In Spelman’s Multiple Choice exhibition, the community conducts as curator

Artworks are paired with responses from the community

Early last November, the Spelman Museum of Fine Art invited students, faculty, and friends to select works from its 350-object permanent collection to be shown in an upcoming exhibit, with their personal responses displayed alongside each piece. “We’re seeing people’s-choice exhibitions and community-curated exhibitions that are popping up,” says Anne Collins Smith, the museum’s curator of collections. “What happens when you give something to the community?”

In Spelman’s case, the result is Multiple Choice: Perspectives on the Spelman College Collection, a show that includes objects as varied as the ironing boards of María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ “Spoken Softly with Mama II” to a South African beer pot and a recently acquired sketch of Angela Davis. Cards and television screens display participants’ often-intimate responses.

Ayana Cofer, a class of 2003 graduate assistant with the museum, composed a raw plea in response to Valerie Maynard’s 1995 print “Get Me Another Heart This One’s Been Broken Many Times.” Her essay appears next to the work. “I want lemon scented new to wash over my heart and make it hard again,” it reads. “These tired feet and battered peace are no longer trusting.”

Tamara Y. Solomon, a degree works assistant in the Office of the Registrar, chose a Sierra Leonean mask. In her response, Solomon writes, “I have never experienced a feeling like the one I did when I first saw the Sowei Masks.”

“An inclusive space is being able to see work that resonates with you, that may mirror who you are, that may challenge who you are, and that also produces a sense of belonging,” Smith says. “Many of the participants we wouldn’t typically see in the museum context.”

The project resurrected “Praying Ministers,” a rare look at the Civil Rights Movement from Jacob Lawrence that was assumed lost in a fire until retired art dealer and critic Clarence White recognized the painting in the collection.

And then there’s “Mating Call,” a 1980 linocut by Claudia Widdis. “Quite honestly, I didn’t know this work was in the collection,” Smith says. “Rianne Lippe is a graduating senior; she chose this work from 1980, and while she was choosing it and becoming inspired, she was listening to Jay-Z.” Smith says this generational “confluence” infuses the exhibition as a whole. “The students didn’t respond to contemporary artwork,” she says. “I think they were looking for inspiration.”

Take the Jacob Lawrence painting assumed lost. White chose the piece, but so did Taylor Ariel Pettway, a class of 2013 psychology major and social justice fellow. “I was showing this student the more contemporary work, but something about the Jacob Lawrence ’60s painting gave her pause,” Smith says. Pettway’s poem-response “All-Call to the Altar” now appears alongside “Praying Ministers.”

Responses like Pettway’s “strengthen the history of the collection” and present “innovative ways of documenting the collections besides using the traditional ways,” Smith says. “What has really come out is the beautiful symphony of responses, be it verbal, through video, or written.”

And the works themselves? “My colleague uses the word ‘mashup,’” Smith says. “A mashup of the traditional and the contemporary and the innovative, and honoring all of them and enriching the museum process.”