I had a dream last night that I was part of a select group of Dartmouth students chosen to curate an art show. Only when we began discussing what to include in the show did I realize that I was way out of my league: several of the other students were opinionated art history majors. Two boys began a heated debate about the merits of including art that was “important” versus art that generated an emotional response. One girl wanted us to create a show that summarized the entire history of art, and started showing slides of Native American textiles. Too exhausted to remain a part of the debate, I woke up.

Curation is an art and a science, one that I profess to know almost nothing about besides what one of my best friends–an opinionated Dartmouth art history major–has told me. There are obvious ways to group paintings–by country, by time period, by artist. This all makes sense: a well-curated show should create some conversation between the works, some tension or resolution.

I was very impressed with the show that my art historian friend, M, curated as her senior project. The show was just five paintings, but they were linked by the theme of the femme fatale, and placed a seventeenth century Italian depiction of Salome at John the Baptist’s beheading next to a twentieth century Caribbean painting of Eve with the serpent. Hearing M talk about the prevalent themes that united such disparate works made me consider these paintings much more fully than if I’d been walking by them in a gallery.

Sean Scully in front of two of his stripe paintings

Just a few months earlier, I had gone to one of M’s gallery tours when the Hood, Dartmouth’s art museum, had an exhibition of painter Sean Scully’s stripes. Whenever the Hood had a new exhibition there was always an opening gala with music, appetizers, and tours. Thrilled with the prospect of free wine and cheese and jazz piano in the gallery (what is it with me and music in art galleries?) I was more than happy to go look at stripes. And, on M’s tour, I found that the stripe paintings were actually¬†interesting. While literally every single painting was some combination of stripes, each was different; some provoked joy, others nostalgia, and others I found myself really liking.

The exhibition that came after “The Art of the Stripe” was titled “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body.” As senior intern, M was in charge of much of the publicity for the exhibition and especially the opening night gala. She and another friend held several focus groups to figure out the best way to attract attention while staying true to the goal of the show, which was to problematize the way black women have been portrayed over time and juxtapose many art forms by and about African and African American women. Similarly, they hired a DJ to play hip-hop music at the event, alternating between mainstream misogynist and feminist hip-hop. The opening gala was called “Hip-hop in the Hood.”

The slam poetry group at Dartmouth, Soul Scribes, performed at the event and I remember some latent tension bubbling over. But I also remember M’s highly thoughtful tour, asking viewers how we felt when confronted with difficult images, what we thought of certain symbolism. Attendance for the event was at least 3 times larger than it had been for the stripe gala.

The controversy on campus was immediate and almost unanimous. People who had not attended the event were outraged by the title, organizations that had participated in the focus groups and thus contributed their ideas condemned the gala, the many Dartmouth newspapers published a steady stream of editorials for two weeks. My friend was more than crushed. She was labeled a racist, a misogynist, culturally insensitive. And yet over the course of the three months that the Black Womanhood exhibit was up at the Hood, more students attended than for any other exhibit in the course of the museum’s history. It was this fact that M clung to–she had helped get people into the art museum who wouldn’t otherwise have gone, people who were primarily interested in knowing what all the fuss was about but then were riveted by the artwork (interestingly, no one was upset about the exhibit itself; if you paid an iota of attention to the art you would realize that it was trying to make the same point as all those self-righteous editorials). After all, what is art worth if it doesn’t provoke an emotional response?

Time to go back to sleep and resolve that debate.

Carrie Mae Weems's piece "From here I saw what happened and I cried"