By Molly Boarati, Academic Program Coordinator
Filled with rich, colorful images and a variety of subjects spanning four decades, the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist at the Nasher Museum gave a fantastic opportunity to various Duke classes to see original paintings by one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. More than 150 Duke students who had never heard of Motley now consider him a famous artist.
The Archibald Motley exhibition, guest-curated by art history Professor Richard Powell, caught the attention of a variety of Duke departments and classes. We were thrilled that professor Powell used the exhibition in teaching his own art history course on the Black Atlantic, discussing Motley’s importance in the broader context of the modern African diaspora. But it was also exciting to bring in many other instructors from non-art related fields who explored the exhibition from diverse points of view. For example, Duke Magazine Editor Robert Bliwise brought his public policy course on magazine journalism to practice looking at visual imagery and to consider Motley’s paintings as cultural documents that share specific information about a particular time and place─in this case, 1930s Chicago. Several sections of elementary and intermediate French focused on Motley’s paintings of Paris, made while he lived there on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1929-30. Led by graduate assistant Laura Moure Cecchini, a Ph.D. candidate in art history, the French students discussed diversity and modernism during the City of Light’s Golden Age. Professor Adriane Lentz-Smith brought her class on U.S. History from the Jazz Age through the Great Depression and considered the paintings through historical and social lenses, while Deborah Pope’s English class on poetry writing practiced descriptive language and investigated the narrative potential of art as preparation for writing a poem on a Motley painting. An advanced Italian class visited to discuss how an exhibition is organized and installed in the context of a unit comparing Italian and American art museums.
With such varied interest, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is a perfect example of how art (even the work of only one artist!) can speak to many different audiences, especially at a university art museum. Duke class visits, organized by our office of Academic Programs, happen both in the museum’s storage areas and exhibitions. Last academic year we hosted 123 Duke class visits and more than 2,000 total visitors. The Academic Program staff helps professors to make connections between current courses and works of art available at the Nasher. The goal is to provide students and faculty with different ways to approach academic material across disciplines, encouraging close observation and critical thinking through the visual arts.
We reach out directly to professors months in advance, but also we are part of a campus-wide desire to explore issues in innovative, interdisciplinary ways to connect Duke, the museum and an increasing number of students and faculty each year. The immediate goal is inventive education, with the long-term hope that once students become alumni, they will use creative and expressive skills they learned at the Nasher Museum, no matter what career they choose.