Engaging citizen curators

An innovative Arthur Ross Gallery exhibition features 50 Penn art collection works chosen by crowdsourcing.

Gallery visitors viewing exhibition at Arthur Ross Gallery
The Arthur Ross Gallery's “Citizen Salon” exhibition features 50 works from Penn’s art collection, chosen by the public in an innovative crowdsourcing curation project. 

An innovative experiment has come to fruition, with 50 works from Penn’s art collection chosen by the public in a crowdsourced exhibition, “Citizen Salon,” now on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery.

More than 600 people voted, choosing among 125 works featured on the University’s art collection website, all paintings or works on paper from Penn’s collection of 8,000 objects spanning centuries and mediums and style and subject. 

The works with the most votes are in the exhibition, which will be on display until March 24. Comments by the “citizen curators” who chose them are included in the wall descriptions and in their own voices in an audio tour easily accessible on phones. 

Anita Allen gesturing with her hands while speaking at a podium near a painting of singer Marian Anderson
Anita Allen, vice provost for faculty, called the “Citizen Salon” exhibition “a virtuous and wise exercise in the democratic process.”

Anita Allen, vice provost for faculty, called the exhibition “a virtuous and wise exercise in the democratic process,” during the opening reception Nov. 30. “This is a great example of democracy, a great example of bottom-up, a great example of what can happen when individual people who are not experts come together to make their choices known,” Allen said that evening. 

The results were surprising in many ways, says project creator Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, Arthur Ross Gallery assistant director and associate curator. 

“Many citizen curators expressed an interest in seeing female artists, specifically. They were very clear about their choices to bring female artists into the space,” Moqtaderi says. “I made a point to include female artists and artists from underrepresented communities in the art world. It’s important to me to have that representation. Our citizen curators echoed that interest.” 

one woman at a podium gesturing with her hands while talking and turning to other women who are reacting with smiles
The “Citizen Salon” exhibition was created by Heather Gibson Moqtaderi (center). Speaking at the opening reception was University Curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass (right), who also recognized art collection manager Lynn Smith Dolby (left).

The top pick was “The Workshop” from 1972, by Jacob Lawrence, widely acclaimed for his narrative paintings depicting moments in African-American history, this one using his self-defined style of “dynamic cubism” to depict carpenters at work. 

A citizen curator, Daniel Oliva, commented on the work: “Whether they are building literal shelters, communal spaces, or institutions and infrastructure, humans must find ways to cooperate. Lawrence evokes the spirit of positive collaboration, as crucial in his day as in ours.”

One of the surprises was that the votes were distributed widely among the artworks, Moqtaderi says, with that top choice receiving 23 votes. “I was surprised by how spread out the responses were. I thought there would be some superstars,” she says. “It makes my heart sing that artists who are not part of the canon, and works that are more nuanced, are included.”

She says she expected the “dynamic and evocative portrait using just linework” of a woman by Henri Matisse to get a preponderance of votes, given its simple beauty and the prominence of the French artist, but, in fact, that one came in third. 

Citizen curator Raymond Rorke said of the work: “It’s just a charcoal on paper, but it contains worlds, expressing living volumes and movements, a living moment in time.”

Exhibition installation at the Arthur Ross Gallery
On one wall in the gallery hang three artworks featuring portraits of women, “Julie” by Man Ray, “Etude pour la Vierge, Tête voilée,” by Henri Matisse, and “Mujer de Taxo” by Luis Arenal Bastar.

The 1950 Matisse “Etude pour la Vierge, Tête voilée” is grouped with two other portraits of women, both lithographs: “Julie,” by Man Ray from 1970, and “Mujer de Taxo” from 1947 by Luis Arenal Bastar. 

“I chose this artwork,” said Lizette Zaldivar Larranaga, “because it appeals to human simplicity, the face of the people that forge my own identity as a Mexican, and at the same time the imagery that great Mexican masters of wood engraving have built.” 

“I’m so happy with this wall, to present the faces of three women using very different processes,” Moqtaderi says. “That was one of the challenges, bringing artworks from very different times and movements and media together in a cohesive way that would bring the story to life for visitors.”

Receiving the second-highest number of votes was a whimsical work, “Quintessential Puffin” from 1983 by Dale DeArmond, who spent her life in Alaska and learned her technique through a correspondence course in the 1950s.  

person looking at wall of six artworks
The "Quintessential Puffin" (lower right)  received the second most number of votes, with people noting its cute and uplifting qualities.  

Noelle Egan said the image is “so evocative, re-framing a familiar bird in a new way, and calling up traditions of Native American art and craftsmanship with a bird not often seen in those works.”

“People described the joy that the piece gave them from a visceral perspective. It is just cute,” Moqtaderi says. “As this is an exercise to understand what interests our expansive audience, many people, I’ve found, are seeking an experience that may uplift them.”

Many of the comments were related to personal histories, and some were related to current events. One work, in particular, was cited as resonating with the #MeToo movement in response to sexual harassment and assault: “Untitled 3” by Marisol Escobar in 1978, depicting a woman’s body being grabbed by many hands.  

“It’s clearly a piece that is expressive of sexuality, both abstract and in a graphic way,” Moqtaderi says. “Groping takes on a new meaning in light of the #MeToo movement. Several people made that precise comment.” 

The Citizen Salon crowdsourcing started in May to catch students before they left at the end of the spring semester. Outreach continued during the summer, on campus and throughout local and regional communities.

This is the first crowdsourcing effort by the Arthur Ross Gallery, which usually mounts three exhibitions a year. Moqtaderi chose the 125 works for consideration based on what was available in Penn’s collection, and in good condition. All but two of the works were in storage, as the effort was also meant to feature works not usually seen. “I tried to create a collection with a great diversity of perspectives,” she says.

woman in profile looking at folk art painting of a red barn and white farmhouse
Several citizen curators emphasized interest in women artists. The folk-art painting, "Pennsylvania Landscape" was painted by Doris Lee in 1930. 

Biographies of the artists were included with each artwork description. “I felt that it was important that we were reaching out to people who didn’t necessarily have comfort with art history, to give them a kernel of knowledge to base their decision on,” she says. 

“I do think that it isn’t just the visual element of an artwork that can combine a resonating experience,” she continues. “It is the complete story, the narrative that we can provide, that increases the depth of the meaning, the depth of experience, with an artwork.” 

The gallery has many other ways to interact with the exhibition, including an audio tour available on smartphones, which features the citizen curator comments stitched together for each painting, read by the people who made them. 

Two portraits that usually hang in the Penn Libraries are inspiring two events: a workshop on Jan. 26 to make a hand-lettered and illustrated Walt Whitman verse, in a nod to his 200th birthday next year, and a reading and performance on Feb. 27 related to opera singer Marian Anderson. 

person in profile looking at artwork on wall with portrait of Marian Anderson in full view
One of the portraits usually displayed at Penn Libraries is of opera singer Marian Anderson (right), and the other is one of poet Walt Whitman (not pictured). 

An innovative event is the “Art + Data Hack-a-thon” on March 13 to analyze the data gathered through the Citizen Salon crowdsourcing, plus the gallery is asking exhibition visitors to describe their thoughts based on seeing it in person. The event will be in concert with a course taught by Stephanie Dick, an assistant professor in history and sociology of science and the Price Lab for Digital Humanities

“We want to respond to the question ‘Who is art for and what are people looking for in an exhibition?’” Moqtaderi says.