“In any given year, about 3,000 people visit the American Museum of Asmat Art in the Anderson Student Center on campus,” said Victoria Young, professor and chair of the Art History Program. “The MSP Airport has 38 million people through it on an annual basis. As we’ll be on display for six months, that’s 19 million people who will be on site. If 10 percent of this number strolls by … that’s 1.9 million people who might see us, and that’s not accounting for airport employees. We might just have 3,000 people looking at 'Voyages Through Asmat Art' on one day!”
Supported by the College of Arts and Sciences’ SOLV Initiative, the Airport Foundation MSP and the ARTS@MSP program, “Voyages Through Asmat Art: Selections From the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas” opened at the beginning of June and features 52 pieces of Asmat art - including a 14’ canoe and a 7’ crocodile - and tells the story of the Asmat people who live on the southwestern coast of New Guinea.
“St. Thomas’ goal is to share the work,” said Ben Owen, director of Arts and Culture at the Airport Foundation MSP. “And our goal is to share the work to encourage people to explore more about Minnesota and the culture and art resources that are here. It’s the first time I’m aware of that MSP has had a direct connection with a museum to display its art. And this is the widest visibility this collection has ever received.”
Yohuru Williams, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), said the CAS is dedicated to engaging and educating the community with art.
“We are thrilled to partner with MSP to extend the reach and impact of this collection by making it accessible to a wider audience,” he said.
Up, up, up
Not only has the exhibition raised the AMAA’s profile, it’s also provided opportunity for those affiliated with CAS's Art History Program to work on a major art project beyond campus. Floris Lafontant ’18 MA took on curator duties, and was assisted by fellow art history graduate alumni Gretchen Burau ’16 and Amy Mickelson ’11; and graduate students Molly McIntosh, Taylor Mendez and Sam Wisneski. St. Thomas faculty and staff and the MSP Arts Foundation staff were also instrumental throughout the process.
For Lafontant, who became familiar with the AMAA collection while pursuing her graduate degree at St. Thomas, working on “Voyages Through Asmat Art” was a chance to hone her skills. She called the project an “unprecedented opportunity” to showcase Asmat art.
“I think the biggest challenge of curating this show is also what makes it an exciting space to have an exhibition,” Lafontant said. “In museum studies and museum work, we often try to identify a target audience for exhibition, which in turn influences the exhibition narrative and content. In the case of this exhibition, our audience is anyone that might be traveling through or working at MSP (airport). They might be the lone traveler or an intergenerational family. They might have mere seconds to glance at the exhibition or hours to pour over the cases. The breadth of potential visitors meant the exhibition had to be many things while also providing an interesting reprieve to travelers.”
Ultimately, Lafontant, who works as a collections technician at the Weisman Art Museum, hopes people who see the exhibition take away a newfound appreciation for an area of art and a corner of the world that might not be familiar to them. Like Lafontant, Young is excited for travelers to learn about the Asmat people.
“Art is unexpected in airports and I salute our friends at ARTS@MSP for wanting to be the best airport in the country – for celebrating the arts in many forms, from fine art to music,” Young said. “Since most travelers need to be at an airport two hours before their flights, there is plenty of time to explore. Now taking in an art exhibition is a way to pass this time. I love the fact that travelers will not be expecting to see Asmat art and that they’ll learn a great deal not only about the beauty of art, but just as important, about the role the art plays in the everyday life of the Asmat people.”
“The American Museum of Asmat Art at St. Thomas exists because a Catholic missionary in Indonesia, a member of the Crosier Order, Bishop Alphonse Sowada, recognized the dignity of the Asmat people as expressed in their art," added Jerry Brennan, AMAA chair. "He used that art as a tool to remind us of the importance of appreciating and commemorating the dignity of every human being. To have a portion of the Sowada Collection displayed at MSP is a bold statement of that same principle by the University of St. Thomas.”