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The Museum’s Muse

By Maggie Barrett

AU Museum entrance

The entrance to the American University Museum at night.

Fernando Botero’s graphic paintings of lingerie-clad prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib. Political cartoons lampooning George W. Bush and his closest advisors. The largest exhibition of contemporary indigenous Australian art to come to the United States— some of it criticizing Australia’s treatment of indigenous populations.  

In just five short years, the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center has become renowned for showing contemporary, socially- and politically-charged art from the region, across the nation, and around the world.

But much like the art that has graced its 30,000-square-foot gallery and sculpture garden, the museum began as an idea waiting to reveal itself.

“Nobody knew what it would be,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the museum. “Basically, I was told ‘here’s a museum in this beautiful new building.’”

So, Rasmussen did what any artist does: observe. He began with observing the university, his alma mater, and aligned the museum with the university’s strengths.

“We focus on international art because the university has a global commitment. We show political art because the university is committed to human rights, social justice, and political engagement,” he said. “We support the artists in our community because the university takes an active and responsible role in the formation of our contemporary art and culture.”

Finding a Niche, Taking a Risk

While positioning the museum to reflect the university’s values certainly made sense, Rasmussen knew the museum would need to find a niche to compete in the thriving Washington, D.C., museum scene.

The region is home to some of the best-known art museums in the nation, including the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Phillips Collection.

To find a niche, Rasmussen began looking at what wasn’t being done by the other museums. He began with the decision to focus on temporary exhibitions, allowing the museum to show works of art that relate to what is going on in the region, the nation, and around the world.

“In the museum’s first five years, we displayed 127 exhibitions. This is way more than a typical art museum,” said Rasmussen, who credits the museum’s ample space and its young, energetic staff.
Featuring art that explores social, cultural, and political issues—both domestic and abroad—is inherently risky as there is a greater potential to offend visitors. For this reason, most museums stridently avoid such art, opting to show works that offer a more safe, “sanitized,” perspective.
But given AU’s devotion to taking on the most urgent issues of our time, Rasmussen saw a golden opportunity. This was something that other museums couldn’t do, that a university facility could and should—especially a facility that was to be part of American University, renowned for being one of the most politically active campuses in the nation.  

While the decision to show art that challenges the status quo has not escaped criticism, Rasmussen sees it as a positive.

“Comments (written in the guest book) mostly have been quite good, but my favorite includes the words ‘adolescent, pretentious, blasphemous, and repulsive,’” he said. “It shows we are getting close to the edge, which is where we should be.”   
Fernado Botero: Abu Ghraib was perhaps the most high-profile and controversial exhibition in the museum’s five-year history. For Rasmussen, it was also the most memorable.

“Ours was the only American museum brave enough to exhibit the work,” he said of the paintings depicting the 2004 torture of Iraqi prisoners by members of the U.S. military. “Botero is one of the most popular artists in the world and he took on extremely difficult subject matter that put his highly successful career at some risk. It was subject matter that resonated loudly here in the nation’s capital. The university took a strong stand for freedom of expression by exhibiting those paintings.”

Part of the Community

Public response to the museum has been enthusiastic. Compared to its 2005–2006 opening season, the museum saw a 35 percent increase in visitor traffic during the 2009–2010 season.

“When we opened, this facility was completely unexpected,” Rasmussen said. “It took a while for people to realize what a gorgeous building and what a serious program we have. We are getting a lot of critical attention, and word-of-mouth has been most important.”

Marie Kissick of Chevy Chase Circle in Northwest Washington was intrigued from the beginning. “I saw the construction for this very unusual site,” she said of the long, thin plot on which the Katzen Arts Center sits. Formerly with the Corcoran, she decided to visit the building when it opened and signed up to volunteer. She is now chairman of the museum’s outreach committee, which organizes the popular children’s program, Kids@Katzen.

“From the beginning, Kids@Katzen has been unique for a program of its kind because Jack has involved the artists,” said Kissick. “The artists actually come to the programs and docent their exhibitions for the kids. Then the kids work on an art project inspired by the artist’s work, developed with the help of the artists.”  

Although she often brings her granddaughter to the museum for Kids@Katzen, Kissick frequents the museum for her own enjoyment.  

“It’s such a pleasant place to walk into,” she said, noting the design of the museum, which capitalizes on natural light. “The political and international art regularly expose you to some gem that otherwise, you would not experience. And the artists’ receptions are fantastic social and cultural events that allow you to mingle and interact with the artists. All of it for free.”

Healthy Trajectory = Bright Future

The museum’s success has been so impressive that it recently launched a membership program. Members will enjoy numerous perks, including invitations to exclusive events at the museum.

“We are fortunate to have grown at a time when most cultural institutions have been contracting,” said Rasmussen. “We still have a small budget and a tiny staff compared to the size of our space and our ambitions, but our trajectory is a healthy one. I believe we can achieve our potential to be a major cultural institution in Washington and a fantastic resource for the university community.”