Leveling the art acquisition playing field is at the heart of Clare Twomey’s first U.S. solo exhibition, Forever, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (October 8, 2010 – January 2, 2011). Modeled after an 18th-century salt-glazed stoneware cup in the Museum’s esteemed Burnap Collection of English Pottery, Forever is a site-specific installation of 1,345 ceramic vessels signifying the number of objects donated by Harriet and Frank Burnap in 1941. The phrase “in trust forever” is sprinkled throughout the original Burnap Deed of Gift, which decreed the collection could never be sold, must be accessible to everyone and never displayed with any objects that are not part of the collection.
The amount of resources expended amassing an art collection is mind-boggling, but the thought of simply passing it along to strangers is practically unbelievable. Mirroring the spirit of the Burnap’s gift, the cups are being given away via a random selection system to anyone willing to sign a Deed of Trust for its care forever.
For someone like me who could never hope to afford such a thing, this was an opportunity I could not ignore. Museum members got first shot at the selection during the October 8, 2010 preview day [best member benefit ever!]. By 10:00 a.m., I was ready to select my intended Cup. I spent quite a while inspecting them, noticing the slight differences in the individually-applied handles and surface variations. I chose #1130, symbolic of the anniversary of my first date with The Roommate, November 30. The gallery buzzed as everyone related the story behind their chosen cup and how they planned to display it if selected. It was a welcome jolt to my art-infused soul.
When The Roommate graciously joined me for lunch that afternoon, he threw his hat into the Forever ring as well, selecting #0115, which corresponds with our wedding date, January 15 [I know—it’s all sickeningly romantic]. I said a silent prayer to the fates, honestly grateful for the experience, but no false modesty here—I really, really wanted a cup.
As I drove to work this morning, I was motivated and energized. Forever had sparked something inside of me and I did not want that feeling to go away.
Luckily, it didn’t. “I just got an email,” The Roommate said over my cell’s speaker phone as I neared the Museum. “Dear Member, we are delighted to inform you that you were selected as the owner—” Honestly, I didn’t hear the rest because I was screaming like crazy and trying to keep from driving off the road!
Safely at the Museum, I took a moment to compose myself and rushed to the gallery, joining the throng of freshly-minted owners. We oohed and ahhed over the cups like proud parents of newborn babies. One woman told me, “I barely believed it when I got the email. Now I’m a part of art.” Another said, “I just chose the one that looked the best to me.”
It was great talking with Catherine Futter, the Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts, about the origins of the exhibition and her feelings upon finally realizing a project that was years in the making. Catherine also introduced me to Clare Twomey, whom she had already informed of my cool-headed reaction to being selected. Clare was warm and charming, stating that the best part of the work was hearing why the cups were chosen. When she asked me to show her my cup and tell her the story behind it, she seemed genuinely touched and it was amazing to share that moment with her.
Art is often perceived as an elitist activity. Forever shatters that convention, bringing art to the masses in the most egalitarian way possible. It encourages community, conversation, connection and engagement, and is ultimately responsible for one of the best days I’ve ever had!
Have you ever felt transformed by an art exhibition? What does forever mean to you?