Connected \\ August 23, 2020

Voices of America join PEM’s collection

The author and artist Bethany Collins at PEM standing next to a glass case with a Hymnal open inside

The author and artist Bethany Collins at PEM. © 2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

It was fall of 2017 and I was in Chicago at my first contemporary art fair as a newly hired PEM curator. After a spring and summer in New England, it felt like a homecoming to be back in the windy city where I pursued graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was happy to be at EXPO Chicago, surrounded by the art, artists, museums, dear colleagues and friends that continue to shape my curatorial practice.

A contemporary art fair is an extraordinary week of events, conversations, performances and presentations meant to deepen one’s engagement with artists, their work and the pressing issues of our time. It’s where the magic happens. I made a plan to check in with the galleries and folks I already knew first and then see where those conversations led me. This curatorial fieldwork is critical as ‘fair fatigue’ is real. Being strategic and realistic about the week’s agenda is a top priority.

One of my first stops of the day was with PATRON Gallery, Chicago. PATRON’s programming of artists and projects had long connected with my curatorial interests. The gallery represents Chicago-based artists working across media with conceptually rich practices engaged with representation, identity and history. In the center of their booth was an opened book on a pedestal. The book’s deep red binding and ribbon stood in stark contrast to the white of the pages, which upon closer examination, I realized were charred with burn marks. The content of the book’s opened pages was not copy, but a song sheet for My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.

Courtesy image from Lydia Gordon of Bethany Collins, America: A Hymnal, 2017 as seen on display at EXPO Chicago.

I began studying this object: What was I really looking at? Isn’t this song ubiquitous? What’s so significant about it? Why has the artist burned the musical notations? What do the lyrics say? What’s with the song’s title?

My eyes quickly darted to the wall label for answers. Here is where I learned the seedling of an art project that continues to captivate me: The artist, Bethany Collins, researched the history of the popular patriotic anthem to discover over 100 versions. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, American songwriters rewrote the lyrics to the melody of My Country, 'Tis of Thee (also called America) in support of varying American causes, including revolution, temperance, suffrage, abolition, Native sovereignty and slavery. Collins bound these versions together chronologically in the special edition shape-note hymnal and then burned away the musical notes. America: A Hymnal chronicles an idea of American national identity fraught with multiple meanings and contradictions through the history of one song. Collins’ decision to remove the oval noteheads perhaps acknowledges how memorable the tune is, while gesturing to how diverse American identities really are.

Mind. Blown.

There are moments as a curator when I engage with art that so deeply gets at my core it feels like a volcano erupting. Simultaneous multiple meanings and points of connections spill out like uncontrollable fire. In the few first minutes of experiencing Bethany Collins’ America: A Hymnal, I knew this passion would carry the conversation and the art forward in exciting, transformational ways.

Upon returning to PEM, I was able to research, pitch and ultimately acquire an edition of Collins’ hymnal for the Phillips Library collection. I’m extremely proud to celebrate the fact that the first museum acquisition of my career is a work by a woman artist of color. ...and that over the last year we have been able to add two more pieces by this artist to the museum's permanent collection. To contribute to the collection of the Phillips Library, one of the oldest museum libraries in the country, is a true honor. It makes sense: Collins primary medium is language. Throughout her work, the artist explores how meanings of words are nuanced and change over time and context. While Collins works in multiple ways such as painting and sculpture, America: A Hymnal is an artist book, expanding the very idea of what a book is and how a museum collects it. In fact, the artist intends the book to disintegrate as each page is turned.

This self-destructive aspect challenges the stewardship responsibilities that museums and libraries assume when acquiring items: we commit to the preservation of cultural works for future generations. Bethany’s work confronts us with a conundrum because it issupposed to destroy itself, so every decision we make about using or displaying her hymnals is fraught with existential tension. Each page turn introduces physical changes, and we are mindful that future viewers will not experience it in quite the same way as we do. We have partially addressed our fears by including — in the hymnal’s custom storage box — an instructional sheet providing guidance for its use, and a mylar envelope to gather bits of the pages that fall out. In addition, we make a conscious effort to document its evolving condition for our internal files by recording page turns via photographs and videos.

With the support of curatorial colleagues, I selected Collins’ hymnal for exhibition in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, an exhibition celebrating the reunion of the modern American artist’s Struggle series, a 30-panel narrative exploring the words and actions of all those who contributed to the founding, and continued experiment, of American democracy. Along with two other contemporary artists, Collins’ work was presented in the exhibition and publication as a way to frame history as not a distant period of the past, but an active space that is continuously questioned in the present. I went to work with the artist on how to conceptualize her space.

Installation image of Collins’ America: A Hymnal, 2017

Installation image of Collins’ America: A Hymnal, 2017, Phillips Library Collection, N7433.4 .C639 A58 2017 in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, on view at PEM January 18 - August 9, 2020 (exhibition closed to visitors between March 12 - July 16, 2020) © 2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Collins wanted a chapel space to surround the displayed hymnal. Another work by the artist, an embossed wallpaper of flower translations, would adorn the walls. At this time, Collins was experimenting with performances of America: A Hymnal. She was interested in putting voice to the versions bound in her book and creating a multi-sensory experience of the hymns. The artist first experimented with singers by directing an open call program during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018 and then again in Chicago in Mies Van Der Rohe’s “God Box” as part of an exhibition with the Smart Museum of Art.

As the artist continued to push her practice, a collaborative relationship grew with PEM. Through the museum’s cross-departmental support of the artist, Collins was able to produce a commissioned six-channel sound work to accompany her installation in the touring exhibition.

A white room with 2 benches facing a case with an open hymnal book

To hear part of the piece America: A Hymnal, 2020, and an interview with the artist, listen here on PEM’s podcast series, the PEMcast. The whole piece can be found here on Soundcloud.

The new sound piece, America: A Hymnal, 2020 is a singing of the hymns included in the artist’s 2017 book project. Singers with higher and lower vocal rangers perform the lyrical versions of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee a capella. To hear the singers’ voices blend together, visitors can sit in the middle of the chapel space. To hear individual singers, one can move closer to a speaker. During the piece’s three hour and 25 minutes, most of the singing is heard together. But sometimes, there is a soloist: a singular, standout voice pours into the chapel space as a melodic offering of what it means to be an American. Everything becomes still. The power in America: A Hymnal inspires visitors to stop, listen deeply, and reflect. We acquired the sound work in July of 2020, through our general acquisition fund, just before the exhibition embarked on its national tour.

Acquiring work by contemporary artists is meaningful for PEM because it reflects how museums have an important role in supporting artists of our time. By securing contemporary art that engages with issues of importance for our audiences and communities now, PEM's collection contributes to the expanding narratives of humanity's evolving values. Acquiring multiple works throughout an artist's career conveys how PEM develops alongside the artist--demonstrating how institutions can indeed be porous and responsible to the communities that it serves. For the contemporary artist, museum collections offer the work a forever home.

Collins’ art connects past with present, deeply resonating with the American and library collections of PEM. Yet, acquiring an artist’s work across collecting areas of a museum is unique. The collaborative way in which we curatorially work at PEM offers the opportunity to dedicate support to artists from multiple channels. My dedication to support emerging contemporary American artists like Bethany Collins is made stronger through the interests of colleagues in different areas.

In January 2020, Collins visited PEM and gave an artist talk on her process of researching and creating America: A Hymnal. In conversation afterwards, we learned that she was working on a new hymnal about the U.S. national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner: A Hymnal. It sounded like the edition would be extremely small — America itself was an edition of only 25 — and it appeared beyond hope that we would be able to acquire a copy. Fast-forward to a lazy Saturday morning in July: scrolling through his Instagram feed, Dan Lipcan, our Head Librarian, saw that Collins posted three images of the new hymnal the day before.

Bethany Collins, The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal, 2020. Book with 100 laser cut leaves, 9" x 6" x 1" / 22.86 x 15.24 x 2.54 cm, Ed of 3, 2 AP. Courtesy of the Artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago.

The purchase of The Star-Spangled Banner: A Hymnal fulfills our goal of collecting more works created and written by artists and authors of color. It directly supports the work and research of PEM curatorial staff and our exhibition program, bridging perfectly our art and library collections. Within the library, The Star-Spangled Banner fits in with our intention to collect selected artists’ books related to our existing subject strengths — in this case, our holdings of music and 19th-century hymnals. We are excited about Collins’ work and career, and we believe strongly that we should continue to make space for her important voice in our collections. The increasing attention her work continues to receive is testament to its quality, timeliness and brilliance.

Please tune in to The Director’s Dialogue Series Tuesday, August 25, at 4 pm. Featuring PEM Director and CEO Brian Kennedy and Bethany Collins. Register for the event here. Bethany Collins’ America: A Hymnal is traveling with the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle tour, next on view at the Seattle Art Museum from February 25—May 23, 2021.

Dan Lipcan, Head Librarian at PEM’s Phillips Library, contributed to this post.

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