Claire Perry: Art as an American wonder

Oct. 24, 2011, 3:00 a.m.

It’s easy to dismiss museum exhibits as dry, academic montages to traverse on a rainy day, or during a class field trip. But in reality, countless hours are devoted to selecting exactly which artifacts come together to display the exhibition’s cohesive narrative.

Claire Perry: Art as an American wonder
"The Artist in His Museum," (1822) an oil painting by Charles Willson Peale, is one of the works curator Claire Perry features in her exhibit, "The Great Hall of American Wonders," currently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Courtesy of The Smithsonian Art Museum)

At Stanford, the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts owes the selection and organization of its artwork to the knowledgeable and diligent group of professionals who plan these exhibits — the curators.

Claire Perry M.A. ’88 Ph.D. ’93, the former coordinator of American art at Cantor for nearly a decade, is one such individual.

This past year, Perry had the opportunity to organize an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is now co-teaching an undergraduate class with art history professor Bryan Wolf that provides students with an in-depth analysis of her exhibition. The exhibit, titled “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” débuted this past summer and examines 19th-century America through the lens of technological innovations that took place during that time of rapid change.

Perry never expected to become a curator when she dropped out of college to travel around Europe during her early twenties, but perhaps this career move was not so surprising when one considers the artistic masterpieces that span the continent. After her extensive traveling, she returned to school and earned her bachelor’s degree in international economics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and later attended Stanford where she received her doctorate in art history.

Perry considers curating to be her true calling, a career that is much more than simply throwing an amalgam of art together in a room.

“It’s a really thoughtful process about considering what audiences might want to look at, what might inspire but also challenge them,” Perry said.

Her inspiration for the “Wonders” exhibit rose out of the Stanford Arts Initiative, a program started in 2006 to increase the presence of the arts on a campus that is now also well known for its programs in science and technology. Perry appealed to Cantor to plan a show that intertwined the two fields but did not receive a slot on the exhibition schedule. Instead, Perry’s proposal was accepted at the Smithsonian, where she became a guest curator at the American Art Museum.

“Props to her,” said Greg Gorraiz ’12, a student in her “American Wonders” class. “She met the institutional roadblocks [at Stanford], took it across the country and probably reached a wider audience.”

Relocating to Washington, D.C., she took the concept for her exhibit and the means with which to fund it to a whole new level. With the powerful Smithsonian name behind her, Perry was able to procure objects she had only dreamed of — using works by Audubon, Thomas Moran, Winslow Homer and other eminent artists. To complement the exhibit, she compiled a companion book in the form of a series of essays linking technological advances of the time to themes visited in contemporary artistic renderings.

The book is also the cornerstone of Wolf and Perry’s “American Wonders” class, cross-listed in the American Studies and Art History Departments.

“The exhibition is a unifying force between all the things we read,” said Sophi Newman ’13, a class member and American studies major with a focus on American art.

But the class itself is interdisciplinary, focused on the art of presentation viewed through different approaches in art and history. By co-teaching the small, seminar-style class, Perry receives immediate feedback from her students about the exhibit rather than waiting for newspaper reviews or visitor comments. The intimate size of the class also allows Perry’s students to more closely interpret these works of art for themselves.

Gorraiz, for instance, already feels its influence after a few weeks.

“[The class] gives me an appreciation of another world, one where people spend so much time and energy trying to portray so many complexities as a singular thing,” he said.

Both Gorraiz and Newman stressed the importance of not taking a painting, or an exhibit for that matter, merely at surface value. And this December, when the class travels to D.C. to visit “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” they can view it from an informed perspective after having learned all about the subtleties of the objects in class.

Perry hopes for the opportunity to work with the Smithsonian again in the future, perhaps after her next burst of inspiration strikes. In the meantime, she’s excited to show the fruits of her labor to her class this winter, at which point they can further explore the exhibit’s cohesive American narrative firsthand as curators of especially informed opinions.

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