Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Speculative Histories’

On a cold January evening, I crossed paths with Iris Eichenberg, Metalsmithing Artist-in-Residence, along Academy Way. Through our masks, we talked about how we might be able to do what has become an annual winter tradition: the special Academy of Art student show in Cranbrook House.

Three years ago, in February 2018, Iris and I worked together to place art from students and alumni of the Metalsmithing Department around the first floor of Cranbrook House. We did similar shows the next two years, inviting other departments as we went along. None of us could’ve guessed that the opening night of last year’s show would be one of the last large, maskless, worry-free gatherings for a while!

Standing Veil  by Sylvain Malfroy-Camine, Painting 2021, on display in the Cranbrook House Sunset Porch as part of Speculative Histories, March 2021. Eric Perry, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Knowing the 2021 student show in Cranbrook House would have to be totally different and without any public visitors, Iris and I wondered if we should do it at all. I talked with some of the other Artists-in-Residence (AIRs) and decided: if we don’t do the show this year, it’s just one more thing the current students won’t have a chance to experience due to the pandemic. There would be a show!

Without in-person visitors to the exhibition, one of our perennial logistical problems was solved. A wintertime event in Saarinen House or the Frank Lloyd Wright Smith House brings ice and salt and general weather-related nastiness—it’s why we close the houses for tours November to May. But if there aren’t any physical guests, why not expand the show to include all three of Cranbrook’s historic houses? If we expand to include more physical space, why not invite every department to participate?

Untitled/Studio Objects by Ian McDonald, Ceramics Artist-in-Residence, and Vase by Maija Grotell, Ceramics Artist-in-Residence 1938-1966, on display in Smith House as part of Speculative Histories, March 2021. Eric Perry, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In a meeting at Saarinen House with Martha Mysko (Painting AIR), Gretchen Wilkins (Architecture AIR and Interim Dean), Rebecca Ripple (Sculpture AIR), and Iris, we settled on a theme for the exhibition: Speculative Histories. We asked the students to think about the many stories within each of the three houses and to speculate about what other stories might be told through their art. Whether real or imagined, well known or totally obscure, nostalgic or futuristic, we hoped this theme would inspire the artists to engage directly with the context of Cranbrook’s house museums.

In a year spent in relative solitude within their studios and attending virtual critiques and lectures, I hoped giving the students space to be creative within the historic houses would be a welcome change of pace.

On February 15, I gave a slide lecture and tour (over Zoom, of course) to more than half of the current Academy of Art students to kick off the project. Immediately after, I started getting emails and Instagram messages asking about certain corners of the houses, or about stories I mentioned in the lecture. Books were checked out of the library on the houses, and students began writing our archivists and registrar for even more information. The Center’s dedicated team of Collections Interpreters and I gave small groups of students in-person tours later that week.

Exactly a month later, on March 15, Iris and I met with students one by one, from morning to night over three days, to install their work in the three houses. Some pieces made me smile, some left me impressed, still others made me cringe (in a good way). All the work made me think anew about the history and objects we preserve in these spaces. After everything was installed, we spent two days with photographer Eric Perry documenting the show.

Eric Perry documenting the work in Cranbrook House for Speculative Histories, March 18, 2021. Kevin Adkisson, photographer.

Seventy-five artists from all eleven departments, and twelve of thirteen Artists-in-Residence, participated in the show. On March 28, we presented Speculative Histories to the public through a virtual lecture and tour.

You, too, can now experience Speculative Histories on the Center’s website. The guided virtual tour is available for viewing, or you can scroll through the galleries at your own pace. I’ve written a bit about each piece, but the images alone are worth heading over to the website to see. Special thanks to the Center’s amazing administrative assistant, Alissa Seelmann-Rutkofske, for her tireless efforts building out the website.

I believe what makes Cranbrook’s historic houses special is their ability to serve as teaching tools for our students, whether from Cranbrook Schools or Cranbrook Academy of Art. The Center team puts in tireless effort to preserve and maintain these houses and share them with the public not just because they are beautiful—which they are—but also so that the next generation of artists and designers can visit, be inspired, and, once a year, actively engage with these special places by adding in their own voices.

Kevin Adkisson and Iris Eichenberg, co-curators of Speculative Histories, photographed in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House. Eric Perry, photographer. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Thank you to all the artists who participated; I hope everyone enjoys the show!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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