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Top U-M Arts & Culture stories of 2020

By Sydney Hawkins

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

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, a civil rights reckoning, and an historic presidential election season in 2020, our creative community at the University of Michigan proved that the arts are essential. Faculty members quickly adapted to teaching online. Student artists learned new tools for arts creation, collaboration and presentation. Librarians, museum and gallery curators successfully shifted exhibitions and event programming to the virtual space. And our performing artists and presenters transferred their on-stage productions to fit within the digital frame.

We saw an immense amount of creativity, innovation and resilience from our arts community this year—and though this is just a snapshot of all of the amazing work that was done—here’s a quick look back at our top stories of 2020.

Seven last words of the unarmed

“Life, Love, Loss,” a documentary featuring the Michigan Glee Club performing and discussing “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” resurfaced in 2020. Photo courtesy Bob Berg/Michigan Media.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Kenneth Chamberlain. Amadou Diallo. John Crawford. These men are the subjects of a powerful multimovement work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson titled “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” that was debuted by the Men’s Glee Club at the U-M in October 2015. Though the song and accompanying documentary premiered nearly five years ago, the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor led many to revisit or discover the work for the first time. Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities and associate professor of conducting at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, originally commissioned the work as former director of the Men’s Glee Club. ⠀

The work was highlighted as part of the virtual “Live with Carnegie Hall” series, and was featured by CNN, The New York Times, New York Public Radio’s WQXR, and many other regional and national publications. The renewed interest in the work led thousands of people to view the 21 minute-long documentary created by Michigan Media, along with the accompanying educational resources.

UMMA serves as satellite City Clerk’s office

The U-M Museum of Art served as a satellite office for the Ann Arbor City Clerk leading up to the 2020 presidential election. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

With the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election in full swing, U-M Stamps School of Art & Design professors Stephanie Rowden and Hannah Smotrich partnered with several units at U-M and the city of Ann Arbor to quickly transform a gallery space at the U-M Museum of Art into the state’s first satellite city clerk’s office located on a university campus. It opened on Sept. 22 (National Voter Registration Day) and remained open until Nov. 3. The effort, which was part of Smotrich and Rowden’s multiyear research effort inspired historically low student voter turnout, was considered a major success. More than 8,500 ballots were collected at the site and more than 5,100 new voters were registered.

Meet the first (virtual) Michigan Marching Band

The Michigan Marching Band performed in its first ever virtual season. Photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography; image by Natsume Ono.

The “MMB 123” performed in its first ever virtual season. Photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography; image by Natsume Ono.

After months of uncertainty and shifting plans, the Michigan Marching Band presented a virtual season for the first time in its 123-year history. Led by MMB director John Pasquale and senior drum major Walter Aguilar, the band was able to carry on its teachings and traditions, while also creating community and connection at a time when its 400 members needed it most. The band graced the front page of the Detroit Free Press this year on Nov. 25, and was featured in the Detroit News, WDIV, CBS, The Athletic and the Michigan Daily. You can still view their “Hail to the Frontline Heroes” and “No Place Like HoMe” virtual shows.

Ibrahim Mahama Blankets U-M Museum of Art

10/1/20 UMMA Ibrahlm Mahama Exhibit installation.

This fall, staff at the U-M Institute for the Humanities stitched together hundreds of large jute sacks under the direction of artist-in-residence Ibrahim Mahama. The resulting massive, quilt-like panels were used to cover 4,452 square feet of the exterior of the U-M Museum of Art to create one of the spectacular architectural interventions Mahama is known for. The project, which was on view Oct. 3-26, marks the first outdoor exhibition of Mahama’s work in the United States. It was the first of a three-part regional presentation, with related installations at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. In addition to directing staff via Zoom appointments and phone calls from his home in Ghana, he performed his traditional artist-in-residence duties from afar as well, which included teaching a virtual class and participating in virtual events. View his virtual Stamps Speaker Series event or read about the feat it in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architect Magazine, artnet or MLive.

African American Music Conference celebrates Willis Paterson

Willis Patterson, professor emeritus, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, conducts the Michigan Men’s Glee Club, 1970. Photo courtesy the U-M Bentley Historical Library.

Scholars, composers and performers from across the U.S. came together virtually for an event that celebrated the 90th birthday of legendary bass singer, U-M alumnus and professor emeritus Willis Patterson. The African American Music Conference, organized by voice professor Louise Toppin and hosted by the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, took place virtually Sept. 18-20. Patterson, who was in attendance, was hired in 1968 and was the first African American faculty member to join SMTD. He taught in the department of voice for more than three decades, and also served as the associate dean for 20 of those years. The conference included a mixture of pre-recorded and live conversations featuring some of the most prominent African American composers and scholars in the U.S.—both younger and older—who discussed Patterson’s pioneering work in the fields of jazz and African American concert repertoire. As part of the conference, Patterson’s papers were dedicated to the U-M Bentley Historical Library’s collection. It was covered by the Detroit Free PressAssociated Press, Michigan Radio and many other publications.

Trevor Noah ‘visits’ campus

Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s virtual U-M event took place on Oct. 20.

The internet was abuzz when the University Musical Society (UMS), in partnership with the U-M Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, announced that Daily Show star Trevor Noah would host a virtual event on Oct. 20. The event was open to the U-M and UMS community, and welcomed thousands of attendees that witnessed Noah reflect on the state of our nation, discussing how our community can, in spite of isolation, come together around the arts, pursue racial justice, and rise to the challenge of the moment. Ford School dean William Barr moderated the discussion and several U-M students joined the conversation and asked timely questions.

U-M welcomes renowned Native American Photography collection

An archivist at the U-M Clements Library displays three photos from a new collection of Native American photographs. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

2020 kicked off with the announcement of the acquisition of the Richard Pohrt Jr. collection of Native American Photography, which added more than 1,000 images by more than 150 photographers to the William L. Clements Library’s renowned archive of early American history. Taken primarily between 1860 and 1920, the vintage prints—many of which come from the original negatives on the original photographers’ mounts—feature more than 70 different First Nations. The library consulted with several Native American scholars and cultural representatives, as well as the U-M’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative to receive guidance on the complexities of preserving, providing access to, and creating educational resources related to the materials. The Library launched a new virtual exhibition this fall where visitors can learn more about it. An Associated Press story made waves early in the year, and several other publications covered the related virtual exhibition.

Photography students capture life in quarantine

Photo by U-M documentary photography student Dominique Cornitcher.

Earn the trust of a stranger, and work with them to document the essence of a day in their life over the course of five weeks. That was the directive for 26 students producing their final project in David Turnley’s winter 2020 documentary photography class at the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and the Residential College. But the parameters of the project quickly changed in March when U-M announced plans to move classes online and encouraged students to return home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. “It was a privilege to get to have this uniquely intimate view of the day-to-day lives of 26 diverse families who are living in quarantine across America.” said Turnley, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has covered most of the world’s major events over the last 40 years. A moving video he created garnered thousands of views on YouTube leading to features in the Detroit Free Press and on DPTV’s One Detroit.

Islamic art + current events

Professor Christiane Gruber was one of the top arts experts of 2020.

Christiane Gruber, professor and chair of the History of Art department within the U-M College of Literature, Arts and Sciences, was one of our top arts experts this year. She wrote about the Hagia Sophia being converted back into a mosque, Islamic healers and PPE, and how George Floyd’s death is shaping Middle Eastern protest. She spoke about her research on bird houses at mosques, a new book she edited that looks at the age-old question of the figural representation of Islam, the sale of pages separated from a 15th-century Persian manuscript, the US drone assassination of Iranian General Soleimanipictures of Muhammad and more.

Arts Initiative pilot progress

One of the exploration pilot projects will analyze representation in art by applying algorithms to images of people in the U-M Museum of Art’s collection.

Bringing performances to large audiences via virtual reality. Using data analysis to illuminate fair representation in a museum collection. Designing to redress inequality in wealth and housing. Amplifying the voices of Arab American writers. These are just a few of the first pilot grants awarded to staff, faculty and students as part of the presidential Arts Initiative, announced last fall by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. The initiative kicked off its startup phase in January 2020, and put out a request for proposals to all faculty, students and staff at U-M’s three campuses in February. In addition to awarding funds to its first eight pilot projects, and the working group created a plan for stakeholder engagement and launched a virtual “Future of Art” series.

A new face on campus

Jaume Plensa’s “Behind the Walls,” was installed in front of the UMMA in November. Photo by Natsume Ono.

The U-M Museum of art permanently installed a 25-foot-tall sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa in November. The sculpture, titled “Behind the Walls,” depicts an elongated human head with hands covering both eyes. It was acquired through a gift from J. Ira and Nicki Harris, long-time university supporters. “Behind the Walls” debuted in May 2019 at the inaugural Frieze Sculpture festival in Manhattan, where it was on view in Rockefeller Center. The work garnered international press and praise, with the New York Times calling it “the most instagrammed and photographed” work of the festival. It now greets campus visitors at the Frankel wing entrance of UMMA. Read about it in the Chicago Tribune, MLive, WDIV and the Palm Beach Daily News.

Rosie the Black riveter

“Sarah the Whatevershechoosestobe-(h)er,” a mural by Sydney James was can be viewed on the first floor of the the U-M Modern Languages Building. Photo by Sydney Hawkins.

“Portraits of Self,” a public sidewalk art exhibition by Detroit artist and artist-in-residence Sydney James opened this fall at the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery. The installation, featuring a film and eight portraits that could be viewed by passersby on S. Thayer and E. Washington St., was a tribute and celebration of the labor of Black women. As part of her residency, James also completed a mural titled “Sarah the Whatevershechoosestobe-(h)er,” on the first floor of the the U-M Modern Languages Building. Her work, which depicts a Black woman holding a face mask, a spray paint can and some books—including a copy of Virginia Hamilton’s “Zeely”—was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s lesser known painting of Rosie the Riveter. James’ mural is located opposite a recent Institute for the Humanities commission by fellow Detroit-based artist Tylonn Sawyer, who created a mural to honor Samuel Watson, the first African American student admitted to U-M.


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