Hood Quarterly, spring 2003
Derrick R. Cartwright, Director
Derrick Cartwright recalls the complexities of acquiring the Hood's most recent work of art. Juan Muñoz's Figure Hanging from One Foot is currently on display in the main stairway of the Hood Museum of Art; plans to install the work in the museum's Bedford Courtyard are also underway.
While in Washington, D.C., I visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to study the current exhibition of Juan Muñoz's work. Muñoz had died suddenly just three months before, and what had been planned by the Smithsonian's curators as a mid-career retrospective of this internationally celebrated artist had assumed the proportions of a memorial survey. The traveling show was magnificent, large enough to suggest the creative breadth of Muñoz's too-short career, yet small enough to leave most visitors—myself included—wishing for more.
The Hirshhorn installation was especially fine and hailed as such by critics and popular accounts. Its literal centerpiece was Figure Hanging from One Foot, a sculpture that Muñoz had created a few months before the show's opening with the vast central courtyard of the Hirshhorn in mind. A deliberately ambiguous and suggestive work, it features a slightly smaller than life-sized male figure suspended precariously (and permanently) in mid-air wearing an expression that could be understood as fear or, just as easily, glee. This bronze was suspended from a high-tension cable about thirty feet above the ground, visible at eye level through the glass windows that line the museum's second-floor corridor.
A quick glance at the show's catalogue revealed that the sculpture belonged to the artist. The fact that Figure Hanging from One Foot was not lent to the Hirshhorn by a private or public collection—as were most of the objects in that show—was the first indication that it might be available for purchase.
After conducting further research on the artist, Katherine Hart, who shares curatorial responsibilities with the director for the Hood's contemporary art collections, contacted the gallery in New York City that represented Muñoz during his lifetime and, subsequently, had taken responsibility for his estate.
When we met with the gallery's director to inquire about Muñoz, we were informed that there was a great deal of interest in Figure Hanging from One Foot and that another public institution had already reserved it for purchase consideration. We were disappointed but asked to be notified if, by some chance, the work eventually became available.
Sometime after the Hirshhorn exhibition closed, we learned that the other museum had changed its mind. We then asked if the gallery would reserve it for the Hood for a period of time. The gallery director agreed, and we began to show photographs of this particular sculpture to students and faculty colleagues at Dartmouth. They were as excited as we were about the potential place of this work in the collection, and we were encouraged to bring Figure Hanging from One Foot to Hanover.
The staff of the Hood meets regularly to discuss priorities and current activities. The installation of a 240-pound bronze sculpture that hangs in mid-air represents a major undertaking in any institution, even without taking into account all of the other projects that were keeping us busy last spring. The museum was at the time completely preoccupied with planning for one of the largest exhibitions that Dartmouth College has ever produced—José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927–1934—and that project was first on the list of tasks. Still, the opportunity to present another Spanish-speaking artist alongside Orozco held strong appeal.
We also needed to find the most dramatic siting for the work, so that it could be seen to its best advantage. Ever since arriving as director just over two years ago, I had been interested in identifying another sculpture to join the work that Joel Shapiro created for the museum in the Hood's Bedford Courtyard back in 1990.
We spoke to architect Jack Wilson in Dartmouth College's Facilities Planning Office and he helped us identify a structural engineer who could advise us about installing Figure Hanging from One Foot in that large open space. The engineer told us that while this was technically possible, it would be very expensive. At this point, since we were not yet committed to acquiring the work, we explored a second possibility: suspending the work above the main stairway within Charles Moore's museum building. This, we were told, could be done much more easily and at a fraction of the cost. We then decided to have Muñoz's sculpture shipped to the museum.
The scheme to install Figure Hanging from One Foot above the stairway was conceptually strong but challenging. Before installing the work, an elaborate cabling and pulley system had to be fastened to a main supporting beam in the roof of Lathrop Gallery. This rigging required the closure of the principal stairway to the second floor so that scaffolding could be erected—a project that would take at least three days to complete.
The museum is closed on Mondays, enabling the staff to perform heavy work without disruptions to the public, but this complicated project would necessarily extend beyond that twenty-four-hour time frame. To complicate matters, a lengthy review praising the Orozco exhibition had just appeared in the New York Times, and visitors were streaming into the galleries in unprecedented numbers. We postponed installation of the Muñoz for a short while out of deference to this heavy traffic.
When the sculpture finally went up, it took five staff members to move it into position. Several spectators gathered and watched Figure Hanging from One Foot as it was cranked up into its mid-air space. The mechanism that had been designed by the structural engineer enabled the sculpture to be lowered and raised with ease until it satisfied us. We then lit the work, mounted a label on the concrete pier beside it, and began listening to what people had to say.
A friend of mine who is a successful public artist is fond of remarking that great works of art should earn their permanence. For close to three months, I asked almost every person who looked at Muñoz's Figure Hanging from One Foot what they thought about it. Some of them laughed, some were concerned about the meaning of a free-falling figure in a post-September 11 atmosphere (although Muñoz completed the work well before those tragic events took place), and others confessed that they didn't know what to make of it at all. Someone thought he was a bungee jumper, and another wondered if the installation wasn't a model for future treatment of the director.
For my part, as time passed, I grew more and more impressed with the subtleties of the work—the graceful arc of the green-grey figure and the unforeseen shadows that it projects onto the gallery wall—as well as the way it functions within the given space. The stairway is one of the strongest features of Charles Moore's architecture. Visitors who miss the sculpture hanging above them on their ascent to the second floor are sometimes startled when they confront the work head-on as they make their way back down the long flight of stairs.
During this time, I read texts by and about Muñoz and his highly philosophical approach to making art. By fall, I was fully convinced that the sculpture not only meant something within the career of the artist but also worked well within the specific context of the Hood.
The Acquisitions Committee met on October 8 to decide the fate of this work at the Hood. After some introductory remarks, we went as a group into the galleries and discussed the sculpture at length while standing before it. We then went back to the Hood's conference room and debated its merits further. We talked about other comparable works by the artist and whether this was the best example conceivably available to the museum.
By pure coincidence, Muñoz had just been celebrated in an article published in Art in America, and Figure Hanging from One Foot received a full-page color illustration. We passed copies of the magazine around the table and talked about what it might mean for a college-based museum to acquire a sculpture that had been featured in such highly visible ways. Finally, a committee member made a motion to vote on the work, and the decision to acquire was unanimous. We had the administrative go ahead; now we needed to identify the funds.
After more than a year of scholarly research, technical inquiries, and procedural approvals, the job of finding sufficient resources to acquire Muñoz's final sculpture was all that remained to be accomplished. The Hood has long enjoyed a strong reputation for its modern sculpture, due in large part to the generosity of longtime friends of the institution, who have helped us make singular acquisitions of the kind that Figure Hanging from One Foot represents.
In order to bring this promising acquisition process to a successful conclusion, I asked several prominent donors if they would be interested in supporting this particular purchase. Kit and Peter Bedford were essential members of a group of patrons that commissioned Joel Shapiro to create his signature work for the Hood back in 1992; that work stands today in the courtyard space that bears their family name. The Bedfords responded with immediate enthusiasm to my notion of placing Muñoz's work in relationship to that other powerful sculpture. Similarly, Winkie and Pete Kelsey have been ardent advocates of Dartmouth College and the Hood's contemporary art programs in particular for many years. They, too, quickly grasped the significance of acquiring Figure Hanging from One Foot. The credit line that accompanies the display and reproduction of the sculpture bears these individuals' names as a lasting tribute to their philanthropy and generosity.
On behalf of all of my colleagues at the museum, Dartmouth College, and the Upper Valley community more generally, I seize this opportunity to communicate my deep appreciation, and admiration, for the Bedfords' and Kelseys' critical role in making this major acquisition possible—a great conclusion to an exciting process.