The American University Museum: Winter Exhibitions and the Alper Initiative for Washington Art

Washington DC is a mecca for cultural institutions. The American University (AU) Museum, curated by Director Jack Rasmussen, has carved out its niche by highlighting works other area museums neglect—those at the intersection of the local, international, and political.

Blending these themes, explicitly part of the museum’s mission, allows the AU Museum to present Washington in a new light. This unique perspective first drew Rasmussen to the museum.

“The allure was the opportunity to start a museum and define, with the community, what it could be,” explained Rasmussen. “Let’s do what other museums aren’t already doing, and let’s do things that reinforce the strengths of the university.”

Bringing new exhibitions to the museum requires two years of advance planning. On Tuesday, January 26, the museum will debut a traveling exhibition of works by Renée Stout, a well-known Washington artist who has been part of the community since 1985. The exhibition, “Tales of the Conjure Woman” explores African American cultural traditions in U.S. society.

Stout’s works present contemporary viewpoints on African American folk beliefs, sometimes called Hoodoo or conjuring. Themes of superstition and ancestral wisdom flow through Stout’s work. As the exhibition notes, Stout uses the alter ego Fatima Mayfield “as a vehicle to role-play and confront issues such as romantic relationships, social ills, or financial woes.”

Fittingly, Stout’s exhibition is paired with a supporting exhibition called “Circle of Friends,” which includes 16 female artists—some now in their 70s and 80s—whose work was influential to Stout following her arrival in Washington DC.

The works, most from the 1980s and 90s, provide a new context for Capital-area art during that time. In addition to examining the community during the period, Rasmussen highlighted that the two exhibitions are “about the community and the community of support among artists.”

The “Circle of Friends” exhibition is the first exhibition made possible by the Alper Initiative for Washington Art. The Alper Initiative, started by a gift from alumna Carolyn Alper, supports museum exhibitions by providing resources for exhibition curation and catalog production.

The Alper Initiative is also funding a first-floor display of local artwork and development of a digital archive of local art.

The second “Alper Show” will feature works by the late Kevin McDonald. McDonald, a musician as well as an artist, will have his exhibition supported by works from other artists who also played in bands. Included works will focus on the 1970s and 80s.

American University, located at the top of Embassy Row and home to one of the nation’s most international student bodies, has developed an ever-expanding space for artists that fit the museum’s unique mission.

As Rasmussen notes, the cyclical investment and public reception continues to build upon itself:

“Showing local art is part of citizenship in the community; it is ‘enlightened self-interest’. If we support the community, the community will support us.”

Photo information (from top to bottom)

  1. Renée Stout
  2. The Reading of the Shells
  3. The Return
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