Black and white photo of man on lawn chair with girl on his lap

Sally Mann, Untitled (Man On Lawn Chair With Girl In His Lap), 1985, printed 1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © Sally Mann, courtesy Gagosian Gallery

These Unprecedented Times: Retracing a Pandemic—2021 Mellon Summer Academy Proposed Exhibition

August 23, 2021
Hilary Walter, Manager of Academic Programs

LACMA recently hosted its sixth Mellon Summer Academy, which, because of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, was a two-week virtual experience in 2021. The 15 undergraduate students still had eye-opening experiences learning about the inner workings of museums, considering multiple career paths related to art, art history, and other fields of study, connecting with their peers, and creating engaging final projects that showcase what they want to see on the walls at art museums. The Summer Academy is a component of the Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, which is generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

For the 2021 Summer Academy's virtual exhibition project, the three student groups co-curated a virtual exhibition based on photographs from LACMA’s Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection. They selected photographs around a theme of their choice, researched the artists and artworks, wrote gallery text and object labels, determined the installation of the show, and considered outreach efforts and public programs to engage visitors. Each student group also had a Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow or alumna as an advisor on their project, enabling the participants to spend time with an individual who is in the next phase of the program. On the final day of the program, each group of students presented their exhibition ideas to the museum’s director, the donor’s family, staff, family, and friends.

Over the coming weeks we will take a closer look at each group’s final presentation.

These Unprecedented Times:
Retracing a Pandemic
Selected Images From The Vernon Collection 

Co-curators: Audrey Bui, Emmy Esquerre, Qinxuan (Sophie) Huang, Alexa Ramirez, and Sara Solorzano

“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” — Joan Didion

Featuring a selection of fifteen photographs from the timeless Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, These Unprecedented Times explores omnipresent solitude, persistent anxiety, and tremendous loss from the COVID-19 pandemic while also highlighting the optimism for reconnection and the restoration of intimacy. These images from the Vernon collection illustrate the emotional climate of this pandemic with some pieces originating from the span of the 20th century. The timelessness of these photos coincide with the cyclical nature of history and the interconnectedness of human emotion both volatile and enigmatic in nature. 

The 2021 Mellon Summer Academy participants’ virtual exhibition project final presentation, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA, by Hilary Walter

With the onslaught of COVID-19, human relationships, economic stability, trust in political institutions, and the efficacy of industrial processes were called to question. With LACMA being located in Los Angeles County, a coronavirus hotspot, our immediate communities have been victim to some of the more concentrated hardships. With bated breath, the global arena waits for a collective release of lockdowns, quarantines, and the permission to regain the intimacy in human relationships. 

These Unprecedented Times curates images that capture the amalgamation of emotions felt through the duration of the pandemic. Be it forced isolation, loss, longing, or reckoning, living in solitude for over a year has forced the individual to face themselves in perpetual introspection. With this in mind, These Unprecedented Times generates space for collective reflection and healing. 

All of this physically distanced of course.

William Edward Dassonville, Ropes Between Boats, 1920s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and promised gift of Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © William Edward Dassonville

William E. Dassonville’s image of two boats docked at port, several ropes criss-crossing the entire frame, highlights the Pictorialism movement of the early 20th century. In the foreground, two large boats, cropped at the bow, rest at port. The ropes, holding them to the port, intertwine across the frame. In the background sits an industrial landscape, factory smoke hovering in dark clouds above aged factories and manufacturing buildings. Dawsonville's distinctive rich tones create a haunting, isolated quality that reflects the contemporary narrative of the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, we all were placed into a lockdown, forcing us to isolate, but those working in industry were still left to operate. This image is also reminiscent of cruise ships being banned from ports and stranded at sea during the beginning of lockdown, the effects of delayed cargo shipments creating port congestion and impacting supply chains and thus our communities.

Ansel Adams, White House Ruin, Morning, Canyon De Chelly Nat'l Monument, Arizona, 1949 (printed 1950), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and promised gift of Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

While traveling through Navajo tribal lands in Northeastern Arizona, Adams captured the uniquely dynamic landscape of Canyon de Chelly. Adams documented the underappreciated American landscapes and the rich histories that were largely ignored. The ancient formations of the rocks linger in the shadows of the background, cradling the silent dwelling belonging to the Navajo Nation within it. This image resonates with the disproportionate COVID-19 impact on Native American populations and the inequity of accessibility to healthcare, aid, and resource funding in addition to the desecration of both Native land and national parks across the United States as government lockdowns closed down parks, which created a severe lack of land maintenance.

Edward Weston, Tina Reciting, 1924, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and promised gift of Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Weston’s portrait of Tina Modotti depicts the Italian artist reciting poetry. Her hair is pulled away from her face, her head slightly tilted toward the light, and her gaze settled on something beyond the frame. Her facial expression is in motion, yet conveys an almost absent, solemn tone as if she is in silent agony. Her vacant, desolate, and mournful expression is reminiscent of the grief experienced mid-pandemic, when COVID-related deaths and infections were at their highest. The lack of context creates a vacuum-like setting which creates a space for forced introspection and isolation. However, even during the darkest periods of the pandemic, many were able to create connections through song, such as quarantined Italians singing on their balconies for camaraderie, solidarity, and lifting spirits while separated.

Public program ideas include:

Exploring Connectedness: mindfulness gathering 

LACMA will curate a meditation and grounding event at the exhibition space, which offers the participants a moment of healing and introspection in the immersive environment of photography and music. The mindfulness event encourages participants to contemplate their feelings accumulated in the past year using the selection of photos in the exhibit as a guide, prompting them to embrace the present moment. This event provides an opportunity for community members to convene in the exhibition and discuss with each other the feelings and emotions that the photos bring up for them. With a special focus on community rebuilding after the pandemic, this event will collaborate with two non-profit organizations, EachMind Matters and WHY WE RISE, and their pandemic support teams to better frame the importance of mental health in such times.

Creative Photo Booth: family photography workshop 

A series of workshops will be held at the LACMA magnet center at Charles White Elementary School and other educational institutions across the Los Angeles Unified School District. These workshops introduce a range of easy lighting and staging techniques in photography and encourage families to participate and submit their photography works. The program partners with CoachArt to develop online workshops that could spread visual art education to a wider public.

Picturing Latinx: Conversation with Graciela Iturbide 

LACMA will invite photographer Graciela Iturbide to comment on her uniquely feminine and Mexican perspective in such times of great uncertainty and deep reflection. Anchoring in the work Angelito Mexicano (Little Mexican Angel), this conversation aims to engage with the L.A. Hispanic community and prompt stronger integration between the local Latinx community and museum spaces. In support of this program, all written text related to the exhibition will also be provided in both English and Spanish.

Stay tuned for a look at the two additional exhibition ideas presented during the 2021 Mellon Summer Academy.