What is a Rotation?

/ Art News - Caring for Art - Collections - Exhibitions

Paying Attention-Getting Hooked, Thornton Dial, undated. watercolor on paper, 29 3/4 × 22 1/8 in. (75.6 × 56.2 cm). Lent by Tom L. Larkin.

The BMA staff recently completed the first of three rotations for its current exhibition, Third Space /shifting conversations about contemporary art. In addition to the 50 pieces that will remain on view for the entirety of the exhibition’s two-year run, certain works within Third Space will rotate every six months to showcase new pieces and offer new perspectives on the themes of the exhibition.

A rotation is a much smaller change than the opening of a new exhibition.

“The word rotation refers to replacing or exchanging objects that are exhibited in a museum,” said Emily Hanna, Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas at the BMA.

Museum preparators have rotated 16 pieces out of Third Space, replacing those with 27 new objects. In addition, the selection of artist books has changed. Wassan Al-Khudhairi, former BMA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, arranged which pieces are rotated in and out every six months, and the team at the BMA puts her design into action.

“If someone visited this exhibition during the first several months after its opening, the show will look slightly different now,” Hanna said.

While certain works in Third Space will rotate, the exhibition will keep the same themes, including the overall examination of the Global South and the specific series of ideas for each gallery space. Some of the rotated pieces are even by the same artists in an effort to maintain the gallery themes. While Lady With her Tiger-Life Go On by Thornton Dial, a piece on loan to the BMA, rotated out, another Dial work, Paying Attention-Getting Hooked, rotated into Third Space, allowing his style to remain part of the exhibition.

However, the Museum rotates pieces for reasons beyond adjusting the theme of a gallery or exhibition. The rotated items in Third Space are a variety of prints, photographs, watercolors, and drawings on paper – all light-sensitive and soft materials.

“We do rotations for the good of the art,” said Margaret Burnham, the Objects Conservator at the BMA, emphasizing that one of the main duties of a rotation is “to safeguard the art and prolong its life.”

I Come in Peace, Derrick Adams, 2014. collage, 48 × 72 in. (121.9 × 182.9 cm) frame: 50 3/8 × 74 3/8 in. (128 × 188.9 cm). Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, AFI.152.2014.

Paper, textiles, costumes, and screens must be rotated between galleries and storage to protect them from light damage. While many exhibitions run for only a few months, Third Space will be open for much longer, requiring multiple rotations of light-sensitive works on paper.

“Some of these light-sensitive works in our collection are real favorites in our community, and people really enjoy it when they come back on view after a rest,” Hanna said.

Though the Jemison Galleries provide a large amount of gallery space for modern and contemporary work, many BMA pieces from the 1970s like Bonjour Julie by Joan Mitchell are now in storage while Third Space displays more recent works that add to the exhibition’s themes.

“Those pieces were all competing for the same space, so a lot of this work had not been out and has certainly never been seen in the context of Third Space,” said Suzanne Stephens, Senior Associate Registrar at the BMA, about the exhibited pieces that will look new to BMA visitors.

The Third Space rotations allow art to go on display that may not have spent much time on view at the BMA. Twenty-five pieces in the exhibition are new acquisitions, and therefore new to the public, while others are difficult to install and challenging to rotate constantly.

For example, April 21, 1978, the collection of 45 separately framed prints by Sarah Charlesworth, has rotated out, but Third Space displayed this work that, though purchased in 1990, had only been on display in 1993 and 2000. Covering a whole wall, the piece has a chance to sit in the Jemison Galleries to give viewers a rare look at its complexity.

Old Salem: A Family of Strangers, Series One, Fred Wilson, 1995. color photograph, 19 3/4 x 16 1/4 in. (50.2 x 41.3 cm). Museum purchase in honor of David Moos, former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, with funds provided by Lydia Cheney and Jim Sokol, Russell Jackson Drake, Howard Greenberg, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Marx Sr. and Edgar Marx Jr., John and Nancy Poynor, Amasa Smith Jr., Robin and Carolyn Wade, Julie and Jeff Ward, and members of the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art.

As it goes back into storage, Old Salem: A Family of Strangers, Series One by Fred Wilson will rotate in, 10 photographs that also require an entire wall that may not have been available without Third Space.

“Museums are always doing rotations to give people a different look at the collection,” Stephens said. Third Space provides a new and different experience for Museum visitors by itself, but the six-month rotations will refresh the themes and ideas that the BMA holds within its large collection of contemporary art.