The Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester in New York is an encyclopedic museum, with everything from 5,000-year-old Egyptian ceramics to a 20th-century George Condo painting in its collection. Three years ago, though, its director, Jonathan P. Binstock, realized the museum had no moving-image holdings. “If we’re going to be a museum dedicated to 5,000 years of art, you’ve got to have the moving image, right?” Binstock said in a recent phone interview. “As an encyclopedic museum, we really need to be able to acquire, care for, and show these sorts of works of art.”
One way Binstock plans to remedy this is with a new initiative called “Reflections on Place,” for which he is working with consulting senior curator John G. Hanhardt to commission three video artists to make new works about Rochester and its history for the museum. Those artists are Dara Birnbaum, Isaac Julien, and Javier Téllez, whose work will join a collection that now has pieces by Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, Sondra Perry, Juan Downey, and Bruce Nauman, acquired through a project called Media Arts Watch.
Much of this has been possible because of Hanhardt, who is often considered a pioneer in his field for his exhibitions about film and video at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The “Reflections on Place” initiative first grew out of conversations Binstock had with Hanhardt, who had “the specific idea about having artists to create work as a reflection, to be inspired by—not to make work about, but to be inspired by—a place,” Hanhardt said. The initiative involves Birnbaum, Julien, and Téllez using archives at the University of Rochester and the George Eastman Museum (Hanhardt’s proposal) to meditate on various histories present in the city.
“This is a heavy tech town,” Binstock said of Rochester, “and I thought that something a little bit tech-y might help Memorial Art Gallery connect in new ways with the broader community here, which is the child of Xerox, Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Western Union, and American Express. It’s not a blue-collar, rust-belt city. This is a white-collar precision-manufacturing city.”
First up will be Téllez, who will debut an installation that muses on the difference between still and moving images. Made with technology at the Eastman Kodak factory, the installation will put Kodak advertisements in dialogue with racial and political conflicts from the 1960s, and will involve collaborations with mental-health patients. Téllez’s film will be followed in 2019 by Julien’s installation, Rochester Pictures, which will weave together historical narratives about Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, both of whom lived in Rochester for periods of their lives. The last work in the initiative will be Birnbaum’s, a video and sound installation that focuses on the aftermath of the 1964 Rochester race riots and includes images of black Americans from mainstream television.
At the end of the three-year project, the museum will release a book about these pieces and other video works it has acquired over the past few years. While the new commissions very specifically relate to Rochester’s history, Hanhardt and Binstock agreed that the work will hopefully travel. The installations “speak to the place” where they’re shown, Hanhardt said, “but the work will also speak globally.”