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Carving a Niche

Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum, shares what makes the museum unique, how he finds provocative shows, and the philosophy behind the new membership program.

In a city of museums, what makes the American University Museum unique?

We focus on three things that nobody else in Washington does.

The first focus is international art, which reflects AU’s strong commitment to being a global university.

Secondly, we focus on Washington. We support our community and are involved in it, and it gives us great support in turn.

The third thing we do is focus on socially and politically engaged work that often courts controversy. As a university, we have both artistic and academic freedom, and that puts us in a unique position to tackle difficult contemporary issues pertaining to human rights, civil rights, and other social justice problems. The Smithsonian could never do what we do.

How do these types of shows come to you, and how are they developed?

Shows come to us in all different ways. Take the current Norse Soul exhibit, as an example. The Norwegian Embassy asked if we’d be interested in curating a contemporary Norwegian art show to complement the Edvard Munch print exhibit that the National Gallery is holding downtown. So I went to Norway to see what was coming out of the expressionist tradition—that Munch really defined 100 years before—to make a connection between what was happening then and what is happening today.

A lot of Munch’s work is really strange, difficult stuff, but we’ve reached a point where we accept his work almost complacently because it’s a century old and it’s become canonical. But how do we react when we are looking at strange, difficult work being created today? These pieces challenge our attitudes about both contemporary art and the earlier work that informed it. They’re a way of making Munch fresh again.

This summer marked the museum’s fifth year. How has it evolved since it opened in 2005?

When the museum first opened, we were focused on figuring out what we could be. Since we had the opportunity to let the museum grow into whatever we wanted, we started looking at the strengths of the university and what needed to be done in Washington. As a result, we’ve created an institution that fills a regional void, and this sets us apart in a city of museums.

The university has continually supported us in this process of “becoming,” providing us with a larger staff and budget that facilitate the sort of long-term planning needed to thoughtfully consider how our exhibitions can complement the university’s educational programs.

A great example of this is the Louise Rosskam show planned for next fall. Rosskam was a government-employed documentary photographer, and a great artistic photographer, who spent time in the ’40s and ’50s documenting the everyday lives of poor citizens in Puerto Rico. So, as we’re planning this exhibit, we’re asking, “What can this show say about Latin American policy, history, art, and how can we explore these intersections with academic departments across the university?”

Tell us about the new museum membership program. 

The memberships are an extension of the idea of community—a way of both giving back to people who are already supporting the museum and providing people with an extra incentive to become a part of our operation. Our members are invited to special receptions, lectures, and demonstrations, such as the tea ceremony we organized this summer in concert with the exhibit, Soaring Voices: Recent Ceramics by Women of Japan.

We want to grow. We want to do things better. And in order to do that, we need to give our audience an opportunity to step forward and say they support us and want to see more.

American University Museum’s annual memberships start at $45 for individuals and $15 for students. For more information, please visit www.american.edu/cas/museum.