Story Be Told

Need an explanation of every painting? 'Story Lines' draws you a picture.

Museums always have more art in the basement than they can hang on their walls. In fact, museums are judged not just by how good their art collection is, but also by how big it is. Of course, one of the other important measures of an art museum's rank is how much wall space and floor space it has to display all of that artwork.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art's collection includes just under 5,000 works in pretty much every medium, except photography. This summer the UAMA changed its orientation in displaying artworks from its collection, according to Peter Briggs, the museum's chief curator. Instead of periodically changing out only individual works that are hanging in its upstairs galleries, the museum has started organizing and hanging exhibitions of 15 to 20 pieces in its smaller upstairs galleries. These exhibitions from the collections are organized around different themes, including social, formal and art-historical issues, according to Briggs.

Because of this new program, UAMA mounted 20 exhibitions last year. Briggs is hoping that such a changing program will bring more people into the museum to enjoy the art. It also has been a great opportunity for graduate and undergraduate students, since they have been able to curate some of the exhibitions with Briggs and assistant curator Betsy O. Hughes.

One of the museum's current exhibitions from its collection is Story Lines: News, Views and Anecdotes from the Last Century. In curating the exhibition of 16 narrative artworks, Briggs chose works by both early and late 20th-century artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds. As he says, the story line is clear in some of the images, and others ask the viewer to construct a narrative.

Howard Pyle's 1907 oil-on-canvas painting "The Mad Girl" is an illustration of "A Sense of Scarlet" by Mrs. Henry Dudeney. Pyle captures the pain of the girl who lost her love in the war, not just through the haunting image of the girl in the turquoise dress hugging herself, but in the strange vision of ducks honking at her feet.

Judith F. Baca's 1981 "Fighting 442nd Infantry," a long pastel, Prismacolor and watercolor work on paper, is a study for a portion of the Great Wall of the Los Angeles Mural. In the piece, seven Japanese-American soldiers fly through the air. Their legs trail behind them, stretching into the blue stripes of an American flag. Below them, their families walk by tossing their possessions into a pile as they head for the Japanese internment camps. The image is an emotional indictment of American policies during World War II.

Story Lines includes other artworks that, on the surface, seem an odd mix. Who would guess that Käthe Kollwitz's 1930s print of death swooping down to steal children hung with Roger Yutaka Shimomura's 1980s print inspired by American comic books and Kabuki theater could work together in a single exhibition, but they do. That's the fun of going to thematic exhibitions. Maybe the UAMA's new strategy will work and bring more viewers to the museum.

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