The Chazen Museum of Art awarded $250,000 Mellon Foundation grant

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The Chazen Museum of Art awarded $250,000 Mellon Foundation grant
L to R: Rich Medina, Sanford Biggers, Lynore Routte, Mark Hines and Keyon Harrold. Image Courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.

MADISON, WIS.- The Chazen Museum of Art has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation in support of its re:mancipation project, a collaboration between artist Sanford Biggers, MASK Consortium and the museum. By reimagining and repositioning works in the Chazen’s permanent collection, including the problematic sculpture Emancipation Group by Thomas Ball, re:mancipation will address the often complex and difficult past associated with works that glorify racism in the United States. The Mellon grant will support projects that will augment the exhibition, including a documentary, the first of several symposia, an interactive website and the development of curriculum materials for adolescents and adults. re:mancipation opens February, 2023

“The Chazen Museum of Art continues to put considerable thought into how it tells stories about the objects in its collection,” said Director Amy Gilman. “With re:mancipation, the Chazen has invited artist Sanford Biggers and MASK Consortium to take a deep dive into this single object—Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Group—while also considering how the museum can interpret multiple works of art in the collection.”

Ball’s Emancipation Group serves as the foundation for the exhibition. The 1873 marble sculpture depicts an impeccably dressed Abraham Lincoln with a nearly nude enslaved Black man at his feet. Lincoln holds the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand, symbolizing the former president’s authority to issue freedom. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s left hand hovers over the Black man in a manner that suggests he is bestowing freedom upon the enslaved individual. Although Ball created the piece to commemorate Lincoln’s role in ending slavery in 1863, the sculpture leaves the Black man in a subservient position. The work has been on view in the Chazen’s galleries for approximately four decades without full acknowledgment of its complex context.

re:mancipation and other works from the Chazen’s permanent collection present an opportunity for the Chazen Museum of Art to recontextualize the nearly 150-year-old sculpture. In 2020, when many monuments that glorify racial histories were torn down or moved to storage amid protests, Biggers proposed a response to the Chazen’s Emancipation Group with help from MASK Consortium, of which Biggers is a co-founder. MASK Consortium is a coalition of artists and cultural institutions that aim to present a more complete understanding of human history through the digital preservation of art and artifacts. This original scope of the project has grown and expanded and now involves artists not only from the visual arts but also from theater, music and dance. Support from the Mellon Foundation will allow this effort to reach far beyond the galleries.

A portion of the grant will fund a collaboration between Chazen staff, MASK Consortium, a web developer and a digital production firm to create an interactive website that will invite visitors to learn more about the project’s progress, chronicle the production of the 1873 sculpture and other versions around the country, engage with three-dimensional scans of the Chazen’s Emancipation Group and consider discussions about the artwork with critical thinking prompts. Other plans include immersive content experiences with an interactive gallery, augmented reality capabilities, a study of the iconography embedded in the statue and a symposium inspired by the project. The site will be available in perpetuity through the exhibition’s archive and the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) digital archive and preservation project, funded by a previous grant from the Mellon Foundation.

The award from the Mellon Foundation will also allow the team to create a documentary from existing and forthcoming footage. The film will debut alongside re:mancipation and highlight planning and content development for the exhibition, include footage from Biggers’ first visit to the Chazen Museum of Art with the MASK Consortium in summer 2021, showcase artistic response to the work in various media and feature symposia and performance art.

Thanks to support from the Mellon Foundation, the re:mancipation project team, with guidance from faculty at the School of Education at UW-Madison, will develop curriculum materials and resources intended to help museum- and community-based educators build capacity to understand and confront, through conversation, the challenges posed by monuments, historical markers and public art that evoke our country’s legacies of racism and racial discrimination.

“At the Chazen, we ask ourselves ‘What does it mean to be a university art museum in the 21st century,’” added Gilman. “That means thinking differently about the objects and asking other people to help us think about museum work differently. This grant from the Mellon Foundation helps the Chazen do just that.”

As the Chazen Museum of Art endeavored to advance its diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion goals with improvements such as eliminating unpaid internships and barriers to employment, the necessity to expand efforts in the galleries became obvious. re:mancipation is the first project in a larger effort to reinstall the permanent collection.

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