Inside the Artist's Studio

How do you keep the spirit of the artist alive in a studio museum?

The occasional series 'Inside the Artist's Studio' asks curators from across the network how they approach challenges specific to curating the artist's studio museum. We begin with a question central to the studio museum.

The studio and single-artist museums in our network come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are small city-centre spaces, like the James Ensor House, established above a souvenir shop in Brussels. There are also large public galleries, like the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Switzerland – and everything in between.

Following in the artist's footsteps

However, central to the appeal of the studio museum is the notion that you, the visitor, are physically following in the footsteps of the artist who lived there. This idea is expressed in different, often oddly supernatural, ways – using words like 'spirit', 'aura', 'presence' and 'atmosphere'.

Indeed, in the 1890s, the idea of artistic 'communion' had a directly spiritual dimension for the French art historian Léon Roger-Miles. 'The entire house' where an illustrious figure had died, wrote Roger-Miles, 'must serve as a temple whose every corner is worthy of listening to and inspiring prayers'.

The later nineteenth-century, when Roger-Miles was writing, witnessed the birth pangs of the artist's studio museum. The Dürer House, Nuremberg, one of the oldest museums in our network, was established in 1871; the Musée Gustave Moreau, in Paris , opened in 1897. Others followed suite.

Betzy Akersloot-Berg and her husband in the studio at Tromp's Huys, The Netherlands

Today, we are perhaps less concerned with the idea of a direct quasi-religious communion with the artist. However, the idea of 'keeping their spirit alive' remains central to the artist's studio museum.

Curating the studio

But the transition from artist's studio to artist's studio museum is not without pitfalls. For example, many artists choose to live and work in far from ideal 'museum conditions'. How do you balance the need to conserve works on paper with the desire to display them in the haphazard piles in which the artist may have left them?

How, too, do you resolve the question of interpretation? Do you insert large wall panels and textual interpretation, as you would in a white-walled gallery? Or do you choose to create a less 'intrusive' interpretative environment, which might allude indirectly to the idea of the 'ghostly artist presence' - for example by using audio guides or costumed docents?

A curator or Trust will also have to choose which period of the studio-home they want to present to the public. Will it be the house as it appeared just before the artist left or died, or the house as it was in its heyday?

Often these decisions are, unavoidably, dictated by the amount of documentary or archive information on the house that is available.

A curatorial Q&A series

At Watts Gallery – Artists' Village, we have recently re-opened Limnerslease, the former studio of George Frederic Watts, in Compton, Surrey. We found ourselves faced with many of these questions, and, in our discussions with other museums, have been intrigued to see how they have solved the same problems.

So we put this question to some of the other curators in our network. Over the next few weeks, we'll be publishing their responses. The answers are as varied as the museums themselves.

We're beginning on Thursday 15 September with Yuliya Kudryavtseva, Head of the Korin Art Research Department at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

She manages the House Museum of Pavel Korin (1892-1967), a city-centre museum dedicated to the Russian painter and art restorer who bequeathed his studio and his contents to the state when he died in 1967.

We hope you'll come back to join the conversation then.

Inside the Artist's Studio

This is the provocation piece in our blog series, 'Inside the Artist's Studio'. A variety of curators from the Studio Museum Network will be responding to the question 'How do you keep the artist's spirit alive in a studio museum?'

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