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Exhibitions and Events

Gallery transforms into courtroom for 'Witness Lab' at the U-M Museum of Art

By Christopher Ankney

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

ANN ARBOR—A new courtroom installation and performance series created by artist Courtney McClellan will open at the University of Michigan Museum of Art Feb. 15.

“Witness Lab” collapses courtroom, theater, classroom, laboratory and artist studio into one experience—all inside UMMA’s Stenn Gallery—inviting visitors to consider the relationship between performance and law.

Courtney McClellan is the 2019-20 Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence at the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design.

Co-presented with the Roman J. Witt Artist Residency Program at U-M’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, “Witness Lab” is McClellan’s participatory investigation into the concept of witnessing as a social and artistic act.

“After reviewing over 100 applications to the residency program from internationally recognized artists, I felt that McClellan’s proposal held particular relevance in light of current events,” said Chrisstina Hamilton, Director of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series and Roman Witt Visiting Artist Programs. “Our community and our nation seeks a deeper understanding of how justice is shaped at local levels and in Washington—and McClellan’s work can help us develop this.”

Through the use of performances, mock court proceedings and trial advocacy workshops, McClellan tasks visitors with documenting their observations of the proceedings, playing the roles of courtroom sketch artist and court reporter.

“‘Witness Lab’ is a dynamic experiment for UMMA,” said museum director Christina Olsen. “It’s simultaneously an installation, a performance space and an artist’s studio—but more than that, it’s a project that will deeply engage our community and complicate our collective understanding of justice and art.” 

McClellan’s “Witness Lab” installation is part of the artist’s ongoing research into who performs the role of witness in our society, how that understanding compares with the narrower legal definition of the role and how courts use performance to establish truths and mold perception. 

“Witnessing is an act of keen observation, but it’s also an act of retelling,” she said. “It’s inherently subjective. In 2020, I want people to consider the complex truths found through shared storytelling.”

McClellan, an artist and writer from Greensboro, North Carolina, is the 2019-2020 Roman J. Witt Artist-in-Residence at U-M. She earned her MFA from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She serves as visiting assistant professor of art in the sculpture area at the University of Georgia and is a Working Artist Project Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

The Roman J. Witt Residency Program, developed with the support of alumna Penny W. Stamps and named in honor of her father, is an annual international competition that awards one residency per academic year to a visiting artist/designer who proposes to develop a new work in collaboration with students and faculty. The residency provides an opportunity for the community to witness and take part in the artist’s creative process, and is expected to culminate in the realization of the proposed work, as well as a presentation that summarizes the process and work accomplished.

“Witness Lab” is presented in partnership with the Stamps School’s Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence Program, with lead support provided by the U-M Law School and Office of the Provost.

The public is invited to participate in the exhibition and witness a large slate of public performances and U-M courses, including:

  • March 11 / March 18, 5:30-7:30 p.m.: The Salem Witch Trials with Professor Len Niehoff’s U-M Law Seminar
  • March 13, 1:30-3 p.m.: Romeo vs. the City of Verona performed by Katie McBride’s Greenhills Middle School Drama Class
  • March 24 / April 7, 5 p.m.: Supreme Court 101 with Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (registration required)
  • March 25  / April 1, 5-8 p.m.: Performance in Trial Advocacy with Judge Timothy Connors and Margaret Connors

The U-M Museum of Art, located at 525 South State St. in Ann Arbor, is open 11 a.m-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and on university holidays. It is always free and all events are open to the public. Seating in the gallery is limited. Some events require registration. 


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