At Spencer Museum of Art, poetry invites the public into redesigned, more diverse galleries
When the Spencer Museum of Art, at the University of Kansas, spent $4 million to redesign its fourth floor, curators were deliberate in their selection of more diverse artwork. Then, they asked a poet to chime in.
Last year, curators at the Spencer Museum of Art, in Lawrence, set about selecting a more diverse collection of artwork to display in their newly-renovated galleries. After reimagining their 48,000-object collection, they reached out author Anthony Boynton II.
"I got a chance to come in early and see the pieces, which really felt like VIP status," Boynton remembers. "It felt really nice to be a part of the process — to, like, see the inner working — because I've always been interested in museums."
The museum commissioned Boynton to write poems inspired by six works now on view in their new galleries.
“I said: 'I want to really pay attention to the art pieces that center Black folks,'" Boynton remembers.
"Quite a few of the artists I'm responding to are from the Caribbean, from the American South, from Africa, or have a Black subject,” the Columbus, Georgia, native says.
The poetic practice of responding to art with written word goes back centuries. Boyton says it comes naturally.
“I really do see the world in language, so there's already a way in which I relate to art and to music that would have me drawn to respond,” Boynton says.
The museum plans to eventually present the poems as audio recordings accessible via QR codes. For now, they are typed out on paper.
One piece of art that caught Boynton’s eye is a painting of a woman with a soulful expression wearing a brown suit. It’s called “Portrait of Charlotte Sullivan,” and it prompted a haiku from Boynton.
"Hide No More"
I will teach you, m’dear,
How to hold your head holy
and look forward.
Boynton says people bring their own history with them when they navigate a museum.
One encounter with "but...I dreamt" brought back Boynton's memories of a Toni Morrison novel.
"When I first saw this piece, my first thought was of that ending scene in 'Song of Solomon,'" he explains. "The last line is: 'If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.'"
The painting in the Spencer's Kress Gallery, by Haitian artist Ernst Prophète, shows two angels carrying a man over a river.
"There's a kind of Afrofuturist thing that's happening where flight is metaphor, but also something else," Boynton says.
Making a more diverse museum
The museum's multiyear renovation started in 2013. The fourth floor's redesign, unveiled in January, completes the second phase of design work led by New York architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. The design expands gathering and study spaces, and increases the flow of light in the building.
Saralyn Reece Hardy, the museum's Marilyn Stokstad Director, says they've revamped the entire building.
"We want to share our collections in new ways, so it should be apparent when one walks in that the whole ethos of the museum has transformed," Reece Hardy says.
She hopes the new space is will provide a portal into people's experience, and a platform for contemporary dialog about contemporary issues.
"What if we saw art museums more like dynamic forces in society that do not ever forget that there is a rich history, and there is truth and beauty and diversity," she wonders.
Reece Hardy says inviting writers and artists like Boynton to respond to artwork in the collection is a part of that process.
For Susan Earle, curator of European and American art, the years-long renovation and reinstallation was a chance to reorganize the exhibits with a wider community in mind.
“Part of the reason that we have loved collaborating with Anthony Boynton and B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence is many of them are so talented at thinking about stories, creating stories, and new narratives,” Earle says.
The redesign also reflects an important aspect of the museum's mission: to offer audiences more transparency and a better understanding of narratives and experiences from around the world.
“I think the openness, in some ways we hope, is a metaphor for being more open to other voices coming in," Earle says.
She says she wants the galleries to become a participatory place where visitors can find space that feels welcoming.
For Boynton, working on the poetry project has raised new questions about museums and belonging.
“What does it mean to, like, reimagine not just who gets to be seen in museum spaces but who comes into museum spaces?" Boynton asks. "Who interacts with and has a voice within?”
Voices like Boynton’s bring greater meaning to the artwork Earle sees every day.
“For me, Anthony's poems loom really large in my appreciation for what we've done here, and it's partly (that) I love poetry," Earle says. "His writing is so beautiful, so it just brings ... a depth to the experience. And I think it's all been worth it because he wrote these poems.”
Level Up! An Art Party for All!, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, March 4 at the Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence, Kansas 66045.