word! There are particular images in the exhibit I find powerful, but I think it’s reading the text panels and considering things that I never thought about before. Things that seemed second-nature to me, but having new ways to consider them. For example, thinking about what a TV show like The Jeffersons was really teaching me. But as far as images and objects, there is a large image of Gordon Parks you see as you enter the exhibition that’s just so cool. Such a handsome guy with such a powerful mission in his eyes. It’s really something. I can’t stop looking at it.