The Block marks 40th anniversary by asking ‘Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts’?

More than 80 new acquisitions on view invite audiences to consider how artists and collections challenge our view of the past

How do artists, artworks, and museums shape and challenge our understanding of the past? The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University celebrates its 40th anniversary and the full reopening of its galleries with the Fall 2021 exhibition Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection (September 22 – December 5, 2021).  

Highlighting more than 80 modern and contemporary artworks recently acquired by The Block Museum of Art, the exhibition considers our constantly changing understanding of the past through the lens of artistic practice. The museum-wide exhibition and accompanying publication with Northwestern University Press marks the culmination of a major multi-year initiative to acquire works of art that encourage critical thinking about the representation of history. 

“We are thrilled to welcome our audiences back to The Block to join the conversation around these extraordinary artworks that are now part of the museum’s collection,” said Lisa Corrin, Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director. “In the past year so many of us have been thinking deeply about questions of history, asking how we arrived at this moment, and how we might envision new futures.”

In the past year so many of us have been thinking deeply about questions of history, asking how we arrived at this moment, and how we might envision new futures.

Lisa Corrin, Block Museum Director

“These new acquisitions are representative of the way that our curatorial team, under the leadership of  Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial affairs, have allowed such meaningful questions to inform and hone their collecting strategy. Our focus has evolved to ensure that our artworks represent many narratives, are deeply relevant to the lives our communities, and catalyze dialogue about our complex world.”

Covering the entirety of The Block’s upstairs and downstairs galleries, the exhibition features work by a wide-ranging selection of artists exploring the idea of history, such as Dawoud Bey, Shan Goshorn, the Guerrilla Girls, Louise Lawler, Kerry James Marshall, Catherine Opie, Walid Raad, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, and Kara Walker. The exhibition borrows its title and an entry point from a work in The Block’s collection by conceptual artist Louise Lawler, Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts (1990), which draws attention to barriers that exist within the art world.  The artworks on view each raise similarly provocative questions about how art might help us reflect on, rewrite, or reimagine history.

Explore the Exhibition

In addition to their display with the exhibition, all exhibition works can be explored within the museum’s collection database – a campus-wide tool for teaching and learning with art.  The exhibition, publication, and digital collection consider the works within four key themes Institutions CritiquedCritical PortraitsReframing the PastPlace and Memory.

Who gets in? Who decides? In recent years, questions about accessibility, representation, and inclusion have become central to an ongoing reexamination of the collecting practices and power structures of museums and the art world. Artists, curators, writers, and activists have emphasized the narrow framework of Western art history—a discipline dominated by white Euro-American institutions and specialists—while attempting to uncover previously marginalized artists. The artists in this section critique art historical traditions and museum collections. They also challenge us to think beyond what is exhibited in museums to consider who is welcome in such spaces and who is being left out.

Portraits do more than record a person’s appearance. Through portraiture, artists can make powerful and nuanced statements about a subject’s status, importance, character, or beauty. They can also use the conventions of the form to comment on themselves, on art, and on society.

Ranging from intimate snapshots to elaborately staged homages, each portrait in this section is a critical intervention into stories told through art history. These works prompt us to contemplate a variety of questions: Whose image is shown? Whose gaze is invoked? How do we read portraits to think about the past?

Histories related to a place are sometimes invisible and often overlooked. The Block Museum of Art, for example, sits on the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa, as well as the Menominee, Miami, and Ho-Chunk nations. How do people assign meaning to place? How is history etched onto a landscape or erased from it?

Representations of landscapes almost always ask the viewer to adopt a position that is relative to the view the artist presents. The works of art in this section call on us to look beyond the surface to reveal complicated layers of personal, generational, and societal histories rooted in place.

Time spent contemplating an artwork and the challenge of interpretation make room for ambiguity and lingering questions. Artists in this section use a variety of strategies to frame historical moments, from recycling visual tropes to creating alternative narratives. They encourage us to consider new perspectives on the past and offer opportunities to better understand a complex and uncertain world. How have artists used the past as source material for understanding the present? What role does imagination play in that process?

“One thing I hope the exhibition communicates is the ways in which The Block is seeking to expand our thinking about not only what we collect, but also how we collect, and why, said exhibition co-curator Kate Hadley Toftness, senior advancement manager, Grants and Collection Council. “Taking stock of this fact is exciting and rewarding, but also a challenge.”

Northwestern Voices

Leonard Suryajaya, Quarantine Blues,from the seriesQuarantine Blues, 2020.Inkjet print. 40 x 50 inches. Purchase funds provided by Craig Ponzio and Julie and Lawrence Bernstein Family Art Acquisition Fund

The exhibition also includes a number of works that came into the collection through student guidance and input.  These contributions include Undertone #17, #23, #51 2017-18 by artist Myra Greene and Quarantine Blues (2021) by Leonard Suryajaya. Both student-led acquisitions for The Block’s collection, the works were the focus of undergraduate seminars critically investigating museum collecting practices. 

This unique collaborative process extended throughout the creation of the exhibition, which includes voices from Northwestern students, faculty, staff and alumni in essays, research, and wall labels.  Within the publication more than 50 short essays reflect the multidisciplinary perspectives of more than 20 different academic units including Anthropology, African American Studies, Art History, Art Theory and Practice, Classics, Communication Studies, Comparative Literature, Economics, Education & Social Policy, Engineering, English, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Journalism, History, Materials Science, Performance Studies, Psychology, Radio/Television/Film, Spanish and Portuguese, and Sociology. 

For our anniversary we really wanted to represent our identity as a shared University resource and source of inspiration for teaching, learning and research,” said Essi Rönkkö, exhibition co-curator and associate curator of collections. “The project exemplifies the ways in which works of art can encourage critical thinking across fields of inquiry.” 

Exhibition Events

Exhibition Keynote Conversation: Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts
Wednesday, September 29, 2021, 6PM
Hybrid Event: Zoom Conversation with Live Watch Party at The Block

Join online or in-person as exhibition artists Andrea Carlson, Tonika Lewis Johnson, and Chris Pappan discuss how artists, artworks, and museums shape and challenge what we learn as history, and help us to envision new futures. Discussion moderated by Rikki Byrd, Block Museum 2020-2021 Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow. Introductory remarks by Sarah Maza, Jane Long Professor in the Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at Northwestern University, and exhibition curators Essi Rönkkö and Kate Hadley Toftness.  

Attendees joining the in-person watch party will receive a tote bag and exhibition publication.

Students Shape the Collection: Artist Talk with Leonard Suryajaya
In person: Wednesday, October 20, 6PM

As part of the Block Museum’s Student Acquisition initiative, Northwestern students in the 2020-2021 Block Museum Student Associates program selected artist Leonard Suryajaya’s Quarantine Blues (2020) for the museum’s collection. Suryajaya’s work explores complex intersections of intimacy, community and family, and how the “everyday is layered with histories, meanings, and potential.”  He will be joined in dialogue by Student Associates to discuss his practice, how this work explores the personal and collective impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the artist’s role in shaping narratives of history.

Sky Hopinka: Channeling Indigenous Histories
In person: Wednesday, November 10, 6PM

The multidimensional work of artist Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) employs video, photography, music, and poetry as different pathways approaching Indigenous experience. In his two-channel video installation, Cloudless Blue Egress of Summer (2019)  – image, sound, and text together tease out legacies of colonial oppression and Native resistance. In this program, Hopinka will discuss the many facets of his practice, joined in conversation by Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts Michael Metzger.

Curator Tours: Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts
Online: Thursday September 30, Thursday December 2, 12:30 PM
In Person: Thursday October 21, Thursday, November 11, 12:30 PM

Art Talks! with Block Student Associates
In Person: Fridays Oct 15, October 29, Nov 12, Dec 3 12:30PM

Who gets to tell our history? What stories and voices are lifted up, or left out? How do artists and museums help us envision new futures, reveal dimensions of our present moment, and challenge the past? In this lunchtime, discussion-based series of gallery talks, Block Museum Student Associates will explore these questions posed by our Fall 2021 exhibition, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection.

Should public health or Northwestern campus guidelines evolve, The Block will contact guests registered for in person programs about online presentation.

Credits and Visitation

Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection is supported by the David C. & Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation, Ellen and Howard Katz, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, and the Mary and Leigh Block Endowment. 

Free and open to all, the Block Museum is open are Wednesdays 12PM- 8PM and Thursday to Sunday 12PM to 5PM. The Museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Northwestern is closely monitoring developments related to the coronavirus pandemic and will follow local, state, and University guidelines for in-person events and museum visitation. All visitors must follow the Northwestern University COVID-19 Guidelines, which are in place at the time of visitation, including masking within the galleries.

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