Why art museums? The Unfinished Work of Alexander Dorner – Announcements

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Why art museums? The unfinished work of Alexander Dorner
Edited by Sarah Ganz Blythe and Andrew Martinez

RISD Museum

20 North Main Street

Providence, Rhode Island
United States

T +1 401 454 6500

Why art museums? The unfinished work of Alexander Dorner
Edited by Sarah Ganz Blythe and Andrew Martinez
Co-published with MIT Press. To buy

Alexander Dorner (1893–1957) became director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in 1938 and immediately began a radical transformation of the galleries, drawing on the theories he had developed in collaboration with modernist artists during his directorship of the Provinzialmuseum in Hannover, Germany. Dorner formed close relationships with Bauhaus artists and made some of the earliest acquisitions of works by Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and others. The Nazi regime actively opposed Dorner’s work, and he fled Germany for the United States. The saturated museum environments created by Dorner sought to inspire wonder and awe, immersing visitors in the appearance of a given period. Music, literature and gallery lectures (delivered via a pioneering audio system) attempted to recreate the complex worlds in which objects once functioned. At the RISD Museum, Dorner clashed with RISD officials and the Providence Society and battled wartime anti-German prejudice. His tenure at RISD was brief but highly influential.

Why art museums? examines Dorner’s legacy and influence in art history, education, and museum practice. It includes the first publication of a 1938 speech given by Dorner at Harvard University as well as galleys of Dorner’s unpublished manuscript “Why Have Art Museums?”, both of which explore the meaning and purpose of museums and art in society. Contextualization essays clearly show the relevance of Dorner’s ideas about progressive education, public access to art and design, and the formation of environments conducive to experience and learning. Andre Martinez chronicles Dorner’s significant and often difficult shifts in museum practices – methods that not only ran counter to established notions of exhibition and viewership, but were often at odds with typical approaches to administration and management. Rebecca Uchill traces Dorner’s reading of history as a “walk of dimensions” that informed his redesign of the galleries that could engender an array of perspective experiences. Dietrich Neumann places the innovative exhibition of 1939 Rhode Island Architecture– which Dorner organized with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock – in connection with the burgeoning field of architectural exhibitions and the growing recognition of industrialization and advancements in the local built environment. Daniel Harket explores how Dorner’s initial commitment to the campaign was eroded by issues of class and ethnic suspicion as he came to be seen as a disruptive outsider. Sarah Ganz Blythe investigates Dorner’s methods of fixing change, which meant integrating diverse cultures into reductive stories and pinning down the role of objects in producing experiences that would help create engaged, progressive citizens.

book launch
Thursday November 15
6-8 p.m., RISD Museum

In 1938, the German exile Alexander Dorner became director of the RISD Museum, where he immediately began to apply the radical theories he had developed in collaboration with modernist artists during his directorship of the Provinzialmuseum in Hanover. Dorner’s mark remains evident in the galleries of the RISD Museum. Join the authors for a tour followed by a tribute to his unfinished work.

Free. Registration requested.

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